Thursday, August 4, 2016

New Website and Blog Launched!

We've moved! 

Please check out Pepperwood's new website and blog at the link below

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Community Highlight - Ariel Greenwood

Responses by Ariel Greenwood, Holistic Ag Herdess

Please introduce yourself and describe your role with Holistic Ag and Pepperwood.
I’m Ariel Greenwood, resident herdess for Holistic Ag at Pepperwood. We partner with Pepperwood in using our cattle as a management tool to sustain and restore its many acres of grasslands. For my part, this means I’m somewhere on the preserve most days of the week—picking up and building out fence, herding the cows, observing and documenting health indicators in the animals, soil, and landscape as a whole, working with herd founder Aaron Lucich or managing volunteers, and using mapping software to plan and record our movements. 

What got you interested in holistic management and how did you get started working in the field?
My interest in holistic management began in college while I was studying agroecology and psychology. Through coursework and producers I began to learn about grassland ecosystems and adaptive management. At the time I was also growing for a software company on their corporate campus, producing fussy food for chefs in fenced-out plots while surrounded by sweeping but poorly managed grasslands. The more I learned, the more I wanted to play a part in using well-managed animals for ecosystem functionality and carbon sequestration. A couple of years and a move to California later, I began actively seeking a herd to work with, got connected with Holistic Ag a the end of 2014, and I’ve grazing ever since.

Ariel with Holistic Ag founder Aaron Lucich
What are some of the benefits holistic management provides for the land?
Holistic management is a decision making framework that enables us to work with complexity: biological, human, and especially what emerges at the intersection of both. It allows us to take into account and then specifically manage for what we deem valuable, which includes ecological health as well as quality of life, relationships, financial sustainability, and so on. In the context of Pepperwood, our holistic grazing plan is shaped by Aaron and I and the Pepperwood staff. It guides our practice to support qualities like breeding bird and amphibian habitat, perennial bunchgrass health and recruitment, healthy soils and streambanks, and so on. Our exact practices depend on the time of year, but generally speaking we move our animals rapidly and rest the land for long periods to select against invasive species and support native perennials. 

Ariel with her ATV full of equipment
How as the time you've spent working at Pepperwood influenced you? What have you learned?
This work is grazing for ecological benefit is equally challenging and beautiful. I have made mistakes that have humbled me and experienced triumphs that will serve as psychological resources for years to come. I learn and see something new every day, but to date the biggest lesson is this: as a human animal, I am bound to influence my environment. So the best thing I can do is exert that influence with humility and intention, pay attention to the feedback in the land and animals, and never be afraid to change direction when necessary.

Moving the herd between enclosures
What have been some of your most memorable moments working with the cattle on the preserve?
Two memories come to mind immediately. One morning I came upon the herd to find a calf and a wild raven playing together. They were both croaking, spinning, and dive-bombing one another with apparent glee. Another memory was witnessing the Valley Fire explode in the course of a few hours. I watched its spooky orange glow from Weimar and we made contingency plans to evacuate the herd if necessary. Both experiences reminded me of how complex is nature. To quote the naturalist Wendell Berry, “I don’t understand everything that I am involved in.”


Check out this cool video Ariel made about Holistic Ag's work:

Here's a glimpse into what we do.
Posted by Holistic Ag on Thursday, February 11, 2016

Link not working? Click here to view the video on Facebook.

Visit the Holistic Ag website:
Check out Ariel's own blog:

A watchful eye on our most precious resource

By Celeste Dodge, MS, Systems Ecologist

Water returns to the landscape at
Pepperwood's Weimar Falls
Water is the driving force behind ecosystems, determining which plants can thrive and what types of habitat they can provide for animals. In Mediterranean climates like Northern California’s, the extreme shift in seasonal water availability is largely to thank for the incredible amount of biodiversity we enjoy, as many species have adapted to our region’s unique climatic conditions. As much needed rainfall is only just beginning to alleviate a historic drought, we are reminded of how delicate this water balance truly is.

Pepperwood is studying the relationship between water availability and vegetation so our region's land and water managers can better prepare for what is expected to be a more arid future for California. The work we are conducting at our preserve gives organizations like the Sonoma County Water Agency and the US Geological Survey key data on not just variations in weather, but also how our soils, plants and animals are responding to these changing conditions.

Volunteers learn how to collect data from rain gauges
As part of our Sentinel Site monitoring network, Pepperwood is expanding our capacity to measure water on our preserve.  We now have a team of 20 volunteers monitoring 21 rain gauges at remote locations across the preserve, with the goal of improving the span and accuracy of our rainfall monitoring. Four of the rain gauges are located at weather stations in Martin Creek, Double Ponds, Rogers Canyon and at Bechtel house. Rain gauges at these stations will help improve the accuracy of existing electronic rain sensors called tipping bucket gauges, which are susceptible to underestimating rainfall amounts, particularly during high intensity storms.

Pepperwood's TBC3 team discussing best 
practices for monitoring soil moisture
The other 17 of these rain gauges are located at a selection of our 50 long term forest monitoring plots. Installed by the UC Berkeley Ackerly Lab, these plots span the preserve and allow us to track key indicators of forest health including growth rates of both young and mature trees within the plots. This biological data is analyzed alongside climate data collected at the same plots so we can determine the effects of long term climate trends and extreme weather events—like the recent drought—on plant life.

By recording rainfall under the canopy at the forest monitoring plots, we are getting a pretty good sense of the environmental conditions experienced by seedlings in our forests. Total rainfall at these site varies by as much as 40% and is controlled by both canopy and topographic effects. At one site where there are particularly strong canopy effects, the rainfall we have measured thus far amounts to only 20% of the rainfall out our wettest location. We may decide to move our forest plot gauges out from under the canopy to a nearby grassland area to better understand the effects of topography alone next season. This will also make our data more valuable to forecasters. A nationwide citizen science project called the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network collects backyard rain gauge data along these lines and uses it retroactively to improve weather models.
Systems Ecologist Celeste Dodge with a leaf wetness sensor

In addition to the new rain gauges, some of the forest monitoring plots are already equipped with instruments that collect data on leaf wetness, temperature, and humidity. Data from these instruments is relayed across the preserve by a wireless mesh network, a series of antennas that transmit across the preserve to a central computer.

A mesh network sensor at a forest monitoring plot

But measuring the amount of rain that falls is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to determine what happens when it hits the ground. Pepperwood is one of only four sites in the entire Bay area equipped with soil moisture probes, which allow us to gain vital insights into the amount of water available to plants in the soil throughout the year. We currently have two sets of probes installed, and our goal is to install 10 sets of probes at two depths at our mesh network antennas before this year's spring dry-down occurs. This will give us a better sense of the heterogeneity of the preserve's hydrology, and will enable forecasters to better predict potential flood or mudslide events.

Pepperwood’s ever-expanding Sentinel Site monitoring work is generating a wealth of data to help our region’s land and water managers better prepare for the climate challenges that lay ahead.

Our green season of renewal

By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO
February 6, 2016

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain; 
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care. 
Li Po (701–762)
Views from Sonoma Valley.
The other day I was driving the gorgeous route from home to Pepperwood and taking in the views of the Mayacamas Mountains from the floor of the Sonoma Valley. Suddenly, I found my heart overflowing with gratitude-at first for apparently no reason—and then I realized the cause: gratefulness for green!  After four long years of drought and parched hillsides, we actually had gotten enough rain to start sprouting grass seeds laying in wait below ground.

A new generation of green finally had the power to push up through the gray thatch of previous seasons’ growth.  A deep sense of relaxation and relief was palpable throughout my entire body. How thankful I am that we’ve gotten enough rain to shift our hills from dismal gray to vitally verdant!

As I learn ever more about the terrestrial (land-based) ecosystems of our Mediterranean region, I have a greater and greater appreciation for the regenerative power of our winter rainy season.  For some organisms, like showy forest species and plants that bloom, this season is “downtime.” 

Soil microbes
However, for the practically invisible billions of micro-organisms—including bacteria and fungi—that inhabit just a single gram of soil, the cool wet season is when they get to work breaking down organic matter to turn it into nutrients for our pioneering grass seed sprouts!  They are largely the architects of our local soil’s structure and fertility.

One effect of climate change we are realizing may come to pass is shorter and warmer winter wet seasons in our region.  Shorter winters could actually reduce the productivity of these subterranean beings and in turn impact the health of our soils.

Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly uses a "flamer" to control weeds
Meanwhile, ecologists are working above ground at Pepperwood to use the winter season to prepare our grasslands for a growth spurt once the rains get going. One of our goals is to give our perennial native plants an advantage relative to the invasion of European annual grasses brought to feed livestock imported to the “new world.”

One way we try to help native plants is to do our best to remove or at least hinder the spread of annual grasses and invasive weeds. One of the more dramatic techniques is using a “flamer,” a small hand-held torch, to knock back weeds (see photo of Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly using the flamer on a restoration site near our red barn).

Facilities Assistant Sonja Barringer in our new shade house
Once we have treated a site with a weed removal treatment, in some key locations we actually plant baby native grasses and forbs. We have just increased our capacity to hatch native grass starts thanks to the generosity of the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, who sponsored the construction of a greenhouse for this purpose at Pepperwood.  Below you can see our Facilities Assistant Sonja Barringer in her element nurturing our latest crop of plan starts, sprouted from seeds carefully collected by our awesome Pepperwood volunteers.

With some timely management, we can help maintain native plant communities and enable the wildlife they support to thrive!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Reflections on the Pepperwood volunteer community

By Sloane Shinn, Community Assistant

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.
Marjorie Moore

Collecting native seeds on the preserve.
It was a chilly, wet and rainy winter morning in Sonoma County.  As I approached Pepperwood one recent Saturday, coming up through the fog line and turning the corner onto the beautiful property, I was immediately met with a group of at least 30 people scattered throughout the hillside at the entrance of the preserve – each one decked out in rain gear, hats, hiking shoes  and each one diligently working the landscape to replant native grasses, one of the main preserve management projects at Pepperwood.

Summer 2015 volunteer appreciation party.
I slowed my car and rolled down the window. Celeste Dodge, Preserve Technician, turned around and greeted me with a huge smile.

“I can’t believe this! “ I said. “Look at all these people! What a turnout, even in the cold and the rain!”

“Isn’t it fantastic? We have a great crew today! Our volunteers seem to be really motivated after the holidays,” she says. Celeste manages our monthly Volunteer Workdays and has created quite a community of dedicated participants over the past two years.

Volunteers pose with grass starts at the Pepperwood shade house.
“WOW! Amazing people power!  Ok, I’ll see you in a couple hours up the hill at lunch time.” As I drove slowly up the road, volunteers of all ages turned to greet me with smiles and waves. The hosted lunch and Pepperwood Steward Flora’s fabulous fresh-baked homemade cookies we provide for our workday volunteers will be extra tasty and well-deserved today, I thought.

There are few things in this life that are more inspiring than experiencing a group of people coming together for a cause greater than themselves. As the Pepperwood Volunteer Program Coordinator, I witness this dedication daily. In 2015, Pepperwood received over 7,400 hours of time donated by 190 Stewards, citizen scientists and volunteers!  Our volunteers assist in a wide-range of areas – everything from pulling weeds, planting native plants and grasses, becoming trained within our citizen science projects including climate monitoring, wildlife camera studies, phenology, and the Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium, to the very highest level of education and commitment – the Pepperwood Steward.

Pepperwood Stewards help at an event.
Pepperwood Stewards are a group of volunteers – most educated with a background in biology, conservation science or as California Naturalists through the Biology 85 course offered through SRJC every spring and fall. As ambassadors to Pepperwood, Stewards provide support across all our programs including preserve management, research, education and community  sharing history and knowledge during hikes, adult education classes and community events.

Citizen scientists collect measurements from 
Pepperwood rain gauges.

But you don't have to make a Steward-level commitment to have a meaningful impact at Pepperwood! Attending one of our monthly Volunteer Workdays provides a great introduction to volunteering at Pepperwood. You'll meet other community members, participate in land stewardship, and learn more about Pepperwood's work including other ways to get involved through Citizen Science projects, adult education classes and our membership program. The Pepperwood community is thriving and welcomes people of all ages who are passionate about understanding and protecting our land, water and wildlife.

Springtime at Pepperwood is a very busy season. We need volunteer support now more than ever! If you are interested in learning more about various ways you can contribute to sharing and spreading the mission at Pepperwood – to advance science-based conservation throughout our region and beyond – please contact me at with the subject line: Springtime volunteer. We are recruiting for various projects and will be holding trainings in different areas over the next couple months.

Courtney McDowell on Pepperwood's TeenNat

Courtney speaks at the TeenNat Gallery Opening event on 8/7/2015
The following is a speech written by 2015 TeenNat intern Courtney McDowell for the TeenNat Gallery Opening event on August 7, 2015. 

There are so many different types of people in this world. People of different size, different shape, different races and ethnicities. There are boys, girls, men, and women; but of all of these contrasting traits, there is one thing that each and every person here has in common; one thing that has pushed all of us together tonight: the love and appreciation of nature. 

"All Clear!" TeenNat Gallery photo by Courtney McDowell

For the past five weeks I, alongside twenty-five other teenagers, have had the opportunity to spend an abundance of time loving and appreciating nature first-hand here at Pepperwood Preserve as a part of the TeenNat program. We have spent countless hours hiking through the redwood trees, collecting real data that is used for actual science, and capturing fun and exciting moments that we have shared with both each other, and the beautiful creatures that nature holds within its midst. We have learned, through practice, how to identify a multitude of organisms, how to navigate using an assortment of tools, and, in my opinion one of the most fun of our endeavors, how to make a giant square in the woods. With each and every new activity that we participated in, our knowledge of the natural world grew with acceleration. 

Each and every day I went home with a deeper understanding of the beautiful world that we have been blessed to occupy. 

"Abduction" TeenNat Gallery photo by Kai Anderson
During my time in the TeenNat program, I gained not only a wide-ranging skill-set but knowledge of how to apply these new-found abilities to real-life situations outside of this internship. Throughout the course of our many adventures, we were given the opportunity to advance our previous understanding of jobs and careers having to do with the natural world that we all care so much about. We listened to lectures given by an assemblage of people who all occupy a different niche in the ecological field of career paths; as well as researching jobs and presenting the details of the profession to our peers. During the last week of our time interning, we were also given the unique opportunity to have lunch with an array of intelligent and experienced professionals in the ecological task force. 

I have learned so much here this summer which I can use both now and in the future. 

"Buzzfeed" TeenNat Gallery photo by Lydia Davis

So, for making this summer a fun and exciting one, I would like to thank all of my fellow interns. I would not have enjoyed myself as much as I did with a different group of people. You all have such amazing and intelligent minds, and I consider myself lucky to be able to be a part of this generation. 

For making sure that all of us got here on time and for all of your hard work, I thank our parents. We could not have come close to such an incredible experience had it not been for you. Your willingness and excitement to hear all about the new things that we learn has driven us to learn even more. 

For pushing us to the next level of understanding and making us think harder than ever before, I thank Nicole and Jesse. You have been such amazing role models this summer, and I appreciate everything that you have taught each and every one of us. I look forward to returning next year as a TeenNat leader to be able to work alongside you in spreading knowledge to my generation. 

For all of the behind the scenes work that I know goes on, but I am not aware of, I thank the entire Pepperwood staff. If it was not for you, I’m sure that the TeenNat program could not exist; and so, I thank you for all of your hard work. 

"Cloaked Sky" TeenNat Gallery photo by Isamar Alamilla
Lastly, for your generous contributions that make both this program and all of Pepperwood happen, I thank all of Pepperwood’s donors. Because of you, I have had the amazing opportunity to spend my summer here, and I could not be more grateful. 

I have made so many memories here just simply being in nature; and for making that possible, I thank all of you. 

I know that as TeenNat continues, more and more of my peers will benefit in the same ways that I have. It does not matter the differences that exist within and between people; because here at Pepperwood, we are given the opportunity to set aside these disparities and simply love and appreciate nature together.

To learn more about TeenNat, click here.  The 2016 TeenNat internship runs from July 5th through August 12th. Applications are due by April 1st, 2016. Click the link above to download an application.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Stepping inside the Valley Fire burn zone: Our Boggs Mountain field trip

A Pepperwood Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Initiative update.

By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO

Team Pepperwood at Boggs Mountain rocking the hard hats:
Michael Gillogly, Lisa Micheli, and Sophia Porter 
When Michael and Sophia and I finally reached the severe burn zone, it was kind of like stepping in to the cartoon world of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, with slender ebony black branchless trunks clawing at the sky.  The foresters tried to break us in easy on this Boggs State Research Forest tour, including Nick Kent of CalFire and Fred Euphrat who is an instructor at Santa Rosa Jr. College and currently advising Pepperwood on our forest management planning process. 

We met at the Boggs Mountain CalFire forest station, which had been an island of firefighting activity during the onset of the Valley Fire less than two months ago, before the guys who worked there put up their “white flags” and had to get helicoptered out.  The station itself survived and was in a zone of relatively low burn severity. While some of the trees showed sign of char from the flames, the ground itself was covered with recently dropped pine needles which draped a soft looking sepia carpet over whatever scorched soils lay beneath.  

Field map of burn zone, fire severity, Boggs boundary,
and remaining live trees.
At the station they showed us a map of the burn zone marked in pink to dark reds, with the darker the red showing increasingly greater burn intensity.  Green dots showed the survivors, living trees the foresters hoped would provide some of the seed needed for forest regeneration.  But right now the urgency is on identifying the dead trees, and getting them out of the forest for a couple of reasons—to reduce future fuel loads, to make way for new plantings, and perhaps even to help fund restoration.  They do leave 5% of the dead trees behind for habitat, with dead wood known as excellent habitat for cavity-nesting birds and other critters.

Forester showing how to expose cambium and
example of healthy indicators despite scorched bark.
The way the foresters can tell whether a tree is alive or dead is by taking an axe to its base and taking off about 1 inch or more of the bark in order to expose the cambium* underneath. The cambium seemed rather akin to our own fatty layer, lying just beneath the skin of the tree, and containing cells that are in charge of growth (see the more technical definition below).  We learned that if it is white and firm that’s an indicator of life, but if it’s gooey and caramel colored, the tree is likely a goner.  So this has been a big focus of the immediate post-fire efforts on the state forest, to identify live and dead trees in order to cull out the dead.

Don Lindsay of California’s Geologic Survey showed us the water quality/sediment runoff study sites that are being installed at multiple locations to measure how much soil erodes this winter off of the forest floor.  This is really important given we are in an El NiƱo season that could bring heavy rains! Will the more severely burned areas shed more soil than the less severely burned areas?  Lindsay’s study (in partnership with university researchers) will create controlled study sites where literally all of the sediment coming out of a small drainage (1-2 acres) uphill will be captured and measured.  They will also measure the amount of incoming rain and water coming off the sites using a rain gauge plus a small dam and water depth measurement setup. (See photo below). It’s exciting to know they are collecting this critical data and it’s also clearly a lot of work.  Don has been hustling to get the sediment traps installed before the onset of the rainy season.

Don Lindsay of Cal Geological Survey showing a water quality
monitoring setup.
Eerie shape left where a living tree stump used to be.
When they finally took us into the severely burned area, it was like stepping into a charcoal landscape.  The trees were shiny and metallic, with their bark looking in some ways more like stone then wood. The stones that were burned were shedding their fried outer layers (called spalling**).  There were shadows of branches where all that was left was oxidized rust colored minerals streaked across the black earth.  We found more than one reverse tree stump, where the earth was essentially sculpted by the negative space of a tree vaporized by the heat (see photo below).  Where the soils have experienced great heat, often at the intersection of rock or root, Fred showed us how hydrophobic*** (or water repellent) the soils were by pouring water out from a drinking bottle to show us how it pooled up and refused to sink in.  This means even though the soils are extremely stressed by drought, one of the lasting effects of the fire will be to cause more runoff than normal for at least this winter. 

Someone in our group started to observe that beetle activity was already evident on the burned trees, including tiny little piercings on the bark surface and some kind of extruded waste collecting at the bottom of the tree which was oddly a light pink-orange color.  With the threat of bug infestations helping to take out what’s left, starting next spring the foresters will focus intently on planting new trees, and apparently a range of planting techniques will be designed and tested at Boggs Mountain State Forest.  On the way out we saw many signs of miraculous life coming back on its own: a bracken fern that had pushed up through the charcoal soils, and this fresh oak shoot coming off a fried stump. I thank Nick and Fred for hosting us and I look forward to visiting again next spring to help track the recovery of the site!

Oak re-sprout—life carries on!
*The vascular cambium is a plant tissue located between the xylem and the phloem in the stem and root of a vascular plant, and is the source of both the secondary xylem growth (inwards, towards the pith) and the secondary phloem growth (outwards to the bark). It is a cylinder of unspecialized meristem cells that divide to give new cells which then specialize to form secondary vascular tissues.

** Spall are flakes of a material that are broken off a larger solid body and can be produced by a variety of mechanisms. Spalling and spallation both describe the process of surface failure in which spall is shed.

*** Hydrophobic is repelling, tending not to combine with, or incapable of dissolving in water.