Bakersfield Californian Magazine

Wednesday April 17, 1991

Local Biologist Discovers Rare Tree

Burning Necessary for Piute to Regenerate
Kimberly Kincheloe
Californian Correspondent

Not only are rare Piute Cypress trees adapted to fire, their existence depends on it.

Roy van de Hoek, a biologist and achaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, described the life cycle of the trees. "Within two weeks after a fire, the cones will open up and drop their seeds."

Regenerating is the trees' response to fire. "It appears that fire is necessary for this to happen," he said.

A new grove was discovered last August by van de Hoek. He discovered the trees while on fire assignment in the Domeland Wilderness Area of the Sequoia National Forest.

The grove of trees is located in an area that is suitable for their existence.

"There are different types of fire: hot and cold," van de Hoek said. "Fire can't burn hot in a real rocky area."

The rocky slopes of the Domeland Wilderness Area are covered with sparse chaparral and digger pines and offer a degree of protection from the fire.

Van de Hoek pointed out a 1967 entry from the Wasmann Journal of Biology that described the Piute Cypress as "pyrophytic," a Greek word meaning fire-plant.

BLM has helped with small fire control since the Stormy Fire in the Green Horn Range last summer.

After the initial discovery, van de Hoek returned to the site with two botanists to investigate further. They confirmed his discovery of about 1,000 of the Piute Cypress trees that were only slightly damaged by fire.

By counting the rings of the trees, they determined they were between 100 and 120 years old.

Cypress trees look somewhat like junipers, but van de Hoek said the Cypress trees have woody cones and are more tree-like as opposed to shrub-like.

Van de Hoek said he recognized the Piute Cypress from knowledge he had gained in botany classes and from a general interest in flora.

First identified as a species in 1915, this rare tree grows only in the Kern River drainage on lands owned by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. There were only 10 known groves of Piute Cypress in existence until this latest find.

The Piute Cypress is considered a sensitive species. The BLM labels it sensitive because human development and expansion have caused certain plants and animals to lose their habitat.

"We can determine what species needs to be defined as sensitive," van de Hoek said. "This is a term used internally for our own organization."

Several thoughts occurred to van de Hoek when he noticed the Piute Cypress trees.

"I thought, this is ecology in action. Being there fighting a fire, I saw the effects firsthand. I realized it was all happening the way it was supposed to - it was just like you read in a text book.

"The trees were intermixed with oaks, digger pine, nolinas and manzanitas. It was a real community. I kept thinking, it seems like it's going to be a new grove," van de Hoek said.

"I hoped I could make a contribution to botany. To find something new like this is good for the public. BLM is a conservation agency so it's good for them too," he added.

Van de Hoek has worked for BLM in Bakersfield for the past two years. Previously, he has worked for the Forest Service.

"There are a lot of new discoveries to be made and new species to be found by anyone who is interested in botany or nature. People should appreciate their environment," van de Hoek said.

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Los Angeles, California
The first person to discover the Piute Cypress was LeRoy Abrams. He wrote about his discovery in a report that was published in the Southern California Academy of Sciences Bulletin in 1915. At the time of his discovery, LeRoy Abrams was a professor of botany at Stanford University. He had already written two books on the native plants. One of those books appeared in 1904 as the Flora of Los Angeles and Vicinity. This book is as much about Orange County as it is about Los Angeles County. The other book appeared just a few years later in 1910 as Phytogeographic Survey of the Trees and Shrubs of Southern California. Both books discuss the Ballona wetlands repeatedly. I learned of his discovery and writings about the Piute Cypress while employed for the BLM in Bakersfield from 1989 to 1994. Little did I know, when I was first employed by the BLM, that I would discover a new grove of this rare Cypress in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Interestingly, LeRoy Abrams is the discoverer of a second species of Cypress in California. It was named for him by a another botanical scientist as Cupressus abramsiana. He discovered this cypress tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Felton, near Bonny Doon. This location is not really all that far from Stanford University, where he was the distinguished professor of botany for so many years. Coincidentally, I spent many summer vacations as a child near these Cypress trees, not knowing of this cypress tree as unique and rare as a child. It was not until I attended a Santa Cruz college and university that I learned of this cypress tree and its special qualities. I was a young man then, and little did I know, that 20 years later, as a middle-aged man, I would come to discover a new grove of a related cypress tree in the southern Sierra.

To bring this full circle, now I am 50 years old, and I am donating my professional scientific knowledge and years of employment experience to assist birders, citizens, and environmentalists to protect some Monterey Cypress trees which are used by the Great Blue Heron to raise their young. This nesting heron rookery is located in Marina del Rey near the newly created Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. These 5 Cypress trees are used not only by the Great Blue Heron for nesting, but also for roosting and resting by the Double-crested Cormorant, American Osprey, and White-tailed Kite.

Back in 1967, an avocational botanist named Ernest Twisselman acknowleged LeRoy Abrams for the discovery of the Piute Cypress. Twisselman's acknowledgement of Abrams is in a monograph in the Wasmann Journal of Biology, entitled A Flora of Kern County, California. The monograph has become a book but the detailed written passage about LeRoy Abrams and the Piute Cypress is still there as a very informative statement. As a botanist with a distinguished career, LeRoy Abrams is now a historical and classic name in the history of California botany. He was from an earlier generation of classical naturalists that included an abundance of descriptive field work in their research. LeRoy Abrams is an inspiration to me as a scientific naturalist and I wish to acknowledge him for his original discovery of the first grove of Piute Cypress in the "Range of Light" (Sierra Nevada) in this web page.

LeRoy Abrams was born in Iowa, but became a transplant to California at an early age. His childhood and young adult years were spent in southern California. First in San Diego County as a child, then in Los Angeles while attending college. He attended USC and obtained a degree in the 1890s. Then he attended Stanford University for graduate school, where Professor Dudley was his mentor. Dudley guided LeRoy Abrams' through his five year botanical project on the Los Angeles flora from 1899 to 1904. A book, now a classic, entitled Flora of Los Angeles and Vicinity, was written as a result of the floristic project. The book, first published in 1904, has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. The book went through three editions, finally going out-of-print in 1917. This classic book, together with Abrams' early writings in scientific journals, are valuable and useful for genuine ecological restoration of genuine native flora in southern California. For example, several endangered, rare, sensitive, and common native plants can be genuinely recoverd and restored due to Abrams' writings, which include unpublished field notes. Abrams' writings will be particularly useful in Los Angeles for knowing what kinds of flowers and trees are genuine for planting at the Los Angeles River, Ballona Valley, and Baldwin Hills. Abrams' writings will also guide us for genuine recovery of coastal wetlands, prairie meadows, vernal pools, river forests, and elfin forests throughout Los Angeles County and southern California.

The two botanists that Kimberly Kincheloe referred to in her news article, but not by name, are James Bartel and James Shevock. At the time of my discovery of the newest Piute Cypress grove, Mr. Bartel was a resident botanist in Sacramento for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Today, he continues his legacy with the USFWS as a senior manager and scientist at a regional office in Carlsbad, California.

Jim Shevock, on the other hand, was the senior botanist in San Francisco for the United States Forest Service (USFS), at the time of my discovery of the new grove of Piute Cypress. He is the California Regional Botanist for all 17 National Forests in the state. Both Shevock and Bartel were very excited by my discovery and urged me to publish my findings, which they both said they would have been pleased to have been co-authors with me at that time. They had recommended the scientific journal known as Madrono for publication. It is the esteemed and reputable peer-reviewed journal of the California Botanical Society.

Both Bartel and Shevock made the long drive from Sacramento and San Francisco respectively, to hike with me as their guide, for several miles, into the Domeland Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Jim Bartel had recently completed a graduate Master's thesis on the ecology and taxonomy of the Piute Cypress so he came prepared to bore the trees for an analysis of the age of the trees. And Jim Shevock came to collect a voucher specimen of the herbaria. Shevock's responsibility is to have a data base for the USFS of all their sensitive native plants, particularly in established Wilderness Areas such as Domeland. It was a long day, and I was worried that I may not be able to locate the cypress grove, because I had been landed there by a helicopter, and neve gone in by foot to relocate the grove in several months. But I found the grove, and both Mr. Bartel and Mr Shevock were delighted. Mr. Shevock had told me that he surveyed the Domeland Wilderness a few years ago, and came near the canyon slopes where I discovered the grove, but that he did not go into this particular canyon. All three of us took notes and measurements. I took several photographs, one of which is on the cover of the newspaper of the Bakersfield California, the daily paper of record for Bakersfield. In the photograph, you can see a large boulder of granite and a manzanita adjacent to the boulder and the Cypress. A small crescent moon, looms in the blue sky over the boulder and the cypress. Jim Bartel determined that some of the trees were about 100-120 years old. As far as I know, this cypress grove remains the eastern most grove known to science and is disjunct by about 20 miles from the other groves that are located to the west of this newest grove. It became the 13th grove known of the Piute Cypress, depending on the definition of a grove to a particular biologist or biogeographer. Even now, 15 years after my initial discovery in 1990, I still am excited to have discovered a new population of a rare tree in California. It is a highlight of my life as a naturalist and scientist and dedication to a 22 year-long career (1983-2005) as a public employee in several levels of government from local to state to national governments. All in all, I have worked for two different federal agencies and bureaus in two departments, three state agencies, a California county department, a public university, five Community Colleges, and a local City Unified School District. I have also had stints working in the private sector in ecotourism and for environmental non-profit corporations.