Not many people make the trek out to Zumwalt Prairie in far eastern Oregon. The buses don’t always run on time and it’s a six-hour drive from Portland. But for those that do make it in the spring, the wildflowers are rewarding—at least for a botanist.
“The wildflowers are just phenomenal,” says Allison Rossman, a botanist and former field technician at The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Preserve. “The structure of the vegetation—there’s just so much [diversity].”
Each year, a team of technicians like Rossman and volunteers from all over the world make the trek to Zumwalt to examine the flowers because plants, it turns out, are easier to identify when flowering. Since about 2006, teams under Heidi Schmalz, who leads monitoring work at the preserve, have studied plots of prairie, identifying species, noting invasive plants and generally monitoring how the landscape changes.
At 33,000 acres, the preserve sprawls across both canyonlands and upland prairie and runs up against generations-old cattle operations. There aren’t many other neighbors out here.
“Historically a number of things made it difficult to cultivate,” says Schmalz, who lives on the preserve. For one thing, the soil is thinner in the area than the farm-conducive soil to the north. The elevation is higher and there are more rock outcroppings. “When homesteaders tried, they didn’t succeed very well. So, they switched to cattle grazing. That’s the only thing that works there as far as economically viable production.”
When The Nature Conservancy initially bought land in Zumwalt in 2000, it began developing partnerships with local ranchers, searching for ways to make ranching more sustainable (read the Nature Conservancy magazine story on these ranching partnerships here). It also began the monitoring work on the preserve, using some of that to help inform grazing decisions. Schmalz studies, for example, how cattle affect plants near rivers.
The team also more generally monitors sample plots of land over time, notes the locations of invasive species and looks at how prescribed burning affects plant composition. It’s a painstaking process that involves examining the details of the plants under lenses and comparing them to identification guides.
That’s one of the reasons why Schmalz is excited about the potential to begin using satellite imagery to look at the effects of grazing or examine plant coverage on a much larger scale.
“Any time we try to sample something across this landscape it’s always frustrating because the landscape is so big and our plots are so small and even if you put 100 plots out there you still always question whether you’re getting an accurate measure of the variability across the landscape,” Schmalz says.
Using data from Landsat—a long-running satellite imagery program through NOAA—could provide a broader view across whole pastures or entire ranches, she says. “We’re right at the cusp of starting to use that as a practice. We did the hard work of developing the model and now we can start using it.”
And because the satellite imagery goes back to 1972, the researchers could theoretically map vegetation amounts across the prairie going back decades, allowing both the conservationists and the ranchers to better understand how their land is changing.
It’s not a replacement for getting up close and personal with flowers, but it has the potential to give researchers like Schmalz quite a bit more information and direct where more monitoring should occur in the future.
This summer Aaron Huey, a photographer based in the northwest, joined the technicians and volunteers on Zumwalt Prairie. On assignment for Nature Conservancy magazine, he covered the work of local ranchers and of the conservationists on the preserve. Read the story here and see outtakes from his trip below.