Dan Gluesenkamp is the executive director of the California Native Plant Society, with headquarters in Sacramento and 34 chapters throughout the state, including the local El Dorado Chapter.
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The El Dorado County group is presenting an evening with Gluesenkamp on Tuesday, July 23 at the El Dorado County Library, 345 Fair Lane in Placerville, at 7 p.m.
Gluesenkamp previously worked as executive director of the Calflora Database (calflora.org), where he led the development of new tools for conservation and research. He is also the founder of the California Invasive Plant Council and has extensive field work in invasive plants. He earned his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley studying the ecology of native and invasive thistles.
In a recent interview Gluesenkamp shared some insights about CNPS and its work around the state.
Your talk this Tuesday in Placerville is called “What’s Growing On? — CNPS and the Past, Present and Future of California Native Plants.” As the executive director of the California Native Plant Society, what is “growing on” with California native flora?
Gluesenkamp: “For the whole story you’re going to have to check out the talk.
“The past of California’s flora is a story of climate change. Over millions of years, our climate has grown colder and warmer, colder and warmer. As California grew warmer, plants would move up from the south, and as climate grew colder, plants would move down from the north. With each warming or cooling, the previous flora left behind some stragglers. That’s why California is a global biodiversity hotspot. Now we have a tremendous number of plant species (over 6,000), a tremendous diversity and we’re looking at more climate change and wondering how that is going to affect what we’ve inherited.”
What is the role of CNPS in protecting native flora?
“For 50 years we have an unbroken history of doing really good work and making a big difference. A good example of this is the recovery of rare plants on San Clemente Island. With the introduction of goats in the 1800s and then pigs and cattle and everything else, the unique flora of that island was devastated, taken down to bare dirt. Over the last couple decades, we’ve removed the most damaging introduced animals, and the plants and the ecosystems have spontaneously recovered. It’s inspiring that of the 60 or so rare plants, all of them are recovering surprisingly well, so well that several of them are likely to be removed from the endangered species list.
“From the very beginning, CNPS was a partnership between gardeners and scientists. I think our mission — “to protect California’s native plant heritage and preserve it for future generations” — will stay what it’s been for 50 years, because it’s a good one and California still needs it. CNPS volunteers donate something on the order of 90,000 hours a year in real work to help advance our mission.
“One of the oldest programs we have is our Rare Plant Program. That was started in 1968 by a famous botanist George Stebbins who decided California needed a list of what plants were threatened with extinction and where they occurred. A fundamental part of what we do is keep track of rare plants, try to understand them, and try to get information out so that people know where they occur and they don’t get bull-dozed accidentally.
“With our Vegetation Mapping Program, we worked with California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) to develop the official state standards for vegetation mapping. Teaming up with DFW and others we’ve mapped a third of the state of California. Our initiative over the next year or two is to finish mapping the entire state of California. Having a map of what plant communities occur around California will be a powerful tool for scientists, for conservationists and for developers. It’s important for everyone — developers and conservationists — to have that map done.
“Our oldest and our newest program is our Horticulture Program. In the very early days of CNPS, they held plant sales, selling plants that members grew in their backyards to fundraise for the organization. Chapters still do this.” (Editor’s note: El Dorado Chapter’s Fall Native Plant Sale is Oct. 5.)
“A lot of people become involved in CNPS because of native plant gardening and horticulture. We are presently hiring a full-time horticulture program director to help grow one of our greatest successes: native plant gardening.”
What do you think is the biggest threat to California’s native flora at this moment?
“The number one threat to biological diversity on any scale is habitat loss and development. Number two threat is biological invasions (invasive species). Habitat loss is going to continue to be a problem for all of California’s diversity. Climate change will have impacts on biological invasions by changing the distribution of weeds.
“But I think the greatest impact of climate change is going to be by human actions. I think we’re going to see big impacts in California driven by fear of increasing fire, and it’s going to cause us to level stands of natural vegetation in ill-conceived attempts to manage fire. Too many fuel breaks, too much fuel management, results in conversion from moderately flammable natural vegetation to highly flammable European annual grasses and invasive species.
Let me ask you a hard question. Back in 2010 you discovered the last remaining member of the Franciscan manzanita in a median strip in the Presidio in San Francisco. Because of your efforts and other people who got involved, that last plant was saved and removed to a safe location. You then became the focus of a conservative radio host’s statement that the $250,000 cost of saving this one plant was a frivolous use of taxpayer’s money. What is your response?
“My response to that is that we have a big education challenge ahead of us. I told a reporter at the time that for the price of a few thousand cups of coffee we saved a plant from extinction. Caltrans, who covered the cost, had budgeted far more in their project for actions exactly like this and they didn’t balk at it. They were excited to be able to do some good, and to put pennies into it, as opposed to a lot more.
“On the other hand, some folks unfortunately don’t see any value to saving a species from extinction. Some people may choose to lose one part of the creation.
“It would be great if we could all just step back from the rhetoric and agree that for the most part we agree that things are worth saving and then start talking about how we can do it. I think at some fundamental level all of us feel a great love for nature. I don’t think any of us, even when we’re angry at the administration for spending money on things, really want to lose a whole type of living thing from the planet. We need to keep in our minds and in our hearts that we feel that way, and let our speech reflect it. It’s not a domain of (political) parties.
What is the key to getting a younger generation interested and involved in protection of native plants and biodiversity?
“I think young people are very engaged in these topics and really committed to helping make things better. We’ve been successful at creating a whole field that gives these people jobs. If you look at the professionals (biologists, botanists, environmental scientists), they’re predominantly young. And they’re working long hours doing hard work in support of our mission. We’ve created field where there’s actually jobs. Where people can have jobs working to save nature. That’s something we didn’t have 40 years ago.”
Gluesenkamp’s talk is free and open to the public. CNPS books and literature will also be available.
For more information see eldoradocnps.org, or on Facebook, ElDoradoCNPS, or call 530-748-9365. El Dorado CNPS also leads regular native plant field trips.