Methods and Parameters of Invasive Ecology

“Methods and Parameters of Invasive Ecology” by Obi Kaufmann, March 2019

note 1, context: The nature world moves in apprehendable rhtyhms and cycles that reveal themselves to the scientist and to the artist alike. It is my hope that these distillations of creative and empirical truth, expressed as new, working models and supported by sound theory, serve as tools to better understand the beauty of these ecological concepts. Uniting Invasive ecology and what can be called Disruption ecology, with both Conservation and Restoration ecology, I want to map the unifying systems that govern the bedrock of all living networks.

note 2, reference: these essays make reference to other works that will appear in published works to come, so please disregard specific reference to contextual elements, posted here that make reference to other content tables and source, most obiviously Diagram 1 being referred to as 04.02 and Diagram 2 being referred to as 04.03.

note 3, locality: While these accompanying essays make specific reference to examples in California, the two diagrams are meant to present universal, ecological principles, regardless of locality. 

note 4, the adaptive cycle; the pattern of growth, conservation, release and reorganization that governs the life patterns of spatial ecology (ecography.) All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to a release of stored enery at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimination releases resources that make way for the reorganization of those structures. -Obi Kaufmann

When I reference a singular, identifiable, and healthy ecosystem, I mean that it subscribes to a working adaptive cycle, and optimally utilizes all the biotic and abiotic resources present at its disposal to push towards a state of equilibrium. It is equally important to examine the systems of evolution that work to undermine and exploit the adaptive cycle and their methods and consequences of disruption and invasion in California and even more generally, in any natural system. All ecosystems are subject to invasion that threatens equilibrium. Equilibrium is not a state that, if subject to any consistent disturbance is held for any amount of time. Invasivity, either the perpetrating agent or the ecosystem defending against it, is any biological exotic that threatens established, native patterns within the adaptive cycle.

Whether we are talking about ancient invasiveness, recent invasions or biological invasions of the future spurred by anthropogenic climate change, all biological change agents employ common strategies to do what they do: altering homeostasis within the adaptive cycle of any given ecosystem, towards their own ends. Instead of, for example, having a map that describes Sudden Oak Death across California, I think it may be more useful to describe the larger system that particular pathogen works in, and thereby I am describing all pathogens. The following two diagrams (04.02 and 04.03) are models of applied generalities. Nature is very complex and very innovative and in the wake of anthropogenic climate change, this systems-thinking author is sure that these diagrams must be incomplete.

Diagram 1 (04.02) – Species Invasiveness Theory and Methodology in Ecosystems

Stage 1: tools of invasivity

The methodology used by all invasive species to infiltrate and overtake an ecosystem falls under three basic, evolutionary concept-strategies. To advance its agenda, an invasive may use one, two or all three mechanisms against a native regime.

1a. Increased competitive ability; when introduced to a novel environment, often an exotic species experiences rapid genetic changes because of new selection pressures.

1b. Novel weapons; Introduced species often utilize alien systems of biochemical interaction that are unknown to the endemic systems present.

1c. Disturbance; Invasives can be adapted to, and may influence altered, abiotic regimes, such as fire or flood, and use them to their advantage.

A good example in California of an invasive that used, and continues to use, all three of these tools is the pathogen known commonly as Sudden Oak Death, Phytopthora ramorum. After arriving to California in the mid-1990’s inside of nursery plants from China, (it may have had multiple waves of introduction at multiple ports) Sudden Oak Death quickly spread to epidemic proportions, now having killed millions of trees and devastated about 230 square miles of Tan Oak, Lithocarpus densiflorus, and Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, forest – although it also infects at least eight other, native tree species. The pathogen, called an oomycete, behaves similarly to a fungus. Upon arrival, a single genotype evolved into at least three or four strands, better adapted to the local forests (1a). It seems that the pathogen then proceeded with its lethal agenda, by utilizing Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica, to persist through the dry season as Bay Laurel doesn’t die once infected (1b). To make matters worse, the pathogen monopolized on some successive, rainy seasons that boosted its ability to spore and reproduce quickly (1c).

Stage 2: categories of invasive types

All invasive species fall into three categories. Just like in Stage 1, a single species might be one, two or all three types of invasive depending on its evolutionary agenda and the niche it is trying to occupy. These categories describe an exotic organism’s relationship role that it is attempting to infiltrate the native ecosystem through.

2a. Predator. A predatory exotic species may infiltrate a native food web on any trophic level. A predatory species is most commonly an introduced animal. Examples include the Northern Pike, Esoc Lucius and the Southern watersnake, Nerodia fasciata.

2b. Pathogens. A pathogenic exotic species may infect vulnerable ecosystem and propagate itself as a disease. West Nile Virus is a mosquito-borne disease that continues to plague California and can infect birds, humans, horses and other animals.

2c. Competitors. A competitive exotic species may employ a tool (see Stage 1) to displace a local endemic from its niche, possibly transforming the ecosystem itself. The whole structure of California’s grassland communities was restructured with invasive plant family-species such as the Bromes, Cheatgrass, Yellow Starthistle, and hundreds of others.

Stage 3: invasive deployment

3a. introduction. This aspect of diagram 04.02 represents a temporal horizon that it utilized by invasive species to carry out their agenda. The introduction of an exotic species may be accidental (rats on a boat), incidental (carried by wind and fire), or intentional (planting forage for domestic animals).

3b. establishment. It is at this stage that the invasive decides to “play nice” with others or not. If the evolutionary decision is made to transform the ecosystem in some, fundamental way it may be considered a harmful invasive. If it doesn’t, it may be on the path towards naturalization.

3c. spread. Depending how the exotic, once established species vectorizes its growth, the effects across the ecosystem can be deleterious, as described in stage 4: ecological consequence, or a new equilibrium may begin to immediately reveal itself, as described in diagram 04.03.

Stage 4: ecological consequence

4a. habitat fragmentation. All ecosystems strive towards equilibrium, it is a function of their community. These four consequences are the disparate results following the spread of an invasive through the different, living tiers of the ecosystem. These consequences are from harmful invasives. They are arranged in no particular order. For example, habitat fragmentation occurs over a medium to large scale when native groups are isolated from one another.

4b. contamination. Contamination of the adaptive cycle within an ecosystem may manifest as alterations to the nutrient cycles or a disturbance regime or even a contamination of genetic material due to hybridization. When the invasive Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, hybridized with the native California cordgrass, Spartina foliosa, in the San Francisco Bay, it quickly spread to previously uninhabited mudflats.

4c. pollution. Biological pollution is when disfunction is propagated within an ecosystem because of the advance of an invasive species. A disfunction is any alteration, or set of alterations, that presents a clear threat to the normal operations of the system. For example, an invasive plant, such as French Broom, Genista monspessulana, is a ubiquitous invasive plant across Northern California. Once established the effects of Broom pollution include threats to local wildlife, degraded range and cropland, increased wildfire potential, reduced water resources and accelerated erosion.

4d. depletion. The robbing from any resource store within an ecosystem is known as depletion. Depletion may result because of any of the other three consequences detailed here. Depletion may involve the lessening of any chemical resource (i.e. The nutrient cycle) or any physical resource (i.e. sunlight) that had previous assisted with the normal functioning of the ecosystem prior to introduction.

Diagram 2 (04.03) – Ecological invasivity thresholds and mediation strategies

The ability for an invasive species, or community of invasive species, to alter the ecosystem they are introduced to, and the resiliency of that ecosystem to withstand the invasion is the crux of invasive ecology. This diagram details three models that represents two sides of this ecological tension and the temporal narrative how the tension is resolved over time. As established in diagram 04.02, invasives have an arsenal of tools at their disposal, and in conditions where invasion is possible, the ecosystem will always be altered. How that ecosystem is altered is dependent on characteristics inherent in the endemic system and how rapidly the invasive species’ consequence can be mitigated.

Through these three models, a system of conditions is explored by which ecosystems fight their battle against invasion by assimilation, redefining themselves towards equilibrium – the goal of any healthy, natural community. The first model describes what are the characteristics of vulnerability are that present the ecosystem with the parameters that make it a ripe candidate for invasion. The second model describes what are largely, anthropogenic management strategies to maintain or restore ecological equilibrium. The second model describes the other side of the coin from invasive ecology, the study of conservation ecology. The third model is the battlefield upon which this drama unfolds: time. Given the parameters of model 1, applied to the field of time, will decide how the ecosystem will transform from what it was to it will become once the invasion is resolved.

Model 1: Invasivity parameters within ecosystems

  1. invasivity. This is the starting point. All the invasive methodologies described in Stage 1 and Stage 2 of diagram 04.02 live here. How they manifest (Stage 3 and Stage 4 of diagram 04.02) is dependent on the five conditions of invasibility within the native ecosystem described in this diagram as surrounding the invasive starting point.

1a. natural enemies. One of the primary factors that control the populations of any exotic species is how, when released into a new ecosystem, they find themselves without the natural enemies of their former environment.

1b. empty niche. It is often simple enough for an invasive to step in for another organism missing from a network and take advantage of resources not currently being utilized. The niche may be empty because of extirpations (See model 3) or because of evolution within geographically separate but physiographically similar environments.

1c. species richness. Species rich ecosystems are more resistant to transformation by invasion than species poor ecosystems. For example, second-growth, timber harvested pine forests are more vulnerable to devastation by a single species of beetle than old-growth forests, rich in conifer diversity that leaves the beetle without a clear vector of single species transmission.

1d. propagule pressure. A propagule is a seed or any means by which an organism reproduces itself. More seeds means a greater likelihood of an established invasion. With increased temperatures over the past one hundred years,  we are seeing this kind of invasion take place in high-mountain meadows across the state. Conifers from lower elevations are invading subalpine communities and are launching a campaign of conversion (see Model 3).

1e. highly evolved competition. Habitats that have evolved extremely high levels of competition between organisms for existing resources may be more capable of resisting invasion because of any given organisms ability to out compete a potential invasive.

Model 2: ecosystem equilibrium and management strategies

  1. equilibrium. This term is used in this diagram as an indicator of a broad condition that all living communities tend toward: the condition by which, the ecosystem realizes an optimal balance of resources in and resources out. An ecosystem in the state of equilibrium is self-perpetuating and is interrupted only by agents that spur succession or conversion (see Model 3).

2a. restoration. Restoration ecology is the science of returning a disturbed ecosystem back to a state of equilibrium that it was in prior to disturbance, either by a biologic invasion or other agent, i.e. fire or flood. Restoration ecology is reactive, where Conservation ecology is proactive and whose general practice is described in the following for methodologies.

2b. prevention. Inhibiting a vector of change is the most successful and cost-effective strategy for the management of change agents. There is a litany of preventative techniques at work across California, from the governmental policy of inspection on the transport of potentially invasive species through to the prescription burning by the Forest Service to maintain a healthy adaptive cycle.

2c. DRE – early detection, rapid response, and eradication. As early in the deployment stage (diagram 04.02 stage 3) an invasive species can be surveilled, the possibility of its successful failure for either conversion or succession will be determined. This can be a difficult process, as it is important to not also destroy any native organism within a similar niche. The eradication of Black rats, Rattus rattus, who threatened shorebirds and their ecosystem on Anacapa Island in 2002, was successfully carried out with the concurrent effort to preserve the native Anacapa deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus anacapae.

2d. long-term control and management. Long terms efforts to minimize naturalized species can be as intensive as they are expensive. Mediation is the strategy for some invasives that may be, either providing some established service, or exist on such a scale that eradication is impossible. Controlling feral pigs by hunting and timed grazing to control invasive weeds are two examples of ongoing strategies to control the spread of destructive invasives.

2e. biocontrol. Biocontrol is when another species is introduced to prey upon an already ravaging invasive species and the threat of the second species’ presence is deemed less of a threat than the first’s continued spread. For example, St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, a poisonous plant to grazing cows, was successfully mitigated in Siskiyou county in the 1950’s by the introduction of Chrysolia beetles that eat the weed.

Model 3: invasive based, ecological transformation

3a. time. Time is the key component that either assures the success or the failure of any evolutionary process. If a change agent, either biological or otherwise, is introduced slowly enough into a ecosystem that is in equilibrium, it may be possible for that ecosystem to absorb that change agent and disarm it efficacy. Heat, with specific reference to anthropogenic climate change, increases that rate at which all reactions occur – whether at the chemical or the ecological level. Speeding up the process of either the rate at which change agents return (i.e. changing the fire or flood regime due as resulted by climate change) or the interval by which ecosystems can absorb any given, invasive threat (i.e. the invasion of exotic grasses through fire distribution,) has the potential to not only fundamentally change the nature of the ecosystem, but (with enough heat, contracting the amount of time for any adaptation) may collapse the whole system itself.

3b. extirpations. Extirpation is when a species is either intentionally or unintentionally made locally extinct. Through competition or displacement between rival organisms, or through non-adaptability with the establishment of some new regime, extirpations are inevitable. Often, a cascading, domino effect forms if the exotic is not able to fulfill the services of the endemic organism, and many species fade away. An example of this in California might be how so many Salmon varieties have been extirpated from their headwater-spawning grounds by dams. This has lead to depletion of nutrients from headwater-forests that has lead to the simplification of the food web in those forests and diminished populations of all types of organisms found there.

3c. naturalizations. A naturalized species is one that has invaded and has been assimilated into the ecosystem, successfully propagating itself, behaving like a native. Naturalization takes successive generations of multiple species-members within the community to determine if the invasion is fundamentally transformative (converted) or not (succeeded).

3d. converted. A converted ecosystem is one that, because of a single change agent, or a series of connected change agents, is destroyed and transformed into a different kind of ecosystem. European grasses, that need to burn every year moving through a forest can transform that forest into a grass land in a relatively small amount of time. A converted ecosystem is defined by the collapse of the adaptive cycle.

3e. succeeded. A succeeded ecosystem is one that, because of a single change agent, or a series of connected change agents, is pushed from one segment of the adaptive cycle to the next. If this procession of succession is not dismantled by the change agency in a short enough period of time, there is a opportunity for that agency to become naturalized and for the ecosystem to realize further equilibrium.

Ecosystems change. It is what they do. By understanding the mechanisms of change can the consequences be mitigated. The idea of equilibrium inside an ecosystem is a state that is only possible in ecological isolation. In the 21st century, ecological isolation doesn’t exist. Humans are the single most destructive invasive species the planet may have ever known. Alas, humans are also the only species to understand the mechanics of invasivity and are potentially able to engage, restore and conserve, valuable ecological networks throughout California and beyond.

Natural Resources Management Act 2019

Despite what is largely the dumpster fire that is American politics these days, I am thoroughly impressed with the overwhelming, bipartisan approval of S47 – the Natural Resources Management Act – which passed this week through the congress and the senate and now waits for the president’s signature. This is good governance: responsible policy that is ecologically sound, representing a good compromise between all the interested parties involved, and saves the taxpayers’ money while simultaneously securing big funds for important projects. Among key land reserves protected across the country, the Act secures the Land & Water Conservation Fund, which is of dire importance for so many, ongoing management programs. Below are some highlights of the Act as they affect California, my state of residence and study. Click to enlarge.

The Ecology of Belief

The Ecology of Belief
by Obi Kaufmann
Winter, 2019
Sierraville, Calif.

My relationship to the idea of belief is very specific. It has to be. I’ve worked a philosophy of belief to advance the agenda of my work. My work is the contemplation and celebration, through writing and painting, of earth’s biodiversity and the larger movement to conserve that biodiversity against the crushing wave 21st century threats and ecological stressors. The single greatest of these threats, the threat umbrella under which can be found the milieu of all anthropogenic stressors, the original threat that spawned the sixth extinction of the Anthropocene and now threatens the very fabric that of the biosphere in its current configuration, is the human notion of belief. Belief being the measure by which all human effort is compelled. Belief, both its means and its ends, with its all-pervading ability to unite and divide, is the bedrock of every worldview. Forgive the hyperbole but stay with me when I say that belief doesn’t need to be true to be true. Belief has no problem denying evidence. Belief doesn’t require reason or validity. In relation to my work, questioning the nature of belief is necessary to uncover why this apparent cognitive dissonance is so rampant and also it is a necessary investigation into the nature of how we apprehend and interpret the cosmos.

I am not as much concerned with what people believe, but why people believe. Belief is a psychological pillar of the human mind. The mind, as it has evolved and was originally shaped by the environment of the African savanna since the advent of bipedalism four to six million years ago, underwent a revolution of cognition about 70,000 years ago with the birth of culture. It can be argued that the cognitive revolution is the dawn of human-belief systems. Culture itself is a belief system and is held together by this tribal glue of the common belief. Belief is so powerful that is often the solitary criteria for personal truth.

Religion, any faith-based truth, or any institutional tradition of a supernatural, cosmic order is only one strand in the vast braid of belief that weaves through all aspects of how we see the world.  The structures and the forms of mind that project out, probing to build order, that invent stories to understand any work of human art, for example, are rooted in belief. A work of art, a product of the humanities, is any process or artifact constructed to its own end and created through the laborious interface of human conception and human manipulation through media. Religion is art, although religion is not part of the humanities.

Belief is a tool of mind that describes communal expectations in a social context and how we manage those expectations through narrative, both historical and personal, to anticipate the outcome of any relational situation. That anticipation is not temporal, meaning that we use belief to build ideas about both how things are going to unfold and how they’ve unfolded in the past. It is this conflict between expected result, and the process of experimentation that emancipates science from being a belief system.

Centuries of scientific progress suggests that the universe is a reasonable continuum of space and time. Even at both the quantum and the super-galactic levels, where the capacity of the human conceptualizing faculty is tested, we find an environment, a natural world that is investigable and subject to experimental query. While science is not a belief-system in that the results obtained through the correctly applied scientific method are true regardless of belief holding them to be so, that the world will continue to be revealed through scientific inquiry is a belief. The world, meaning the universe, has no responsibility to make sense to our human mind – in fact, it might be that the cosmic order is so vast that our cerebral capacity is simply unable to grasp and unify all of its knowledge.

Belief, as incalcitrant as it is, is subject to paradigm shift, to game-changing. There are moments in human history when we, humanity, begin to believe the truth has a certain orientation and our belief in that orientation is so powerful that we can never go back, we can never return to thinking of the world as we once did. 70,000 years ago, humanity began to believe in the very idea of fiction, or the ability to convey instinctive truths in language, art and narrative story. 10,000 years ago, humanity began to believe that through the technology of agriculture, it had the right and the ability to harness the nature bounty of the earth. 250 years ago, humanity began to believe that all the world’s natural resources were open to industrial exploitation and that progress meant the domination and subjugation of the natural world to our own temporary, even consumable benefit. I see (or rather, I believe that) another seismic shift in the workings of our collective psyche, the mind that governs our society – or the other way around: the society that governs our mind – a slipping of the fault in our anthropocentric world view. At the beginning of the 21st century we are beginning to imagine our place in the world and our relationship to its resources, as we have never conceived before. We are beginning to believe that a reintegration into patterns of renewal, over patterns of extraction, is the path forward for humanity. Once the shift happens, once the ecological paradigm dawns, it will change everything in accordance with the precedent that has been set a number of times before. I am skeptical about how much choice we have about what we believe. The sticky brew that is tradition, heredity and culture is, according to my estimation, largely unescapable. I do, however, believe in epiphany. When, perhaps while experiencing aesthetic arrest, the eye-of-the-universe perceives the thing-of-the-universe and the two are made one and humanity is compelled to evolve and adapt.

Obi Kaufmann is the author and artist behind the best-selling and award winning California Field Atlas. He currently bounces between Oakland and Sierraville, where he is working on his next manuscripts. He is currently booking a book tour for the Summer of 2019 to support his next book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resourse. To contact Obi, please email 



a call to action, re: the illegal raising of Shasta Dam.

Solastalgia is a particular form of psychological distress, brought about from witnessing environmental degradation due to industrial development, extraction and devastation. An acute feeling of homesickness while still at home. Solastalgia describes the ominous dread that we all live in a sacrifice zone. We see our home, whether local or global, being sacrificed by design to those captains-of-industry who deny all attachment to the inherent value of wild places and beings.

Shasta Lake is the largest reservoir in California and was created 75 years ago with the construction of the Shasta Dam. There is a proposal to make the dam taller by 18 feet, and a wave of misinformation and political maneuvering by both parties on the state and federal level is behind it. This project will cost at least $1.4 billion and would expand the reservoir’s capacity by only 7%. This number represents only 0.2% of the state’s total capacity, and with no benefit most years, when the existing lake does not fill. Expanding Shasta Reservoir will flood upstream rivers and streams, including the McCloud River, which is protected under the California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The enlarged reservoir footprint will cause permanent loss of habitat for numerous sensitive wildlife species, including Pacific fisher, northern spotted owl, northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk, purple martin, foothill yellow-legged frog, Shasta salamander, Samwel Shasta salamander and Wintu Shasta salamander and several special status bat and mollusk species. The project will also result in the flooding of several rare plant populations and their habitat, including fully or partially inundating 11 of the 24 known sites where the Shasta snow-wreath, a rare flowering shrub found nowhere else on earth, is found. Critical deer fawning areas and winter habitat will also drown beneath the expanded reservoir.

This is not a good water project. There are a number of much better ideas on the table, if actually increasing water availability for the most California’s is actually the agenda. California’s effort to increase water supply reliability should focus first on increased groundwater storage. Storage projects that make sense for fish, water, and people. Multi-benefit storage projects should be the focus alongside smaller reservoir facilities that support public benefits. Water use efficiency and conservation should not be overlooked to meet California’s growing water needs. During the drought, Californians tightened their belts—reducing demand by 30% in critically dry years. California needs increased investment in urban and agricultural water use efficiency, stormwater capture and reuse, and water recycling.

All public comments are due by Monday. Please email or write the address below and voice your opposition:

Shasta Dam Raise Project
c/o: Stantec
3301 C Street, Suite 1900
Sacramento, CA 95816

received on or before 11:59 pm. Jan. 14, 2019

This entry includes modified sentences originally written by Friends of the River, CalTrout, and Mount Shast Ecology Center.


Ecological Truth & California Fire

The ecological truth is that California is not burning, and it hasn’t burned for a long time. Science is uncovering an unlikely pattern emerging across the ecological mosaic of our state’s floristic province, west of the Sierra Nevada. While California has experienced its most costly and most massive fires in recorded history over the past few years, California, as an aggregate system of fire-evolved landscapes, is woefully fire-deficient. The Fire Return Index shows that most of the state’s forestland has burned 67% less than its historic fire regime. For millions of years, California’s wildlands have been evolving with fire, the patterns of its Mediterranean climate and the structure of it physiogeography have not only made it so, fire is the language that it speaks. The forest is not only able to deal with fire, it needs fire. The forest here IS fire, fire held in a stasis of conservation as potential energy, waiting to burn.

The Fire Return Index, map from the Forests of California, June 2020, HEYDAY books – draft.

The ecological truth is that without fire, California is not California. In the terrible and beautiful moment before the hammer strikes, in the autumn it is the season of fire and in the spring, it is the season of flood, when we stand both made and unmade, holding hands and holding the line, always relearning how to let go. A lesson that will get more intense in the century to come. How do we let go of our absolutes, in both politics and wildland management? Our pain comes from the nature of our human form, our mind and our sensibility, unable to reconcile with the larger scale of the living networks that are always imploring us to look deeper into the secrets of health and resiliency in the forest and to take our cue from there. It is estimated that 4.5 million acres burned annually in California prior to European settlement. Most of those fires, that routinely averaged about 500 acres for a single fire-event, had high-severity burn patches of about 10 acres. The Rim Fire near Yosemite in 2013 had a high-severity burn patch of 30,000 acres. We want to find the answer to the question why? As if burning is a problem to be solved, as if with enough will, things could be somehow better.

Fire. We read panicked imagery in the sky, on the face of the black forest and the red sun at noon. We read prideful bewilderment from wrathful, ignorant ghosts of who don’t understand how to move nations. Scarred but unbroken, our people face again rewriting their novels. We are hollow-boned birds, light and able to not choke on the diamonds we carry in our throats. The gray rivers of silt cut clean down our cheeks and evaporate when they reach our unsmoking hearts, burning clean. We love the forest for being the forest and don’t blame it for its release, for it’s burning with us. Today’s catastrophes clothe tomorrow’s children in wisdom.

The ecological truth is the logging makes wildland fires worse.  Thinning a forest through logging does not remove the fire threat, but by adding slash and post-cut debris, we increase the combustible surface area of particulate fuel. Logging and burning clear the forest in different ways.  Logging takes the biomass that does not burn and leaves what does, fire takes the debris and leaves what does not burn. While there is a cocktail of prescriptions necessary to defend development, and that does, at times and in strategic locations include burning, grazing, thinning chipping, masticating, greenbelting, and even logging, forest management employs more tools than chain saws.

Paradise, California, Nov, 2018

The ecological truth is that these devastating fires are anthropogenic. It is nothing that nature is doing, we have done it and are doing it to ourselves. And although we are doing it to ourselves, blame does lie solely with the governance of public agency. The source of the Why in this complex algorithm is deeply ingrained through the fabric of our modern, nuclear culture. From trimming the rainy season with a regimen of global, carbon emissions over two and a half centuries, to changing the profile of the California Floristic Province since the time of El Camino Real, nearly two centuries before that. To most perniciously deadly of all: paying utility companies to deliver an unlimited amount of poorly insulated energy, without pause through a teetering infrastructure across the forest canopy throughout autumn’s season of fire. Human dwellings are not meant to burn, but when they do, they burn easily. The forests of California are meant to burn, and when they do, they recover quickly with vigorous regrowth.  The green trees are not the real fuel at this curtain between town and the wild. It is out built environment and the cultural patterns that developed it.


The ecological truth is that a changing climate presents far more of a long-term threat to the forests of California than even the most massive forest fires. Over the past one hundred year, policies of fire exclusion have created crowded forests and crowded forests are not resistant to the long-term effects of drought which seriously account for the rise of disease and beetle infestation. In the 1970’s, 12 million trees died from bark beetles – between 2010 and 2017, 129 million trees died. The historic drought contributed most to this vulnerability and was exacerbated by compromised forest health. Over the next ten years, it is expected that without massive restoration, we may lose over six million acres of our treed landscape to climate-spurred, arboreal pathogens.

The world is not on fire. The rivers are made from sunshine. The mountains are made from flowers. The trees are made from rain. And there you stand, a mirror for the sky to adore itself.

The ecological truth is that there a more trees now in California than there have ever been. Sometimes you hear the bumper-sticker-philosophy rallying cry that “Trees are the answer!” And while the sentiment is good, it is not entirely accurate. Young trees crowd a forest with surface fuel that when released through fire, transforms the woodland into a net-positive carbon source – trees are not the answer here. What is needed is old growth, carbon sinks. We need our forests healthy and resistant to the effects of climate change, which include temperature rise, greater insect and disease threat, and higher wildland fire risk. We need our forests protected from fragmentation and simplification to best provide interconnected habitat for all trophic levels of the ecosystem. We can realize these new, resistant and restored forest-types with sustained and serious, stewardship investment. CalFire is asking to, and planning on the restoration of 500,000 acres of non-federal, forest land per by 2030. The average now is about 35,000. The return will vastly offset the spend.

I am taking over the the Wilderness Society’s Instagram feed for the next few days, so if you would like more of my musings, I wrote many exclusive tidbits to be featured there. I am so proud to be aligned with this stalwart community whose consist application of science-based solutions towards preserving the character and the inhabitants of wild lands, and their ability to relay those solutions into practice and legislation, has been an inspiration to me for years. Please follow me and them at @wildernesssociety and join the movement. – Obi

The ecological truth is that more than human world of California does not care about humanity being in the way of fire. I hold my breath between moments of deluge and moments of inferno, all the human world of California does. We know these rolling catastrophes are coming, they always come. Our human minds go to the evocation of this imagery to describe its apocalypse, panicked and written across the red sun at noon through the smoke. We get scared, we get scarred, we let the gray rivers of silt cut clean trails down our cheeks. We love our California forest and our California weather, we don’t blame them for their release, we are always ready to pay the price. We trust that today’s disasters at the urban-wildland interface, clothe tomorrow’s children in wisdom and strategy.

I am so very honored to be presenting my work at the gorgeous and historic Marin Art & Garden Center, Wednesday evening, the 14th at 6pm. The program will start with a hour-long introduction to the #californiafieldatlas and my future work, and give particular emphasis to what we are all acutely feeling the effects of right now: the California firescape. Not only will I be discussing the nature of where, how and why California burns, but I will also be delving into some of what the ecological implications are to living in this land that needs to and loves to burn. The community of Marin is a lively bunch and I am very much looking forward to being an audience as much as a presenter to this very sensitive and important issue. I will be offering the California Field Atlas for sale as well as offering a whole stack of new, exlusive art prints and cards. 100% of the proceeds from that night will go to Butte’s County North Valley Animal Disaster Group who offer shelter and medical services for animals in the evacuation area of the devastating #campfire. @marinartandgarden. Tickets for this event are available at through MAGC at

Bright spots and battlegrounds for California conservation

Bright spots and battlegrounds for California conservation

By Obi Kaufmann

Originally published by PATAGONIA – THE CLEANEST LINE

author’s note: I am posting this article and these maps, as they were originally published by Patagonia, in their blog The Cleanest Line (link above), as a juxtaposition to the essay I posted yesterday: An Emerging Energy and a Desperate Question. I got some feedback from my readers with some concern that maybe that essay implied that I am somehow withdrawing from an activist attitude towards conservation policy. This is assuredly, not the case. 

August 2018

Depending on how you look at it, California’s most beloved wildlands are either under siege or experiencing a wellspring of support. In the current political atmosphere, bursting with assaults on bedrock environmental laws and protected public lands, it seems particularly important to recognize and spread the word about whatever pockets of optimism and progress you can find. For example, two recently introduced pieces of legislation that seek to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the most spectacular wildlands in the state.

Just a couple weeks ago, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-Sausalito) introduced a bill, which would designate a 730,000-acre River Restoration Area in Trinity and Humboldt counties. It also calls for wilderness designation, the highest level of protection, for more than 260,000 acres of federal public lands and designates 379 miles of new wild and scenic rivers.

The Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act also addresses the critical issue of massive wildfires, by requiring better inter-agency fire coordination, allowing selective timber harvesting in unnaturally dense replanted forest areas and reducing fire risks near roads and private property.  The bill promotes better access for recreation across a wide area including Del Norte, Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino Counties, stretching from foggy coastal redwood groves to snowy mountain peaks. It calls for the assessment of trail improvement needs and a feasibility study for new mountain biking routes. Huffman’s proposed legislation also confronts problems created by illegal marijuana growers, who left behind toxic residues and damaged streams in public forest areas.

Along California’s wild and rugged central coast, the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument would receive greater protections from a bill introduced less than a year ago by Rep. Salud Carbajal (CA-24) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act would safeguard 245,000 acres of wilderness, create scenic areas encompassing nearly 35,000 acres, and designate 158 miles of wild and scenic rivers. This proposed legislation would also establish the approximately 400-mile Condor Trail as a National Recreation Trail, creating a hiking route connecting northern and southern sections of the Los Padres National Forest.

These bill proposals have a wide variety of supporters, including small business owners, local elected and community leaders, and residents concerned about preserving clean air, fresh water and the natural beauty of their regions. Business owners recognize the benefit of protected public lands nearby – since they depend on the dollars generated by tourism and the millions of visitors who love to hike, fish, hunt and camp in California’s wild public lands.

Now for the bad news. California could lose hard fought gains in several regions. One of the biggest battlegrounds is the Southern California desert, where earlier this year, the Interior Department announced it was canceling a plan to protect 1.3 million acres of national conservation lands from new mining claims.

The agency is also considering an overhaul of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) – an agreement that was achieved following an eight-year collaborative process involving federal, local, and state government, energy producers, conservationists, local stakeholders and recreation advocates. Given the current pro-industry and development agenda of the Trump administration, this re-opening the DRECP is viewed as a likely attack on the important conservation gains in the plan.

The DRECP was celebrated as a step forward in the battle against climate change, and a model for other states seeking to guide the permitting of large-scale renewable energy projects to less sensitive locations, where they would cause the least environmental harm. The plan supports renewable energy by designating 400,000 acres of “development focus areas” on federal lands where projects can get expedited permits.  At the same time, the plan protects 6.5 million acres of the California desert’s most sensitive habitat for wildlife and native plants, as well as Native American historic and cultural sites. 3.6 million acres are designated under the plan for recreation, including hiking, camping, rockhounding, and off-road recreation. The fate of this massive renewable energy and conservation plan is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management – where officials are expected to release a decision on possible amendments any day now.

Turning to California’s coastal waters – early this year, the Trump administration, as part of its energy dominance platform, announced it was considering opening most of America’s coastal waters to oil exploration and drilling, including waters off California’s coastline – taking direct aim at existing protections provided by marine sanctuaries. This could mark the first time in decades that new leases are offered for California offshore drilling. If the Interior Department follows through, it will certainly spark a fierce political fight and a flurry of lawsuits.

So, the Golden State, like other places across the country, is both under siege and pushing back hard with sound conservation proposals. There has never been a more important time for Californians and nature lovers across the country to know the issues affecting public lands and to speak up for the environment.  There are many ways to get involved – from increasing your level of civic engagement to joining a local conservation group, or making donations to organizations that are fighting for the environment.


An Evolving Energy and a Desperate Question

An Evolving Energy and a Desperate Question

by Obi Kaufmann


I am inviting an evolving energy, an emerging, anxiousness from the community when I present my work on tour. This new character of question, an expectant tone, skirts desperation and is often accompanied with a shaking tone of voice and pleading eyes. Where does humanity fit into my work, this future vision of California? What does reconciliation between industry and the natural world look like? With the legion of tragic, environmental conundrums that face our beleaguered spirit, how do we rediscover ecological equilibrium?

My standard answers are broken. I often stumble through piecemeal solutions about deficient policies or about new technologies that promise to fix our troubles. I am wrong in this approach on two fronts: 1) No one person has all the answers to the incredibly complex, positive feedback loops of degradative forces that currently threaten the workings of the biosphere. This work, my passion’s only contribution is the engaging and activation of a democratic literacy towards a better common understanding of geography and conservation, and 2) The dream of the world is unfolding exactly as it always have, and exactly as it should. We either work to balance our rights and our responsibilities with great love, compassion and vision, or we do not. Our best moments of problem solving will not come from fretful desperation, but by a contemplative course of action. Maybe it is like orienting on a map without a trail, only a heading.

I am an artist and my business is world-building. Every minute that you proceed through the California Field Atlas, I am asking you to accept this, my view of the natural world based on my inspiration, on my appreciation and on my experience as an explorer. My work is not a work of straight science. Of course, the maps I present in the California Field Atlas are data-driven but for the most part, quantifiable detection, measurement and consensus are three necessary concepts science requires that my work does not. My work depends on an emotional plea, and because of it, the community brings their passionate cry, their longing concern.

I believe that the great, sustaining systems of the natural world are not only alive, but intelligent. There is mind, systems of thinking, networks of advanced awareness infused everywhere in the natural world. Mind is not the abject province of humanity in its solitude, but rather a function of the breathing biosphere itself. When in wild places, open to wilder modes, thoughts sharpen as if the ideas there are not ours to claim spontaneously generated, but as if they exist independently of ourselves and enter us through our body. The synthesis (not the analysis) of this connected and holistic view on the ecological nature of mind speaks my truth to this, my life-long, ever-evolving epiphany.

At dawn, my eyes are some new variety of rose opening violet petals over heaven. I spend my waking, walking days tracking the oldest forests and let them track themselves through me. 200 million years before these mountains dreamed themselves to rise, this forest was already ancient. Carboniferous secrets, so often only considered bones and blood for human utility, spell an emerging and dangerous age of simplification for the citizen conifer. In the next one hundred millennia, new diversity will return to this mosaic habitat as the script of fire regime, atmospheric chemistry and hydrologic replenishment work to erase the scars of our petroleum print. I’ll leave my flowered-eyes on this mountain to watch that cycle happily reset.

The underlying plea I hear from this activated and concerned community I encounter up and down the state, seems to be those virtues that might illicit core-transformation in human, industrial thought. I would list them as grace, truth, insight, and wisdom – the great aspirations. The elixir that promises from this point onward our collective-life, our society will be defined by that which has come before and what now we are on the trail forward. When we have lost or have become lost to our former selves and merge with the greater forces of the world, we are found as an extension of those forces. Our left hand becomes our west hand and our right hand becomes our east hand.

My work has led me to the conclusion that our own species continued existence in what will certainly be a coming, post-carbon society (either imposed on us from without, or positively generated by us from within) will be made possible only by preserving as much biodiversity as we possibly can. Ecological simplification is a perilous trajectory, like a cloth that gets too worn and thin. The interlacing dynamics of the rapidly changing, delicate and yet resilient natural world are the course of my passion and present an ethical agenda in demonstrating how biodiversity works on connectivity, not isolation or sequestration. If we are not talking about the preservation, rehabilitation, stabilization, restoration, conservation, development and reconstruction of the world’s rich treasure of biodiversity and its habitats, we are not having a good conversation.

I am so humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to field these fears and to become, myself an audience to the transformative vision they represent. I think these are the very best questions that we could be asking: where is ecological peace in this overpopulated world? How do we serve the restoration of biodiversity? Can we change society? Simply by asking the question, the clay of collective-thought is working into new forms.

All there is, is process. Restoration is not a destination. Conservation is not a goal. The inspiration of our work is in recognizing the majesty of all species in all wild places as a spiral of biodiversity, free from commodification and free of disposability. We acknowledge all natural systems as alive and recognize them all to retain and hold their right to exist as a living system to protect and encourage. We support and draft policies that encourage resource replenishment over nonrenewable extraction, and we foster a singular, concurrent responsibility in tandem with every human-right we hold self-evident. We understand that there is a community-based functionality of a more-than-human society surrounding our progressive efforts and absolutely supports the culture of our species. We recognize this, our earthly progress, our continued terrestrial residency, as a temporal gift that graciously and necessarily demands reciprocation.

Fighting tragedy with love is the bravest effort we can give. The answer to the nihilistic question of whether or not we have a place, or worse, deserve to exist in this beautiful world, must be an axiomatic: we do. We are an invention of the earth. We are not separate from the earth. We are an aspect of nature. To survive the bottleneck of our own species’ adolescence, we must work on forging a new ecological paradigm. If we unable to will it, it will be imposed on us. I don’t have prophetic answers and I need to stop trying to give them. That work is not for me. My work is in the beautiful and nutritious mud, where water and sunlight give seed purchase. My work is about exposing the natural world for all the inspiration and meaning it holds and then cherishing those rare and precious moments when it can bring people together in the appreciation for how that world sustains us all.