The Red Hills sign welcomes visitors to this fascinating area just south of the historic town of Chinese Camp. Photo by Thomas Atkins
Story by Dave Maloney
Before serving the main course, it is important to talk about environmental efforts that are deemed successful. A close friend had participated in re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park. I was only sort of listening since we were eating dinner and at my end of the long table sat folks discussing other matters. When Tom stated that the wolves in just twenty or so years had greatly improved stream fishing and raptor (bird of prey) populations, I had to hear more. With wolves present, the elk would not linger in creek beds (cover for wolves) munching the cottonwoods, alders and birch, thus allowing riparian tree recovery and more creek and stream cover, larger trees, cooler summer water temperatures, more rodent cover, exponentially more insects, etc. This recovery led to more trout, more fish hawks, more rodents (and raptors to eat them) and more birds in the trees that grew. The elk no longer destroyed this habitat because of the wolf threat. Wolves rarely go for healthy elk, typically only feasting occasionally on young, old or sick elk (this includes the rancher’s grazing cattle as well). These Yellowstone wolves must be well fed, since Tom swore many were around 150 pounds (males), whereas my studies indicate they (grey wolves) rarely exceed 120 pounds. The staple diet of the wolf throughout North America is the field mouse (often up to fifty per day). I may want to try fishing those streams again — thirty years ago I was skunked except for some tiny brook trout.
Tuolumne County has some federal property south of Chinese Camp known as the Red Hills of Tuolumne County. The Red Hills Management Area is 7,100 Acres of public land (11+ square miles) near Highways 49 and 120 and it’s been designated as an A.C.E.C. The Red Hills are clearly a geologically unique place on our planet. The U.S. Dept. of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management’s Website has the whole story for us at: www.blm.gov/ca/ca/st/en/fo/folsom/redhillshomepg1.html. Therein you’ll find out that:
“The Red Hills Management Area is located within the western tectonic block of the Sierra Nevada metamorphic belt. Within this block are Upper Jurassic volcanic and sedimentary rocks of island arc derivation which were highly deformed and weakly metamorphosed during the Nevada orogeny. These rocks were then intruded by plutons associated with the emplacement of the Sierra Nevada batholith, east of the metamorphic belt. The Management Area includes much of the Tuolumne ultramafic complex, one of the largest exposures of serpentine rocks in the Sierra Nevada metamorphic belt.”
I will wager not many residents had encountered that tertiary sound bite previously. But what is interesting is the description further on describing the formation of Table Mountain:
“The dunite intruded into andesite pillow breccias and flows of the Peñon Blanco volcanic formation, which crops out near the northeast and southern boundaries of the Management Area. The intrusion of ultramafic material occurred along crustal weaknesses associated with the Bear Mountain fault, a northwestward trending thrust fault that dips steeply to the northeast, and has over 10,000 feet of vertical displacement.”
We all owe a great debt of gratitude for the applied sciences that continue to analyze and categorize the earth. So, residents on or near Table mountain now know the ‘flows of the Peñon Blanco volcanic formation,’ originated that formation. The BLM website continues with minerals, topography, climate, vegetation, soil, wildlife, and cultural resources. The vegetation segment is real informative and deserves some space:
“Native perennials constitute a large percentage of the grass cover in the Red Hills. This is in contrast to similar elevations in the foothills, without serpentine substrates, where exotic annuals have mostly replaced native perennials. Important native perennial species include California oniongrass (Melica californica), big squirreltail (Sitanion jubatum) and pine bluegrass (Poa secunda). Disturbed areas, including burned areas, have a typical array of Mediterranean annual grasses.
Sensitive plants: Five plants, which occur on the public lands of the Red Hills, are considered sensitive species by BLM due to their rarity. Two of the plants have been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act indicating that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feels it has accumulated sufficient evidence to list these species. These plants are the California verbena (Verbena californica), Rawhide Hill onion (Allium tuolumnense). A third plant species, Layne’s butterweed (Senecio layneae), has already been listed as a threatened species.
California verbena is a Red Hills endemic, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. Its distribution in the Red Hills is confined to the short stream reaches that remain moist year round because of ground water seepage.
The Rawhide Hill onion has many, mostly small, colonies in the Red Hills. Rawhide Hill onion is confined to areas with sparse vegetation, south facing slopes with shallow soils, and intermittent drainages.”
So many are now thinking for the first time that this seeming dead zone is full of natural diversity. In a world overrun by exotic and/or invasive species I am glad our county has these serpentine substrates, which prevent and inhibit exotic annuals from displacing our precious, native perennials. A war between native species and invasives rages quietly 24/7 on a worldwide scale. Distribution of invasive exotics is most frequently due to man. Let’s look at the Red Hills roach (Hesperoleucus symmetricus, aka California roach, a minnow) for a moment. Our Red Hills variety is distinctive from the California roach due to a morphologic trait called the chisel lip. The chisel lip allows the Red Hills roach to scrape algae from submerged rocks. They only survive due to a few spring fed ponds that tend to survive the summers. If our county develops to where water usage drops the water table, I fear the little chiselers might dry up for good. I, for one, would prefer a populace more interested in maintaining habitat for the Red Hills roach than resurrecting some defunct, manmade jailhouse on the presumption it has historical significance (clearly a mackerel in the moonlight). Let’s exalt the cause for species education and awareness. As seen with the wolves in Yellowstone – man’s stewardship of mother earth is just now tentatively reaching a level of awareness – and our good intentions and actions are often far from good for the environment. So don’t be too chisel-lipped, even in a drainage ditch on the left side of nowhere life’s biodiversity allows the seemingly invisible Red Hills roach a place in the sun.
A gravel road winding through the A.C.E.C. (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) allows visitors a glimpse of this unique area. Photo by Dave Maloney.
After visiting the Red Hills for myself, I can say that this place is truly unique! It is somewhat hardscrabble ‘edge of Sierra’ style lands with rolling hills and seasonal washout-looking streambeds and rock formations. Right in the middle of the road is a gurgling spring (mid-June) feeding a football field sized marsh area. A nearby gravel road follows a seasonal creek, snaking into the hills nearby. These hills are red, no kidding. Luckily, our indifference to these endangered plants and (to me) a very cool chisel-lipped California Red Roach minnow seems to have preserved this park pretty well.
The area has informational stands explaining the local plant life. Much of America has been visually altered by invasive plant species – the Red Hills of Tuolumne County – has so far been spared this invasion. Our serpentine substrates seem to prevent it! In deference to this phenomenon (serpentine substrates preventing invasion), I won’t provide any directions, thereby becoming sympatico with those serpentine substrates; preventing invasion and protecting endangered species. Here’s where I get to say, ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…’