Saturday, April 6, 2013

Massacre on the Mountain

Rattlesnake Mountain Changed Forever

This Torrey Pine Tree was planted in 1980 on Rattlesnake Mountain in El Cajon California and this photo I took  in 2011 on a visit home from Sweden where I presently live. This particular tree was 25' tall.
The last thing I expected was to come home and start off on a negative note. Since I haven't had time to post much of anything lately and when I did, it was generally on a subject matter dealing with a negative topic, this trip was going to be different and informative about things I've discovered, appreciated and accomplished over the last few decades. I wanted to deal with forensic clues in the form of vegetation anomalies I have accidentally stumble across over the past few decades which defied explanation, which gave clues of a different climate and ecosystem past in Southern California. Well, no such luck. Things have taken a turn for the worse on Rattlesnake Mountain. I suppose my spirits are down a bit as well, but nothing surprises me anymore in this modern day system. The trees I have for so long cherished and spoken about are now gone. I had always considered that some event like wildfire consume them or housing development would bulldoze them, but never in my wildest imagination did I expect this deliberate chain saw massacre which was done for stupid ignorant reasons. When I told friends who had known of the trees I planted over three decades ago, they were sad for me and wanted to console, but the reality wasn't so much sadness as it was disappointment of the average person's stupidity and ignorance. Mostly my reasons for lack of sadness are that I don't regret the experiences I gained and learned in the way of practical application by replicating nature (Biomimicry or Biomimetics) and gaining a much deeper understanding of the value of our native Chaparral as host or nurse plants. Take some interesting statisitcs about Laurel Sumac as having good nurse plant potential.
Some interesting facts about Laurel Sumac and it's ability as an ideal nurse plant which utilizes Hydraulic Lift & Redistribution of sub-soil water which facilitated this Torrey Pine to thrive
Photo taken by friend in 2011
There's a remarkable story behind this and another Torrey Pine tree's success up in Rattlesnake Mountain in El Cajon. Follow the link below as to how this was possible.

I went up there yesterday to photograph the Torrey Pines and the trees were totally gone. While I was looking around the site where the large Laurel Sumac which provided the means of serving as an excellent Mother Tree still stood, several irritated home owners came out and yelled at me for trespassing on conservation area land and demanded to know what I was photographing. I kept calm and explained I was taking pictures of Coastal Cholla Cactus (Coastal Cholla never was originally native to this location when I was a kid and I established a one acre patch which has since spread on it's own) in bloom and those of Prickly Pear Cactus, plus I was looking for Cactus Wren nests which I noticed the year I left for Sweden in 2006. Actually, all I saw were the old abandoned nests of the pre-housing development construction before I left in 2006. Nothing new of note anywhere. I'm assuming the Wren's were frightened off by the closeness of the development. But documenting the tree slaughter with photographs was mostly what I was seeking after because I could see from the paved road that both Torrey Pines were gone. I asked one of the disturbed neighbours about what had happened to the pine trees and the ignorant unscientific explanation given made it all I could do to hold back keeping my mouth shut and emotions in check. One of the men said to me, 
 "Those trees are a huge fire hazard, they were producing cones and once those seeds escape, they will spread everywhere and will cause fire and create a bigger fire hazard endangering these houses." 
Seriously ??? Torrey Pines cause fires ? I thought people caused fires around here ? In the whole history of fire on this mountain every single one was always human caused. No brushfire in my almost 60 years of lifetime were ever started by natural causes. None of what he said was true and a fire starting as a result of more trees would never have happened anyway. I was told I was a trespasser, threatened with police being called and fined $1,000 if I didn't leave their precious conservation area. These trees were nowhere near any of the houses as this photo below of the other smaller tree poking out from the Laurel Sumac clearly shows.

photo: Mine
This Torrey Pine in the photo at right here was the smaller of the two trees. It was a bit stunted, contorted, twisted and was developing a beautiful picturesque form. It was once of the survivors of a wildfire that swept the area earlier. One single lower branch to the south of the tree survived and grew upwards into a crooked twisted tree. Ironically, the accusation of the non-native status of the trees was ridiculous, because if you do an inventory of the plants they have utilized on the terribly  scarred disturbed hillsides they created during construction, you have non-native yuccas, Iris, Mediterranean Rock Rose which is from Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. There are other non-native plants, but perhaps I'll document that at a later date. There is also this constant water drenching from an elaborate irrigation plumbing infrastructure everywhere on these hillsides all around this development, something which is abnormal for native coastal sage scrub, but necessary to keep the non-natives alive. I'm actually shocked more strategy planning and attention wasn't provided by the so-called Conservation people from Escondido who are in charge of the oversight of this official conservation area. Just the irrigation pipe and other fixtures alone must have cost a fortune. The other negative is that this destruction of native coast sage scrubb ans replanting coupled with early years of heavy irrigation have mostly benefitted and spread all the non-native noxious weeds I mentioned earlier and more. I'll walk up and do list of many of the non-natives for a later post.

photo: Mine
This is the exact spot of the 30' tall Torrey Pine which was butchered by Sky Ranch residents who themselves trespassed on to this Conservation area land and took it upon themselves to enforce the modern day unscientific  thinking that So-Cal native plants are evil mega-fire causing living organisms that need eradication in order to save human life. So what more is there to say. I kept my cool and didn't get into any confrontations even though that seemed to be the intent of those few I was speaking with. I'll post below a couple of pertinent photos of the damage done by those residents from the surrounding neighbourhood who not only trespassed onto the Rattlesnake Mountain Habitat Conservation Area themselves, but also took chain saws and destroyed a rare wild growing tree native to San Diego county. 

These signs exist everywhere around Rattlesnake Mountain now. Of course I don't own the land and they can do with it what they wish, but it's amazes me how this land for numerous decades prior was always spat upon & figuratively urinated on by humans without fear of prosecution before anyone decided it had some sort of ecological worth aside from the economic value to a handful of business benefactors. I actually contacted that telephone number on the No Trespassing sign and asked the biologist,
 "If the penalty for trespassing on Rattlesnake Mountain Habitat Conservation Area is $1000, could you tell me what the penalty for trespassing and taking a chain saw and removing valuable rare protected wild San Diego County tree species is ?"
The headquarters from where this Rattlesnake Mountain conservation area is given oversight is north from here in the city of Escondido. The biologist I spoke with on the telephone was nice enough and seemed to have already known about the removal. He said he was previously tipped off prior to the chain saw massacre and had visited the site himself. I never actually got a straight answer as to why these trees were destroyed, but it appears that there were several complaints to his office after I wrote my first article on the successful planting of trees by utilizing the Laurel Sumac as a nurse plant. Laurel Sumac is really the only shrub up there that stays richly evergreen all year long, aside from one single small colony of Lemonade Berry which has also been severely cut back for housing. Those Lemonade Berry are so ancient that they look almost look small oak trees and I thought so when I was a kid back in the very early 1960s. They are located just uphill here from this cactus where the Torrey Pines also were. 

I will post a link here below of an album I created of several photos, not just of the dismembered trees, but also the growing Coastal Cholla and Prickly Pear Cactus colonies which are just starting to bloom now. The cactus colony is beautiful. One photos of the ground where Cholla Cactus joints have fallen off and rolled away from the parent plant explain just how the plants are able to spread so easily. I am also fascinated by what appears to be some sort of allelopathic chemical properties of these cacti plants in that none of the invasive weeds seem to grow anywhere around them. Well who knows, maybe it's just good luck. The biologist knew of the Cholla Colony and told me that Coastal Cactus Wrens were his favourite study. The Wrens never were there prior to my planting of both Cholla and Prickly Pear throughout the 1970s. The cactus Coast Cholla joints were rescued from yet another housing project from the 1970s near Santee Lakes across the valley to the west of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Rattlesnake Mountain Photos of Torrey Pines Dismemberment and Coastal Cholla & Prickly Pear Cactus colonies

photo: Mine
Believe it or not, I am not totally bummed out here. I always knew this scenario would play out in one way or another. That same day I also that had a bit of a surprise to view a location where I previously worked as head landscapers for a property management company on Bradley Avenue which is south of this location, where I converted a non-native weed infested hill [almost exclusively Cheat Grass] in El Cajon which has a portion of it forested with Coastal Live Oak, Tecate Cypress, Toyon (California Holly), Lemonade Berry and Aleppo Pine on a south slope exposure. My goal was another experiment to see whether or not non-native weed (Runderals) infested locations long written off by the Native Plant peoples for saving, if such locations could be converted back and restored. I heavily inoculated all the plants with various forms of Mycorrhizae and beneficial bacteria. The first two years the plants were babied with water and mulch and then left to their own with no water other than the below average historical rainfall that has plagued So-cal for the past couple of decades. Most of the trees are between 15' to 20' in height now. Large height and wide spread growth on the chaparral species of Toyon and Lemonade berry planted. Mostly the main purpose was to try and experiment by replication of exactly how things perform in nature and IF they can be utilized in an urban landscape setting and/or any habitat restoration project. I'm thrilled and happy to say that they can succeed if left to their own devices, even when climate is considered less than ideal.
Attention Eco-Activists: Why not challenge yourself to restore the Land that was Lost ?
Some Photo Updates:
Photo of Saguaro on Rattlesnake Mountain in 2011
This photo was taken with a friend in 2011 of the Saguaro I planted in 1980 when friends from Tucson brought over a foot tall Saguaro from a Nursery there. The original size of the Saguaro grew quickly to over six feet tall until some idiots with a shotgun or rifle blew it to Kingdom Come for target practice. All my life from the 1960s such things continually happened like this for decades. One day a couple of years after they destroyed the Saguaro, I went back up there in the early 1990s and saw that the would had calloused over stump to the ground, but there also were two small buds from which two competing Saguaros appeared. Finally as of 2011, this is what it looks like. The Biologist I spoke with knew of it's presence, so I have no idea if it is still there.  

Photo 2011 - Rattlesnake Mountain - El Cajon California

Photo by James Gallagher, Sea and Sage Audubon
Well, the above photo is a close up of the San Diego Coastal Cholla colony on Rattlesnake Mountain. This particular spot was where I first saw the San Diego Coastal Cactus Wren nest in the middle of all that tangle of Cholla arms with spines. For those who think of Cactus Wrens living only in the deserts, think again. Here is an example on the right of a San Diego Cactus Wren which lives in coastal sage scrub habitat where colonies of Coast Cholla still exist. In the same photo above and to the below right out of the picture is a colony of Desert Agave I brought up from Ocotillo outside of Anza Borrego State Park back in 1981. When I left for Sweden in the Spring of 2016, that was the only time I saw the main older Agave with 50+ spread pups all around it's base finally send up a giant flower stalk. It was wonderfully beautiful. This Coast Cholla colony has also spread further from the main body and it too was loaded with flower blooms everywhere for the first time since I first planted thise cacti joints in the ground. It's actually odd that this area wasn't more protected back in 2005 since in the original housing development land preparation phase when they did an inventory of plants prior to any bulldozing, this entire area was roped off with conservation tape and posted as protected area. One would have thought that more care would have allowed protection of the Torrey Pines which are also native to San Diego County. 

photo from 2011 - notice how the Chola Colony spreads
These Cholla joints are everywhere within and outside the two main colonies. Not difficult to understand how they can easily spread within coastal sage scrub habitats. Below I also added a Prickly Pear Cactus pad here and there planted in the soil. Previously they were not here either. The prickly Pear varieties I chose were the mature native plants father below near the artesian spring where they are next to the Native American Metate grinding holes in the flat granite bedrock. I believe the natives carried and planted Prickly Pear beaver tail pads near all their camp settlements where ever they moved because it was a major part of their diet. Same can be said of Mexican Elderberry for the same reasons. 

Another angle of part of the Cholla Colony. 

The photo above almost squarely in the middle you can just make out the gray blue of the Desert Agave and the old dead flowering stalk which still persists. Also take note of some of that invasive African Bunch Grass which are commonly planted along freeway cutouts to supposedly hold the banks together. They are the ones with the fuzzy seed stalk heads. Many other non-natives such as Yellow Star Thistle & Mustard have made their way up here as a result of the Sky Ranch Housing Development.. 

Photo taken in 2011

This is at the top of the hill where the last remnants of the Lemonade Berry Colony still thrive, but they are only a whisper of their former glory. In the 1960s & 70s there were larger trees behind this scene where houses now are. The trucks of these looked f´so very ancient and the bark was identical to that of any Coastal Live Oak. When I was a kid I thought these were oak trees, until one Spring where I saw the sticky flat red berries. As far as I know, these is the eastern most extent of Lemonade Berry in San Diego County because they dislike frost and will easily burn. This location never did freeze even when we had frosts below in the valleys. I do not even recall seeing any over in Lakeside which is on the other side of this hill. Still, I cannot believe they took a chain saw to these special trees.


  1. I grew up at the base of Rattle Snake Mountain on Rockview Dr. in the 70's and 80's. That hill was like my back yard growing up. It saddens me that tree is no longer there for people to enjoy. I came across this story looking for older pics of Rattle Snake Mountain to show my son the rocks I used to climb, while I was telling him stories of everything we used to do on the hill. None of it is there anymore. I can't believe the housing developments on the hill. I remember when the house on the top was the only house there.

    1. The people who live up there at Sky Ranch have a completely up nosed attitude, almost reminiscent of Mount Helix. Go Figure! Actually, I have met a couple nice people, but those threats to me with police and sheriff were unbelievable.


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