John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Chapter Six:


In contrast to the paleontology program, management efforts associated with modern biota (as opposed to that represented in the fossil record) have remained relatively small in scope. Even so, they have been supported by a fair amount of research contracted mainly through the cooperative park studies unit at Oregon State University. Most of the studies focused on vegetation, largely because it could provide the basis for restoring some semblance of presettlement wildlife habitat to lands impacted by grazing and other agricultural practices since the 1860s.

While the NPS acknowledged that land use and management actions outside of park boundaries probably had greater influence on wildlife than what took place within the monument, it still wanted to maintain populations at levels consistent with the carrying capacity of less modified habitats. [46] This aim, however, could not be attained as long as the monument lacked adequate wildlife surveys or systematic monitoring to determine population changes over time. [47] The small amount of research simply served to allay fears by ranchers in Sheep Rock Unit that the park provided a refuge for excessive numbers of deer and coyotes. A CPSU study completed in 1980 recommended population densities of either animal did not warrant active control measures. [48] Consequently, no actions to control large mammals have taken place on park land and the NPS took only limited measures to check rodent damage which occurred in the monument's developed areas. [49]

A sustained effort to enhance riparian vegetation in and near these developed areas necessitated the small amount of rodent control undertaken by park staff. Bank stabilization, however, constituted the first step toward riparian enhancement, something which the NPS began in 1980 by planting juniper along Bridge Creek at Painted Hills. [50] Serious channel erosion and undercutting of banks along more than two miles of this stream threatened the picnic area and access road, so the NPS responded with placement of rip-rap, rock jetties, and native vegetation along the creek over the next five years. [51] Ladd observed dramatic improvement along Bridge Creek by 1991, observing that beaver had constructed four large dams and one lodge within a half mile of the picnic area. [52] He also noted that the park's apparent success furnished an example which the BLM wanted to emulate in other areas along the creek because similar projects could enhance spawning conditions for native steelhead trout. [53]

A pressing need for bank stabilization and reestablishment of riparian vegetation on the John Day River within the Sheep Rock Unit drew the attention of park staff beginning in 1983. Severe erosion affected 1,000 linear feet of riverbank associated with Cant Ranch bottomland which the NPS hoped to lease for the production of hay. Stabilization started with 100 yards of rip-rap so that an irrigation ditch could be replaced by a pump lift station. [54] Rock jetties and more rip-rap became necessary by 1985 because banks continued to erode, causing a substantial loss of topsoil each year. [55] In response, park employees planted cottonwood, choke cherry, and willow on a continuing basis to help reestablish riparian habitat along this part of the river. [56]

Revegetating riparian areas represented only one facet of what the NPS hoped to accomplish in managing for more natural plant succession. From 1977 onward, park staff took active measures to control noxious weeds which proliferated in previously grazed or heavily disturbed areas. [57] The NPS also utilized CPSU studies for guidance on how to revegetate former rangeland on the monument with native species. [58] A study that began in 1987 showed prescribed fire to be a potentially effective way to restore balance between depleted native bunchgrasses and overly abundant woody plants such as western juniper and big sagebrush. [59] Bunchgrasses and forbs could thereby reclaim burned areas where the woody plants formerly dominated because of fire exclusion and grazing. [60]

More proactive approaches to vegetation management required a monitoring program, whether such actions took the form of seeding native plants or experimental use of prescribed fire. Two contracted studies completed in 1992 helped park staff measure change in upland vegetation and sensitive plants, since both employed comparisons with a 1977 study of the monument's plant communities. [61] To better coordinate the monitoring program with future efforts by park staff, Ladd hired the monument's first natural resources management specialist. Ken Till, formerly one of the research assistants connected with the CPSU studies on prescribed fire, started work in January 1992. [62]

A vegetation management plan, which might allow the NPS to better incorporate the beneficial effects of fire on native species composition, soon became Till's biggest project. [63] It remained unfinished by the time he transferred more than three years later, but assessments of plant community types in relation to predicted fire effects could be downloaded into the monument's geographic information system. [64] Till completed smaller-scale rehabilitation plans aimed at recovery of native bunchgrasses and forbs on park acreage affected by wildland fires. [65] Without a vegetation management plan in place, however, the NPS had little justification for increased staff and funding to implement prescribed burns on a programmatic basis. [66]

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002