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COLUMN ONE

All he is saying is give brush a chance

Naturalist Rick Halsey says it's absurd to prescribe burns of backcountry California chaparral.

November 26, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Mozingo is a Times staff writer.

Rick Halsey is in search of senile shrubs.

He rolls up California 79 in his Chevy pickup across the high tablelands of eastern San Diego County. Past a little adobe chapel from the Mexican era, he turns onto an unpaved road. He bumps along in low gear as the road rises into the granite mountains as a brilliant sliver of scarified earth, passing through gnarled stands of manzanita, red shank and chamise.

In a shallow basin called Indian Flats, he comes to an abrupt stop.

"Let's say hello to this guy," says Halsey.

The rangy naturalist strides across a ditch as if he's meeting a long-lost friend. He climbs the side of a boulder, crouches in the shade of a 15-foot manzanita and gazes at the burnished red skin of its bark against the mountain sky.

"This guy might be 125 years old," he says, giving it a pat.

He knows many forest managers would call this old hardwood "senescent" or "decadent" -- terms for native vegetation that has supposedly gone un-burned for too long and is thus an unnatural fire hazard.

Halsey, 53, likes to point out the absurdity of this theory, as he sees it, by simply calling the plants "senile," as if the manzanita were in an advanced state of dementia.

Chaparral, he says, does not need to burn to the ground every 30 years to remain healthy. Just the opposite. Too much fire will eventually decimate the native flora -- some of the most diverse in the nation -- leaving a biological wasteland of invasive weeds.

Many people might not know the difference, viewing chaparral as a brown, dead thicket of thorns and brush.

But with the help of top botanists and fire ecologists, Halsey is on a campaign to correct the record about California's most widespread, misunderstood and maligned type of vegetation.

In doing so, he hopes to limit brush clearance plans to the edges of suburbia, away from the backcountry.

In the heat of the fire season, this might seem a futile mission. But Halsey is a true believer.

Like the shrubbery he promotes, he is a bit quirky, with a child's mix of untethered imagination and energy that is labeled eccentricity in an adult, and that his wife lovingly tolerates. He built his family home in Escondido to resemble a medieval castle, with a watchtower and a working drawbridge and a long, dark den filled with swords and suits of armor.

But he and his ecological research are respected by leading minds in the field.

The former high school biology teacher founded the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit environmental group, and gives talks all over the state.

Through science, Halsey wants to show chaparral's subtle beauty and the limits of its remarkable adaptations to survive.

It is a lesson in the ecology of drought and fire.

The story of the senile Eastwood's manzanita, its muscular root anchored to fissures in the granite boulder, is as good a way as any to start the lesson. The stocky stalwart with a bright green head of leaves was actually born of fire.

As a seed, it fell from its parent and, by good fortune, landed in a crevice in the rock where water and dead leaf matter naturally amassed. It may not have sprouted for years. In fact, the seed may have just sat there, dormant, for more than a century.

Then came a fire. Smoke from its incinerated forebears woke the seed.

Scientists don't understand the precise chemical mechanism of this process, but it is the only way to germinate the five species of manzanita in Southern California, as well as many other endemic plants. As fire destroys one generation, it primes a new crop.

When the next rains came, the seed sprouted, its rock confines actually helping it. Manzanitas have strong roots that pry open fissures and hair-like capillaries that extract microscopic drops of moisture from between the crystals in the granite. In fact, the rock actually retains water much better than soil does.

While evaporation off the leaves pulls water and nutrients up through the roots like juice through a straw, the manzanita must drink slowly in this dry terrain. Its silver-green leaves point to the sky so the midday sun doesn't beat down straight on them. Fine hairs create a buffer layer of air around the leaf to limit wind from speeding up the evaporation process. And the microscopic pores in the leaves where the water exits -- the stomata -- are narrow, sunken and tangled with hair.

"The stomata on a manzanita look like an old man's ear," said Halsey. "Full of hair and wax."

This slows photosynthesis and growth.

So a century-old plant such as this one is only 15 feet tall -- and Southern California is a land of shrubs.

Hiking through the chaparral and coastal sage scrub of Southern California, Halsey never gave much thought to the shrubs. It wasn't until the mid-1980s, when he was teaching biology at Serra High School in San Diego on a windy day, that a crusty old sycamore leaf drifted through the door like a drunken epiphany.

"Let's go down in the canyon," he told his students.

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