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Deep Ecology event focuses on ecological diversity of San Luis Obispo

Matt Rz
A California poppy grows out of serpentine rock in San Luis Obispo.

Matt Ritter is a professor of biology at Cal Poly and an author of several natural history books. And he's going to be at the Deep Ecology Collaboratory on October 21-23 at Rancho El Chorro in San Luis Obispo. You can check out more details at

Note: This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

Zender: Can you tell me about your background in botany?

Ritter: Let's see. I grew up in Northern California and got a degree from in microbiology at UC Santa Barbara and then when I went to get a Ph.D. at UC San Diego. I started studies trees there and got very interested in trees and coming to San Luis Obispo where there's a huge diversity of plants. I really started to study the natural history of this place and the ecology of the plants that are here. San Luis Obispo is a diversity hotspot in California and in the world we have in a county we have about 8500 species of plants which is more than the entire state of Alaska for instance. So a small place with a lot of diversity.

Zender: Is there some sort of ecological reason for that?

Ritter: Oh yeah. That's a great question that people can spend their whole career answering, why are there so many plants where they occur and when fewer in other places. The answer to that is that it's a nice place to live here in the sense that things don't go extinct as often. And also there's a whole lot of niches it's different and it's in St. Louis Isabel than it is in Los Osos that it is in Santa Margarita. Temperatures or different soils or different climates different. That kind of thing and so you get with all these little niches you get a whole lot of species occurring in different areas.

Zender: Yeah there's like almost 60 different plants at every beach I go to it seems like.

Ritter: Yeah. And not, you know, you have beaches but you also have a really interesting geology we have our official California state rock is called serpentine and it's this blue rock that you see on the hillsides around San Luis Obispo and that serpentine is hard for organisms to grow on and there's a bunch of plants that have evolved to live on serpentines So they're there like biodiversity hotspot islands in amongst other soil types and sounds. Don't we have a lot of serpentine endemic sins and this will mean they only occur on those serpentine rocks around town and don't occur anywhere else in the world. And which brings me to the deep ecology conference. The reason for the field trip for the deep ecology conferences to take those people and bring them to a local serpentine area where you can see some of the rare and endangered species there we have a whole lot of diversity. And over a very small area because of that soil type and because of our special ecology around here.

Zender: Tell me about that what is that deep ecology is.

Ritter: I guess I would categorize it as an environmental movement. It's about the respect of all living organisms and believing that all organisms have a right to live whether or not they're useful for humans. And the idea that that humans and all organisms are interconnected in a deep and ecologically important way that we don't fully understand and there is they're bringing together a bunch of people in the deep ecology movement and people from out of the state and my role is to show them a little bit about local natural history that people who are attending the conference and give them a sense of what our ideas are here about the deep ecology of how we interact with our organisms. Here I've been in San Luis Obispo now for about 15 years and really studying the plants closely.

Zender: So you said you're giving a field trip what are you going to be doing on this field trip?

Ritter: The conference is taking place at Rancho El Chorro which is up Pennington Creek. Right off Highway 1 near Cuesta College. And at the top of Pennington Creek, above Rancho El Chorro is a beautiful serpentine rock outcrop. It's a place which we call the Pennington Creek Biological Reserve. And in that area we have the Chorro Bog The Soul, which is a federally endangered species and then bring them to be able to see that. It's good to see very often. And which occurs in serpentine wetlands so a confluence of two very rare situations in which you have a serpentine rock outcrops with standing water. And so that rare plant occurs there and it's one of the rare plants and sounds possible that determines a lot of our land use around here and so on. And so it's an interesting plan to see some. My role is just going to be to bring them on a field trip a short distance from Rancho El Chorro and get everybody opportunity to see what our local ecology is about.

Zender: That that particular plant is endangered?

Ritter: It is. Yeah. Meaning it's listed on a federal list of endangered species and we have several of those species in our county and in this area and this one of them it's the one that occurs most closely the city of St. Louis post-poll is the purpose of having laboratory I guess is to bring awareness to these issues of endangered species. One of the issues is to bring awareness to the idea of endangered species and our interactions with those species and bring up deep philosophical ideas about conservation. Why is conservation happening is it for human purposes or just an intrinsic value among species? That's the thing that people in the deep ecology movement talk about a lot.

Zender: So why is this important to have?

Ritter: I think any conference that brings together people who are thinkers and a movement is important to have obviously for them to exchange ideas and picking sounds. So as a place to do this conference is a great idea and that we have an interesting ecology here. And as a way as a catalyst for bringing up the ideas of ecology and conservation it's a great place to do it.

Zender: So I know you're already kind of answered this question but like you go into a little more detail about what's different about San Luis Obispo?

Ritter: I mean sounds most special in the sense that we have what makes a place special. There are it from an ecological point of view. Climate makes a place special. The type of habitats that are available make a place special. And we have rare types of all of that we have. We live in a Mediterranean climate. For instance that alone selects for great diversity of different types of plants. Most of the plants that occur in the San Luis Obispo area occur only here and in Western California and nowhere else in the world. So if you are going to come to a place to try to see really interesting ecology there are other places in the world you would go to San Luis Obispo it would be one of those.

Zender: Are there any invasive species that threaten that diversity.?

Ritter: Yeah entirely. The question about invasive species is a very complicated one because obviously humans have brought plants with them when they move around the world and some of those species spread out from where they were originally planted is either is horticultural plants or agricultural plants or they come in with agricultural plants and they can outcompete other plants in the native areas. And a good example of that one plant we are that we have that's really problematic right now is the African Village Grass. It's a grass occurs all over our dunes. It's actually ruining some of the diversity on the dunes including areas of Los Osos - Montana de Oro the sand spit. There are areas which used to be almost entirely coastal dunes scrub with a diversity of different native species there and are now almost only that grass. So it outcompetes our native species it tenaciously holds onto its area in the plant community and won't let anything come back in and it's running over parts of Western sounds bit like a wildfire it's a it's a nasty plant and and different conservation organizations and this is why we are talking about how to deal with it. And there's experiments happening now deal with that. But it's a problem. And so yeah there are issues with non native plants. That would be a good example of why it is in my opinion the one that's the worst right now.

Zender: Palm trees... are they native to California?

Ritter: Palm trees are so distinctly Californian and as it turns out we only have a single species of native palm tree in California and that's native to the oases in the Anza-Borrego desert in Southeastern California. California fan palms, mostly all the palms that we grow in San Luis Obispo and anywhere around here are not native. They aren't our California fan palm either. They're from some other place in the world. The look of California palms obviously are important as part of our cultural heritage in California. There is no such thing as an invasive palm. They're all planted and they grow where they people plant them and they don't spread out. But some people like them and some people don't like them. You know I'm sort of indifferent about them. I think it's a nice cultural heritage thing but from the point of view of if you look in your thinking about urban forests and forests of trees where people live and that's what we call an urban forest. Palms don't serve the kind of value that other trees do and earned for us. They don't cast very much. They don't. And they're they usually have very small canopy compared to their size and so they just don't have to provide as much ecological resources as other large canopy trees.

Zender: I'm wondering about the eucalyptus trees that are kind of in Montana or you know the drive there. Those aren't native, right?

Ritter: No, there are no eucalyptus that are native to California. Eucalyptus is a genus which has about 800 species in it all occur in Australia. And so all 800 species occur natively in Australia but they are the most widely planted tree group trees in the world their planet all over the world including here in California. And in California in the mid-19th century people started to experiment with eucalyptus trees. People saw that they were fast growing and potentially could be could be valuable. In the Hazard Canyon area in Montana de Oro. They were planted there as an experiment to see if any of those species would be valuable for forestry and paper wood pulp and poles and everything you could use wood for. And you have to remember that at the turn of the last century wood was very important. This is pre fossil fuels, so it much more important than it than it is now. And people thought they were going to get rich by planting eucalyptus trees these fast growing exotic trees and then harvesting them later. And what as it turns out, fast growing trees don't make very valuable wood. They're good for paper pulp but they are not good for timber or anything like that. And so the bottom kind of fell out of the eucalyptus market. Now what we have all over California is a big unharvested crop. And so that's what you're looking at you're looking at trees in rows in a big unharvested crop that the economic will doesn't exist there to remove those trees because there's no you can't sell them out of California anymore.

Zender: And so those were all planted?

Ritter: They were all planted and there are few places in California particularly Northwestern California or areas around Santa Cruz where they get a lot of marine fog and rain where you to actually do spread out. They can spread out away from the original planting in and be a lot like the Velle grass I was describing is it not just a non-native plant but also an invasive plant which is what we call non-native plants spread out and take over natural and natural areas and the eucalyptus are pretty poor weeds in that sense. They don't spread out very much. They're just big and conspicuous and so they tend to be controversial because of that because people see them everywhere they have a distinctive smell to them they're also part of California's cultural heritage though. And whether you think that's unfortunate or not, that's the case. And so they tend to be very controversial even around here in and this well about how much has the number of agriculture here in on the Central Coast impacted our natural diversity. Huge amount. The farming in historically farming and clearing for farm lands was the number one impact on native plants in California. A good example would be the valley Oak which is one of California's largest oak trees. It's this beautiful majestic tree that you see in low  lying areas alluvial fans and places in the lower portions of valleys where the soil is very rich and the water table is very high. And they occur particularly around Santa Margarita in Paso Robles those are the big oaks that you see there those oaks as soon as people came to California they realized very quickly that those are indicators of good agricultural areas. So you would find where the value Oaks occur and remove them for fields and agriculture. And we don't even know the extent of what Valley Oaks used to be like in California because they obviously there were no records for the amount of removals that took place. And in that case you have a direct conflict between agricultural areas and a iconic species in California and that continues to mean more agriculture spreads out you get more natural areas that are converted to agriculture and then a severe loss of biodiversity because of that. That being said agriculture is obviously very important. People have to eat and it's a complicated issue about land use and where there is an issue that currently exists and soundness. Economically vineyards are very important for St. Louis County are oak woodlands are our cultural heritage in our ecological heritage here and those come in conflict sometimes and we're seeing that controversy now and we've seen it in the past and so on.

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