Ore. botanist bushwhacks in rugged country

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) Whether climbing into thick patches of alder or inching down a steep, rocky gully, Mark Darrach constantly keeps his eyes on the ground.

"Enchanter's nightshade. I love that name," he said, stopping to kneel beside the common woodland flowers. Darrach has a head for plant names. It's rare to see him reach for the thick blue field guide the botanist's bible, he calls it.

A botanist on the Umatilla National Forest for eight seasons, Darrach can easily identify the usual suspects on these site expeditions. He hikes far off trails, carefully documenting different trees, shrubs and grasses, compiling a full list of resources in any given area of the 1.4-million-acre woods.

Darrach recently began trekking just south of the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, about 30 miles east of Pendleton, surveying plant life around the proposed Thomas Creek project on the Walla Walla Ranger District. Foresters hope to thin out stands of ponderosa pine, opening the canopy for more sunlight.

But botanical, wildlife and fish habitat must be considered before logging can take place, so Darrach and Tom Brumbelow, a 28-year-old summer technician, set out on a field trip July 24 four miles outside Ruckel Junction to see what diverse and rare flora they can find.

With approximately 1,500 species of plants in the forest, Darrach said the job has a candy store element to it.

"You never really know what you're going to come across,"?he said. "I'm always surprised by new things."

While Darrach took the lead, Brumbelow followed closely behind with the palm-size field computer, tracking their GPS location and scrolling through a list of obscure scientific names: Cerastium glomeratum, or clammy chickweed, and Bromus carinatus, or mountain brome.

The difference in species can be microscopic. Annual hairgrass gives off tiny seeds like flecks of dust, and a slight variation in the structure can change the definition of the species. Darrach holds a magnifying glass to his eye, and quickly notes the distinction.

"It's a finely detailed science, for sure,"?he said. "Some things are easy to tell, and some things are not."


Darrach is not confined to one district office, which gives him the unique ability to explore the entire forest. Conservation and preserving biodiversity is the name of the game, as the woods change and adapt over time.

As a kid, Darrach always loved exploring the outdoors. His father, a forester and hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service, would take him on trips into the Umpqua National Forest before they moved back to the East Coast.

Gordon Creeble, a family friend and former photographer for National Geographic, also took Darrach under his wing. Creeble could see Darrach had a fascination with plants, and encouraged him to consider pursuing botany.

After an early career in geology, including three years at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Darrach joined the Forest Service full-time in 2009. He lives in Pendleton eight months a year and in Seattle during the winter doing research at the University of Washington.

Darrach still has the heart of an explorer, bushwhacking the Blue Mountains and occasionally publishing new species discovered deep in the Umatilla forest. He is particularly excited about a new species of plant in the carrot family, spotted in the Greenhorn Mountains near John Day.

"It's interesting that not everything has been found yet,"?Darrach said. "I'm never bored, let's put it that way."

Hiking with Darrach and Brumbelow means wearing long pants and a sturdy pair of boots. The two make their own trails crossing waist-high brush and dense thickets most people would consider walking around, not through.


Brumbelow, of Syracuse, N.Y., will graduate next year with a master's degree in ecology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He landed a summer job with the Forest Service in Oregon to gain some valuable experience on the ground and learn a whole new ecosystem.

Working with Darrach, Brumbelow helps collect seeds and mark the exact location of any protected plants that might be affected by the forest project. Coming across wild strawberries or huckleberries are an extra treat.

"There's no denying we're trouncing through the woods, looking for things we love, so it's easy to be happy about it,"?Brumbelow said.

Time in the office is spent analyzing samples and organizing data. During the summer, Darrach and Brumbelow figure they spend three-quarters of their days in the field, where they often don't see another person once they leave the truck.

That much time alone means the conversation inevitably strays from work. What gene is it that causes people to love or hate cilantro??What seed was it that killed Alexander Supertramp in "Into the Wild?"

"We do like things other than plants,"?Brumbelow said with a smile.

A former high school biology and geology teacher, Darrach still enjoys teaching. He hopes to restart a botany class soon at Blue Mountain Community College. More than anything, he likes leading field trips into the forest.

"Once you get to know your landscape, and apply some names that grow on it, it gives you some understanding and ownership,"?he said. "That's real important to me."

Climbing back up through a clearing, Darrach wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead and savors a cool breeze. No way he plans to retire from this, he said.

"They'll have to find my body somewhere,"?he said.


The original story can be found on the East Oregonian's website:


Information from: East Oregonian,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.