Opal Creek Wilderness Annotated Checklist Project

Bryophytes and Lichens of the Pacific Northwest

Category: Bryophytes

Opal Creek Wilderness Explorations and Endeavors Author: Bethany Evans M.

This blog is written and produced by students of “Bryophytes and Lichens of the Pacific Northwest” an ecology and field botany oriented program focused on exploring the diversity of lichens and bryophytes of the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, this blog focuses on the creation of an annotated checklist for the Opal Creek Ancient Old Growth Forest. Each of us will be writing a blog post to outline our experience studying the amazing diversity of bryophytes and lichens found at Opal Creek.

We hope you enjoy our blog, and stay tuned for more updates on our project!

  • Bethany, Kelsi, Wyatt, Jenny, Patrick, and Will.

Opal Creek Wilderness is an old growth forest situated in the heart of Oregon near the Cascade Mountains. This wilderness area represents some of the last old growth forest in all of Oregon, and has withstood several forest fires (which are low intensity and are natural and essential for a healthy true Old Growth Forest).  Its history is filled with conflict between settlers, miners, native residents, as well as conservationists before it became a federally protected wilderness area on Sept 20th, 1996 after a 20 year battle. Opal Creek’s rich natural history attracts over 20,000 visitors annually. It is a recreational area as well as an educational opportunity, and a Native American cultural site. Opal Creek was first inhabited by the Santium Molalla tribe who, camped in the Jawbone flats during the summer time. There is some evidence that the nearby Whetstone Mountain was retreated to for vision quests (History & Ecology, Opal Creek Wilderness Center) Also, the surrounding ‘Whetstone Mountain Trail’ was most likely a common trade route for indigenous tribes around the Pacific North West and is significant to the lifestyles of the original people of the PNW.

This region remained practically pristine until 1859 when miners discovered gold, and in 1930 “Grandpa” James P. Hewitt began official construction of the Jawbone Flats mining camp. Mining on Jawbone Flats continued until 1992 when attention was called to preserve the Opal Creek area by a conservation group called ‘Friends of Opal Creek’ which established itself in 1989. When mining ceased the Shiny Rock Mining Company gave Friends of Opal Creek all 151 acres of their land for preservation. Present day Opal Creek Wilderness spans upwards of 35,000 acres, some of which is federally owned, some privately owned by the conservation group.  Opal Creek is an important place geographically, ecologically, and culturally.

Fungi, bryophytes, and lichens make up a majority of the biomass at Opal Creek Wilderness. These organisms are essential to the diversity of life found in this biosphere, as well as many others around the world. This is why Opal Creek Wilderness is the perfect place to explore the range and extent of species of the bryophytes a lichens. The most efficient way to categorize and keep track of organisms is by using an annotated checklist.

(An annotated checklist is just exactly as it sounds: it is a checklist of species in a specific area with notation about the species and its environment.)

jawbone plats Right-  lichsJawBone Flats – The History and Ecology of Opal Creek Wilderness

Left-  Cladonia cristatella. Rock substrate.)




Lichens are one of the few organisms that can ‘fix’ nitrogen into a usable organic form. All organic life requires fixed nitrogen to operate. Opal Creek is a useful place to study specialized lichens because of the nature of diversity in old growth forests as well as that old growth forests have almost entirely disappeared from the planet. There are very few true old growth forests left, therefore fewer and fewer environments in which to discover the beautiful diversity that exists in lichen and bryophyte populations.

Lichens are basically sponges for nutrients and water. When lichens fall they add components -like nitrates, polyphosphate, and Sulphur- to the soil. Lichens are a popular food source utilized by animals. It is a popular snack for Elk, Deer, and small mammals like squirrels in harsh winters. Some lichens have specialized structures on the bottom of the thallus where it connects to its substrate that are called rhizines. These lichen are popular with birds who use it as efficient nesting material

more lichen opal creek  strong nest material   rhizines

Top left: Parmelia sulcata has special rhizines that are Velcro like and is popular among birds for efficient nest building because of this feature. wikimedia commons

Top right: A bird uses lichen to build a strong weather worthy nest. Pintrest.com

Bottom left: A close up of Parmelia sulcata’s velcro like rhizines.


Lichens are pollution sensitive. Some lichens are bio indicators that can demonstrate the relative pollution in an area, by understanding the pollution tolerance of species we can estimate the amount of pollution in a habitat inferred by which lichens are present. More rare or pollution sensitive lichens grow in relatively pristine areas whereas pollution tolerant lichens can survive in habitats with higher levels of pollution (e.g. parking lots, Chernobyl). This is another example of Opal Creek’s exclusive habitat. It is a host to many species of sensitive and relatively rare species that one cannot see or study in many other areas around the world because of its pristine and old growth qualities.

Bryophytes are just as important to a thriving old growth habitat. Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts are organisms that may be highly specialized to old growth trees and ecosystems. Bryophytes are home to microorganisms and are a basic but enormous producer in an old growth forest. (More on Bryophytes to be covered in future blog posts.)

Our group is thrilled to utilize and eventually work on identifying and filling an annotated checklist with identified species in the Opal Creek Wilderness area. This field trip and checklist gives us opportunities to refine our collection techniques and field skills. We are also excited to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the reaches of bryophytes and lichens alike in an old growth forest. More to come soon so keep up with our project to learn more about Lichens and Bryophytes of the PNW and other exciting and nerdy news.


This video is funny and informative about great Opal Creek history.



(all photos and statements are available for noncommercial reuse.)

Opal Creek Forest Center, Representative. “History and Ecology, OCW.” Opal Creek Forest Center, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

Calabria, Lalita. “Bryophytes and Lichens of the PNW.” Lecture Sept-Oct. Evergreen SC, Olympia. Web.

Forest Service, USDA. “Opal Creek Wilderness.” Www.fs.usda.gov. Federal Government, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

“Ecology and History of Opal Creek.” Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, n.d. Web. <http://www.opalcreek.org/history-ecology/>.

McOmie, Grant. “Travel Oregon.” Opal Creek. Travel Oregon, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Richard, Terry. “Opal Creek Wilderness – Where Nothing Happens.” Blog.oregonlive.com. The Oregonian, 21 Oct. 2008. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

A formula for old growth and some fun with Cladonia from the Opal Creek Wilderness

Jennifer Roman-

What are the ingredients for an old growth forest? This is a question that I pondered during our trip to one of the largest continuous tracks of old growth forest remaining on the west coast, The Opal Creek Wilderness. In our quest to document the diversity of lichens and bryophytes of Opal Creek, I also learned about the formula for creating an old growth forest, that is the most essential ingredients for the creation of old growth habitat: forest age and continuity, species diversity and the presence of course woody debris and staying dead trees (snags).

Old growth forest is fairly easily self explained: it is a forest that is old. When a forest ages it accumulates a lot of “ingredients” that make it old growth; high diversity, great size,  and large amounts of coarse woody debris. Old growth forests differ from any other forested ecosystem type in their ability to grow and accumulate a diverse array of plant species over a larger span of time, sometimes up to 1000 years. This makes old growth forests extremely important for global water and nutrient cycling.

Photo taken by author

Photo taken by author at Opal Creek

Plant diversity, total cover, species richness, and heterogeneity tend to increase with time, making old growth forests one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth (Halpern & Spies, 920). Old growth forest ecosystems are a valuable place to study and collect lichens and mosses because you will find more than just the successional species and popular edge loving species that do not take hundreds of years to develop. In particular, some lichens species, called cyanolichens due to their association with cyanobacteria, are particularly sensitive to air pollution and can be found in great abundance in old growth forests because of the prisitine air quality.

Another important feature of old growth forests is their continuity. because it is so expansive and without clear-cuts in its protected boundaries, minimizing its amount of edge. Old growth forest edges differentiate from the interiors by:

“reduced stocking density as measured by canopy cover, number of stems per hectare, and basal area, increased growth rates of dominant Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), as calculated by an index of relative growth rate; elevated rates of tree mortality, as measured by standing dead and down trees (snags and logs); and greater numbers of Douglas-fir and western hemlock seedlings” (Chen, Franklin & Spies, 387).

Therefore, the less edge there is in a forest, the less these tendencies will occur and the healthier the forest will be.

Another important aspect of old growth forests that is often overlooked is the fallen remains of trees and other large plants scientifically titled coarse woody debris (Harmon & Hua, 609). Dead trees may remain for centuries, making them a key factor in old growth forest ecosystems. As they decompose, logs and other wood effectively “reduce erosion and affect soil development, store nutrients and water, provide a source of energy and nutrient flow, serve as seed beds, and provide habitat for decomposers and heterotrophs” (Harmon & Hua, 609). Something also often overlooked about coarse woody debris is that it is a key contributor to the storage of carbon. Fallen logs and branches are one of the best places to find bryophytes and lichens in any forest, so the more woody debris a forest has, the better it will be for discovering more species.

Icmadophia ericetorum, Photo taken by author

Icmadophia ericetorum, Photo taken by author

Coarse woody debris is also a key contributor to the storage of carbon, an ever growing concern with global climate change The delicate balance of the carbon cycle relies on the carbon sequestered in forests including the carbon stored in form of coarse woody debris. In addition, woody debris, including rotting logs and fallen branches are one of the best places to find bryophytes and lichens in any forest, so the more woody debris a forest has, the more potential habitat for bryophytes and lichens, which in turn, increases overall biodiversity.

Without old growth forests like Opal Creek we would not have as diverse areas as we do now. It is extremely important to preserve and study these areas and keep them as pristine and undisturbed as possible.

And now I will share with you some of the diversity of lichens species that we discovered at Opal Creek. My favorite group of lichens to study are the charismatic Cladonia’s. These species can often be recognized by they goblet shaped cups and their brightly colored reproductive structures, termed apothecia. It was interesting to see Cladonia species growing on substrates that I would never have expected, such as on old railroad ties from when the site was used for mining.

Cladonia fimbriata, by author

Cladonia fimbriata, by author

By working together and visiting multiple sites, my group members and I were able to collect and key many species of Cladonia, some not on the existing annotated checklist for The Opal Creek Wilderness.



A list of the Cladonia  species we found include:

  • C. bellidiflora
  • C. chlorophaea
  • C. cornuta
  • C. dahliana (new to the checklist)
  • C. ecmocyna
  • C. fimbriata
  • C. furcata
  • C. ochrochlora
  • C. norvegica (endangered)
  • C. pocillum (new to the checklist)
  • C. phyllophora
  • C. pyxidata
  • C. rangiferina
  • C. transendens
  • C. verriculosa

All of these species were collected and keyed by students and will be put deposited as voucher specimens in the Evergreen Herbarium. By doing this work we are contributing to our understanding of the distribution and diversity of bryophyte and lichens found within the Opal Creek Wilderness.

Without old growth forests like the Opal Creek Wilderness, we would not have as diverse areas as we do now. It is extremely important to preserve and study these areas and keep them as pristine and undisturbed as possible.

Works Cited

Chen, Jiquan, Jerry F. Franklin, and Thomas A. Spies. “Responses to Edge Environments in Old-Growth Douglas-Fir Forests.” JSTOR. Ecological Society of America, 1 Nov. 1992. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Halpern, Charles B., and Thomas A. Spies. “Plant Species Diversity in Natural and Managed Forests of the Pacific Northwest.” JSTOR. Ecological Society of America, 1 Nov. 1995. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Harmon, Mark E., and Chen Hua. “Coarse Woody Debris Dynamics in Two Old-Growth Ecosystems.” JSTOR. American Institute of Biological Sciences, 1 Oct. 1991. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.