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Home Land Upland Species and Communities

Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community

Status and Trend

Interpretation and Commentary


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Status: At or Better Than Target
Trend: No Change
Confidence: Low

  • Relevance - Cushion plants are low, matted growth forms that look like pincushions. This growth form allows them to withstand extreme climates with gusting winds, snow, and huge temperature variation (Malcolm and Malcolm 1988). The main occurrence of this plant community type in the Basin is at elevations above 9,000 ft. on the cluster of peaks around Freel Peak (Engelhardt and Gross 2011a).The Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community supports a variety of uncommon plant species, including one of the main population centers ofthe sensitive species, Tahoe draba (Draba asterophora var. asterophora), specially designated by TRPA and the U.S. Forest Service to provide the plants with increased levels of protection (Englehardt and Gross 2011b). Cushion plants possess many unique adaptations for surviving in harsh climates with little water availability or soil development. They have been referred to as ecosystem engineers because of their ability to locally maintain increased soil moisture and temperature relative to adjacent soils (Badano et al. 2006).
  • Adopted Standards  - Provide for the non-degradation of the natural qualities of any plant community that is uncommon to the Basin or of exceptional scientific, ecological, or scenic value. The threshold shall apply, but not be limited to, 1) the deep-water plants of Lake Tahoe, 2) Grass Lake, 3) Osgood Swamp, 4) Hell Hole, 5) Upper Truckee Marsh, 6) Taylor Creek Marsh, 7) Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community, and 8) Pope Marsh.
  • Indicator - The status and trend determination is based on a qualitative assessment of the natural qualities of a plant community. Natural qualities of a plant community include the current plant species assemblage, the health, age, and ecological condition of those plant species, and the condition of the hydrologic regime.
  • Status – At 10,881 feet, Freel Peak is the highest peak in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and is thus a popular hiking destination. Over time, numerous user-created trails crisscrossing the habitat were likely causing declines in the cushion plant community (Englehardt and Gross 2011b). In 2006, in an effort to concentrate recreational use and decrease trampling,the U.S. Forest Service constructed a dedicated trail to the top of the peak, and installed an interpretive sign about the sensitive plants in the area.Also in 2006, long-term monitoring plots were established on Freel Peak and two adjacent summits, following the Global Observation Research Initiatives in Alpine Environments (GLORIA) protocol (GLORIA 2011). The GLORIA project is a world-wide long-term observation network in alpine environments that was established with the aim of documenting changes in biodiversity and vegetation patterns caused by changing climate in the world’s high mountain ecosystems. Quantitative data are available from a monitoring program focused on the Tahoe draba.Plots are surveyed on a five-year rotation, but the data from the 2011 survey are not yet available. Tahoe draba has a classic cushion growth form and its status may therefore serve as an indicator of the status of the entire cushion plant community. Quantitative monitoring of Tahoe draba on Freel Peak began in 2004 when plants were located at 10 population sites (Engelhardt and Gross 2011b). When sites were re-surveyed in 2009, plant counts of Tahoe draba were stable at all 10 population sites, and three new sites were discovered. Stability in the plant counts, and an increase in the number of sites of a representative species, indicate that the natural qualities of the cushion plant community are being maintained, or possibly improving.  Therefore, the status of the Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community was determined to be “at or better than target.”
  • Trend – The high elevation cushion plant community is known to be a naturally stable type (Malcolm and Malcolm 1988), and plant counts of the Tahoe draba over the last five years were stable at the 10 population sites that have been surveyed twice (Englehardt and Gross 2011b). Although the recent discovery of three new Tahoe draba sites within the cushion plant community may point to an increasing trend, it may simply be a result of increased survey effort. With only two surveys it is not possible to assess a reliable trend in the abundance of cushion plants. Therefore, a conservative approach leads to the conclusion that there was “little or no change” in the trend of the Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community.

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  • Confidence  - The confidence in the status and trend determinationis “low” because the analysis is based on data for only one representative species that occurs within the community and from only two sample periods in 2004 and 2009.
  • Human and Environmental Drivers - Environmental conditions are extreme and the growing season for the Freel Peak Cushion Plant Communityis only four months long.Although climate change is considered to be the greatest threat to such alpine communities,recreational use also has the potential to degrade the community. Trampling of Tahoe draba in the area has been observed (Engelhardt and Gross 2011b).Decreased snowpack and/or earlier snowmelt have the potential to impact the cushion plant community by altering species composition and interactions, and decoupling plant flowering periods and insect pollinator visitation.
  • Monitoring Approach – In 2009, the U.S. Forest Service – LTBMU installed four permanent plots targeting the Tahoe draba population in the Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community. The plots will be visited every five years to provide a quantitative and consistent method for evaluating the status and trend of this sensitive species. Data on the status and trend of Tahoe draba was used as an indicator of the status and trend of the cushion plant community as a whole.Another long-term monitoring approach was recently initiated within the Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community,which will provide information to increase the rigor and confidence of future threshold evaluations.The U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW) has taken the lead in organizing monitoring efforts associated with the GLORIA project throughout the state of California. GLORIA plots are surveyed on a five-year rotation and the first re-survey of the Freel Peak plots took place in 2011. The project uses sophisticated monitoring and data collection methods focused on plants and continuous soil temperature measurements that have been thoroughly tested and extensively applied across the network of sites in Europe. Data, when available, will become a central part of the evaluation of the status and trend of the Freel Peak Cushion Plant Community.
  • Monitoring Partners – U.S. Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW) and the GLORIA network


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Map showing location of Freel Peak and surrounding area.


Trend Charts

Chart data not available at this time.

Additional Info



Additional Information

  3. Conceptual Model:
  4. Monitoring Plan:
Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 November 2012 11:49