Lyman Donald Smith

Lyman Donald Smith

Remembering Lyman Donald Smith

1919 – 2002
by Rosemary Carey, El Dorado Chapter
Originally printed in the CNPS magazine Fremontia

Lyman Donald Smith, known by the El Dorado Chapter and neighboring chapters as Don, was honored as a Fellow of the California Native Plant Society in late 1996 after he presented a wide-ranging slide show on his thirty years of botanizing in El Dorado County. Don was recognized for his extensive contributions: he personified the CNPS mission statement of increasing understanding and appreciation of California’s native plants and preserving them in their natural habitat through scientific activities, education, and conservation.

Although Don was active in the Society since its founding, he was best known as the Field Trip Chair for the El Dorado Chapter. A life-long resident of Placerville (with the exception of attendance at the University of California at Los Angeles and a few subsequent years in southern California), his knowledge of the hidden botanical resources of both the Eldorado National Forest and El Dorado County lowlands was impressive. This comprehensive regional field experience was honed by his long friendship with Professor Emeritus G. Ledyard Stebbins from UC Davis. Alone and in collaboration with Dr. Stebbins, Don botanized and developed over 30 plant lists from one end of El Dorado County to the other, as well as numerous other lists for Alpine, Amador, and Placer Counties. With the El Dorado Chapter’s inception in 1994, Don put his knowledge to use by leading trips from the foothills to the Sierra crest. His popularity as a field trip leader was well-deserved as he did the difficult job of making natural history accessible to novices by explaining basic Sierra Nevada geology and major plant communities while concurrently pointing out unusual species for what he gracefully called “the graduate botanists.” Knowing both the art and the science of leading a plant walk for overflow crowds is a fairly rare talent which requires the ability to explain the natural world on different levels according to people’s backgrounds and interest levels. In addition to reliably copying and collating plant lists, Don was also personable and fun out in the field. When plastic collecting bags had been left behind, Don warned against the lethal consequences of putting plant specimens in “the pocket of death.”

Don was a charter member of the Society who participated in the inaugural rare plant conference which resulted in the first rare plant list entitled “Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California” in December 1974. This was the most detailed compilation of rare plant data for any state and quickly became the most widely used reference in California by the staffs of land use agencies, private consultants, conservationists, and botanists. The inventory was truly an idea whose time had come: it is currently in its sixth edition.

Because of his extensive knowledge of the Eldorado National Forest, Don was instrumental in helping to develop a Forest flora which now includes over 1250 taxa. He also worked with Dr. Stebbins and others to ensure that key botanical resources on the Forest were protected through designation of five botanical Special Interest Areas (SIAs). These areas at Round Top, Traverse Creek, Leonardi Falls, Rock Creek, and Wrights Lake Bog provide opportunities for botanists to study the flora of the central Sierra Nevada as well as highly accessible recreational opportunities for wildflower enthusiasts of all ages. Subsequently, Don was active in the development of a management plan for the Traverse Creek Botanical Special Interest Area near Georgetown, California, and his continued oversight helped to prevent it from becoming an over-developed equestrian site. Don lobbied the Forest Service to include a unique grove of old-growth mountain hemlock as a research natural area. This site remains under consideration for such a designation. Throughout the nineties, Don also worked as a volunteer in the Eldorado National Forest conducting rare plant surveys. He helped the Pacific Ranger District to complete needed surveys in support of timber sales, road construction, recreation developments and prescribed burning. Furthermore, Don taught newly hired temporary employees about the forest flora, greatly accelerating their acquisition of botanical knowledge. Partly as a result of these efforts, the Eldorado National Forest has gained national recognition for its rare plant program, with over 100 new plant occurrences recorded for the Forest during the past several years.

In 1996, Don assembled a plant list for the Shingle Springs Rancheria, a local Indian reservation along Highway 50 in El Dorado County. His list included information on the traditional uses of native plants, an effort that increased the Rancheria’s residents’ knowledge of the value of native plants for food and medicines. He has also assisted in the layout and construction of a nature trail on the Rancheria and conducted tours there for Native American children.

As a landowner of a small non-industrial forest at mid-elevation east of Georgetown, Don was a careful land steward who managed his property for both a healthy forest and the maintenance of biological diversity. His property contains a small wet meadow called Kings Meadow; Don had cattle grazing there for a short period after seed set to remove thatch build-up, and he also cut out invading lodgepole pine from the edges to keep the meadow open. Around desirable plants on the drier upland sites, he raked to spread seeds and get them down through the thick pine needle duff. The flora for Kings Meadow now includes over 250 vascular plants, including Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), twinflower (Linnaea borealis var. longiflora), sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Sierra sweet bay (Myrica hartwegii), the rare red form of Alpine lily (Lilium parvum), and seven species of orchids. Don’s curiosity also led him to collect and have identified the sixteen species of lichens from Kings Meadow. A favorite destination for chapter field trips where a number of people have learned mid-Sierran plant identification, Kings Meadow expressed Don Smith’s spirit. He was the backbone of the El Dorado Chapter as a field trip leader who loved nature and generously and unpretentiously shared the knowledge acquired over a lifetime in the Sierra Nevada and as a citizen who cared about the public lands that the US Forest Service is entrusted to manage for multiple use. His concern for our natural heritage, manifested in so many ways, is still an inspiration to the whole chapter.

Don Smith at Grass Lake, talking about cotton grass.
Don Smith at Grass Lake, talking about cotton grass.