The coast redwood forests of Northern California are often perceived as a remnant of paleo-history, a land, and a place seemingly lost in time, and sheltered from the modern age by the pale shadow of the redwood curtain. For many across the country and the world, the coast redwood forests are a dark, impenetrable, and primeval place, where one may at once be lost, and found.
Sadly, the wild and iconic vision of a vast, mighty, and vibrant forest ecosystem set-aside from time and the march of human progress is far more hyperbole and fantasy than present-day reality here in the redwoods. A forest type that once spanned the majority of the northern hemisphere, growing and evolving for 18 million years or more, and that spanned some 2 million acres across Northern California’s rugged and scenic coastline has been reduced to small, isolated and disjunct remnant fragments in less than 200 years since European-American settlement. Today, Save-the-Redwoods League estimates that approximately 120,000 acres, or five percent, of the original old-growth coast redwood forest remains, with 95 percent of the land now in a previously-logged condition, and bearing scant resemblance to the forest that once was.
The vast majority of remaining old-growth coast redwood forest is now contained in our redwood parks and reserve systems, which according to estimates from Save-the-Redwoods League, constitutes only 23 percent of the original forest land-base. Slauson (2012) estimates that greater than 50 percent of the land-base in our redwood parks and reserve systems is actually comprised of previously-logged stands of second and third-growth forest and not old-growth.
Restoration of the forest itself in the range of the coast redwoods is a monumental and daunting task that is only now beginning to take place, and the art, science, and economic viability of forest restoration in the redwoods is experimental, at best. Slauson (2012) aptly describes the importance of this work, stating, “The management of second growth forests to accelerate the restoration of late-successional and old growth characteristics will be one of the greatest challenges for conservation in the redwood region over the next century.”
Enter the most unlikely of creatures, the seemingly long-forgotten resident of our coast redwood forest ecosystems, the Humboldt marten. The story of the Humboldt marten serves as a synergistic metaphor that runs parallel and is very complimentary to that of our coastal redwood forest ecosystem. The marten was trapped extensively for its pelts in the early years of European-American exploration and settlement in the redwoods, and with the advent of aggressive logging of the vast majority of the redwood forest old-growth, upon which the Humboldt marten depends, it was once thought that this small, cat-size member of the weasel family had been lost. That is, until 1996, when this stealth, highly allusive, and unassuming creature was accidentally captured on a wildlife survey camera in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, one of the four parks that in the present-day make up the jointly-administered Redwood National and State Parks system. Contemporary monitoring and research suggests that the Humboldt marten, like the old-growth coast redwood forest, has been extirpated from 95 percent of its original range; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2015) now estimates that less than 100 total individuals persist in the wild today, and that these individuals represent only two very small, extremely isolated population segments in California, and a small population along the coast in Southern Oregon.
Isolation and fragmentation of the coast redwood forest landscape, associated increases in road-densities, and the resultant degradation of the ecological integrity of the forest are as dangerous and damaging for the survival and recovery of the Humboldt marten as they are for our remnant coastal old-growth redwood forests. Logging and conversion of the vast majority of our complex old-growth redwood forest assemblages to young, even-aged, sterile, and homogenous early seral plantations threaten to cause the extinction of both the original redwood forest as a functional ecosystem, and of the Humboldt marten, whose small, fragmented and isolated populations are highly vulnerable to single catastrophic events, such as wildfire, due to the loss of ability for movement, dispersal, inter-breeding, and exchange of vital genetic diversity for the species.
The Humboldt marten relies on complex old-growth forest assemblages here in the range of the coast redwoods, which are often characterized by far more than the iconic giant old-growth trees. In addition to the large, old trees, the marten also relies on large dead trees, both standing snags, and downed logs, branches, and other forest woody material in order to feed, breed, rest, and find cover. Additionally, the marten is known to prefer old-growth forest areas with thick, dense, and complex under growth layers comprised of ferns, forbs, berries, and flowers. Such features, while common in an old-growth setting, are not prevalent in previously-managed forest stands in the coast redwoods. This is not only bad for the marten, but also for the forest itself, as well as our bioregional and global climate. Old-growth coast redwood forests are now world-renowned for their tremendous densities of biomass, and incomparable ability to store and sequester carbon dioxide. These critical forest ecosystem processes are just as depended upon biomass comprising of the herbaceous undergrowth as they are upon the giant trees we all know and love.
The conversion of the vast majority of our forested landscape to early seral conditions has resulted in a one-two-punch effect for the Humboldt marten. On the one hand, historic and contemporary logging and conversion of the forest from old-growth to early seral conditions have significantly reduced the range and available habitat for the species, and at the same time facilitating expansion in the historic range of two of the marten’s primary predators, the Pacific fisher, and the bobcat. Slauson (2012) theorizes that restoration in the coast redwood forest can and must go hand-in-hand with habitat connectivity and restoration for the Humboldt marten, stating, “[s]uccessful restoration of the old-growth forest mesocarnivore assemblage in the redwood region will require an increase in the amount and connectivity of old forest conditions and reduction of road densities which should result in the expansion of the remnant Humboldt marten population and decreases in the range and abundance of the fisher and bobcat.”
Restoration, regeneration, and reconnection of our coastal old-growth redwood forests simply cannot be accomplished by focusing on our pre-existent parks and reserves alone; similarly, conservation and recovery of the Humboldt marten cannot be accomplished by focusing on our public lands alone. Landscape-level restoration and connectivity across land use designations and ownership classifications and boundaries, public and private alike, will be necessary to protect and reinvigorate critical and highly-imperiled ecological functions and processes in our remnant fragments of old-growth redwood forest, and to maintain the biological and genetic viability of the Humboldt marten.
At first glance, it may seem that the solutions to how restoration and connectivity in the coast redwood forest can be accomplished are as stealth and allusive as the Humboldt marten, given that so little old-growth remains, and that vast tracts of our redwood forestlands are now privately-owned and primarily managed for industrial timber production. Here, the Humboldt marten may unwittingly be the devisor of its own rescue plan, and thereby the rescuer of our old-growth coast redwood ecosystems as well.
One of the key remaining small, but highly isolated populations of the Humboldt marten is quietly hanging on along the interface between the coast redwood forest and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. Here, lands are owned and managed by the Redwood National and State Parks system, the Yurok Tribe, Six Rivers National Forest, and Green Diamond Resource Company. The overwhelming majority of the redwoods surrounding and adjacent to the Redwood National and State Parks system are owned by either Green Diamond or the Yurok Tribe. These lands are critical for the viability and recovery of both the Humboldt marten and our coastal redwood forests.
Since 2010, EPIC has advocated to protect and recover the Humboldt marten, and by extension, creating an impetus for landscape-level restoration and connectivity in the coast redwoods. We have used existing environmental laws designed to protect imperiled species like the marten as a proxy for trying to affect landscape management regime changes. EPIC’s 2010 petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Humboldt marten as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act spurred the creation of the Humboldt Marten Conservation Group, a working group comprised of agency, land owners, and scientists, all of whom are now working to draft a long-term conservation and recovery plan for the marten, a vital underpinning that involves landscape level forest habitat restoration and reconnection to help marten populations stabilize, facilitate greater movement and dispersal, and eventually help facilitate recovery.
In 2015, EPIC also petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the Humboldt marten as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act, hoping to marshal the resources and direct involvement of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and create greater opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and create more avenues for available funding through state-generated processes.
The old quip that humans “can’t see the forest for the trees,” at times, serves as a sobering allegory as we revisit the history and implications of past intensive logging of our old-growth trees in the coast redwoods. Fortunately, if we look closely enough, there yet remains, hiding quietly and patiently in the deep, dark shadows, the most unlikely of creatures that can serve as the impetus for us to restore, rebuild, and reconnect.