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The Case for Restoration in the Redwoods

Forest Thinning in Headwaters. Photo Credit BLM.2

Forest thinning project in Headwaters. Photo Credit BLM.

California’s coastal redwood forests are the stuff that myth and legend are made of, like a species of dinosaur that has somehow managed to persist into the modern age. At one time, redwood forests grew across the northern hemisphere, with the oldest-known fossil evidence dating back some 200 million years to the Jurassic Period.

Once, the ancient coastal redwood forests spanned some two million acres of California’s scenic and rugged coastline from Big Sur all the way to the Oregon border. And, these were certainly no ordinary forests. The coastal redwood forest encountered by Europeans in the 1850’s contained trees of as much as 300-feet tall, and as much as 25-feet wide.

Few forests in the world have comparable species assemblages, enormous tree sizes, rich and structurally-complex canopies, soil productivity or exceptional biomass, due to the temperate climate, fog, and precipitation which create ideal growing conditions for giant trees, fish, wildlife, and a stunning array of plants, lichens, and fungi. Iconic species such as coho salmon, the marbled murrelet, and the northern spotted owl were once abundant and thrived in the lush and rich old-growth coastal redwood forest ecosystem. These old-growth forests were able to sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide and naturally regulated water abundance and availability. Time and evolution had created a seemingly-perfect balance in the redwood forest ecosystem.

Today, many still think of the coastal redwood forests as a dark, primeval rainforest, such as those depicted in the likes of Star Wars and Jurassic Park. However, the progress of human activity over the last 150 years has resulted in a reality which is in stark contrast to the idyllic images portrayed in Hollywood.

The “progress” of human activity over the last 150 years has resulted in a landscape that would be unrecognizable to those first European-American settlers. Once, the ancient coastal redwood forests spanned some two million acres of California’s scenic and rugged coastline, from Big Sur all the way to the Oregon border. By the time Redwood National Park was created in 1968, a mere 100 years after the advent of European-American settlement, the once vast and mighty coastal old-growth redwood forest had been reduced to an estimated 10 percent of its original range. By the close of the 20th century, it was estimated that only five percent of the old-growth coastal redwood forest remained. And so it is today.

Compared to the mixed-conifer forests to the east of the redwood belt, very little of the once vast redwood forest has been set aside as public land. According to estimates provided by Save the Redwoods League, approximately 23 percent of the original coastal redwood forest ecosystem land base is publically-held in parks and reserves, with the remaining 77 percent privately-held and managed for various other purposes. In Humboldt County, two timber companies, Humboldt Redwood Company and Green Diamond Resource Company, manage a combined 600,000-acres of industrial forestland, most of which is squarely situated in the historic range of the coast redwoods.

Historic and contemporary industrial logging in the range of the coast redwood forests has left an indelible mark on the condition of these once-pristine forestlands. Even our most precious remaining resources, our redwood parks and reserves, contain large areas where the scars of past logging and land management can be seen and felt. For example, Redwood National Park includes some 38,000-acres of forestland that was clearcut logged from1950 to1978. These second-growth forests are in varying states of disrepair and recovery in the wake of intensive historic forestry operations.

Similarly, some 60 percent of the land base in the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve—set aside for its outstanding remaining old-growth redwood forests—was logged in the past and is not actually comprised of pristine old-growth forest. Instead, the majority of the land base in the Headwaters Forest Reserve is actually young, regenerating second-growth forest.

The ecological legacy of historic and contemporary forest management in the redwoods is all too apparent today. For example, following the initial clearcutting of the 1950–1970’s in what is now Redwood National Park, the cutover land was aggressively reseeded and replanted—all too often not with local seed sources. These industrial practices altered the composition of the forest. Because this land was being managed for timber production, what was once old-growth redwoods were often re-seeded with Douglas-fir. Douglas-fir grows faster than redwoods, which is ideal if you are trying to turn a quick profit off the land, but Douglas-fir’s rapid early growth means that it often outcompetes redwoods in their early stages of development. In what is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve, re-planting was aggressively pursued after industrial logging operations, with Douglas-fir trees outcompeting redwoods in the young, newly-regenerating stands.

The results of the previous logging and regeneration activities in Redwood National Park, the Headwaters Forest Reserve, and on privately-managed industrial timberlands in the region are forest conditions which are unhealthy and unnatural. While the timing, and methods of logging and regeneration have varied over time, regenerating coastal redwood stands in Redwood National Park, the Headwaters Forest Reserve, and even on privately-managed timberlands in the region bare several characteristics in common.

thinning pic_pre2. Photo Credit BLM

Pre-thinning in Headwaters Forest Reserve. Photo Credit BLM.

Firstly, aggressive replanting activities have resulted in the establishment of an overly-dense forest with far too many trees-per-acre when compared to natural conditions. For example, in the Headwaters Forest Reserve, old-growth redwood forest contain between 69–78 trees-per-acre. By sharp contrast, previously-harvested regenerating stands in Redwood National Park have a density of 1,000 to even 3,000 trees-per-acre. These stands are structurally homogenous—all are approximately the same age and height. Unlike an old-growth forest, with breaks and variations in canopy cover which allows light to filter to berry bushes and other undergrowth, these regenerating stands are so densely packed with underperforming trees that very little light reaches the understory or the forest floor, thus further simplifying the forest. On industrially-managed forestlands in the range of the coast redwood, regenerating young plantations are often commercially thinned within the first 20 years after reestablishment in order to reduce stand densities and provide for less competition and more availability of light and growing space for residual trees, a process commonly referred to as “release.” However, the absence of such management in recovering forest stands has resulted in unhealthy forest stand conditions because far too many trees are regenerating at the same time.

Secondly, many regenerating stands in the range of the coast redwood forest are now out-of-balance in terms of tree species and their dominance. Forest species composition was significantly skewed towards faster-growing Douglas-fir post-logging, resulting in a diminishment of redwood trees. In the Headwaters Forest Reserve, for example, redwood dominates the stand component structure when compared to Douglas-fir in old-growth stands by a large proportion. In regenerating stands, by contrast, Douglas-fir makes up as much as 61 percent of trees, even post-restorative thinning.

Finally, these plantations may exhibit fire patterns unnatural for redwood forests. The excessive number of small, underperforming trees act as ladder fuels, allowing fire to spread from creeping surface fires to more severe crown fires. Because of the forest’s structural homogeneity, once fire reaches the canopy it can easily jump from tree top to tree top causing a stand replacing fire and setting the regenerating forest back to zero much like a clearcut. Old-growth redwood forests, by stark contrast, are much more fire-resistant due to large tree size with tight wood grain and thick bark, and sufficient spacing between trees to discourage crown fires from jumping from tree to tree.

Restorative forest management is ongoing in Redwood National Park, in Del Norte Redwoods State Park, and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and in the Headwaters Forest Reserve. Restorative forest management activities are a far cry from the intensive, industrial-scale logging to which we have mostly become accustomed.

thinning pic_post2 Photo Credit BLM

Post-thinning in Headwaters Forest Reserve. Photo Credit BLM.

Restorative thinning was mandated for cut-over lands in Redwood National Park in 1978 when Congress, as part of the Redwood National Park expansion legislation, mandated that “a program for the rehabilitation of areas within and upstream from the park contributing significant sedimentation because of past logging disturbances and road conditions” be developed in light of the damage caused by ongoing logging operations within the Redwood Creek watershed that threatened to degrade park values and resources. In Headwaters Forest Reserve, restorative forest management has focused on thinning out smaller trees (less than 12” diameter at breast height), and has focused on the removal of Douglas-fir in an attempt to restore species balance. Importantly, other forest restoration activities, such as removal or remediation of poorly constructed roads, go hand-in-hand with restorative thinning activities as part of a holistic program of watershed restoration.

The long-term benefit of restorative forest management in the redwood region is that it can be tailored and implemented to re-grow lost old-growth forest stand conditions. Improving stocking levels, tree-spacing, species balance, stand structure and complexity, and understory vegetation development can all be accomplished through restorative forest management, and can, in turn, accelerate the recovery of the forest to more natural, pre-logging conditions.

Given that only five percent of our pristine old-growth forests remain in the redwood region, it is imperative to have a vision to protect what’s left and to restore the rest. This is a monumental undertaking that will require cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. And, the stakes could not possibly be higher—in an era where we face unprecedented drought and other effects of a changing climate, and with mass species extinction on a global scale, our coastal redwood forests represent a vestige of hope for the future of our planet and all the life that depends upon it.


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