Fire Mitigation and Forest Health update | August 2016


By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO

A workshop focused on bridging science and vegetation management in the Mayacamas to Berryessa region

Managing a mosaic of ecosystems

It turns out that the forested ecosystems of the inner coast ranges of Northern California may have little in common, especially in terms of fire regime, with the more iconic coastal forests typical of the mountain ranges that start just to the west of Pepperwood.  At our May workshop titled Fire Mitigation and Forest Health in the Mayacamas to Berryessa Region, a joint production of Pepperwood with the Bureau of Land Management, that was one of the major take home messages.

When you think of the coastal mountains pierced by the Russian River, around Guerneville, Occidental, and Cazadero, you are struck by the stands of statuesque redwood and Douglas-fir. These dense, dark green, and carbon-rich ecosystems can feel untouched by time, even when coming back as second growth, post harvest.  These timber-bearing systems are relatively well-studied because of their economic value. With an intense coastal influence creating high rainfall and dense fog that feeds the trees moisture during the summer, fire is a relatively rare occurrence.  We did learn however, that the indigenous peoples who stewarded this land back to at least the last ice age more than 10 millennia ago, did use fire even in the redwoods as a management tool.

Inner coast range forests, like those of Sonoma Mountain, the Mayacamas Mountains, and the Blue-Ridge Berryessa Range—which frame the Sonoma, Alexander and Napa Valleys—feature a mosaic of conifers interspersed with oak woodlands and mixed hardwoods, plus patches of chaparral.  Chaparral stands grow in frequency, size and geographic extent as you move increasingly inland, away from the sea.  Over short distances, if you take a trail that wraps around a mountain, you may start in a dark cool Douglas-fir forest if on slopes facing north. As you wind your way around the mountain until you face south, you may discover increasingly open, shrubby terrain showing bare soils. And if it’s a hot day, believe me, you will soon feel the effect of the disappearing shade!

Have you ever hiked off trail in chaparral country?  Probably not—deer of are one of the few species who seem to think that is fun, or perhaps they just feel safe concealed by the thorny shrubs that discourage others.  Field researchers have to bring machetes to cut through that stuff when a sampling site chosen in the office via Google Earth turns out to be encased in chaparral. That’s chaparral—a community of some tough, drought-resistant, often spiky, fire-loving plants. As one who has more than a mild phobia of death by dehydration, hot dry chaparral landscapes feel more like a desert to me than a “forest.” But these lands have their own brand of austere beauty, reminiscent of ancient holy lands where solitude was once sought, at least in the Hollywood representations shot in the chaparral of Southern California.

I was recently at a joint US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management workshop for a climate vulnerability assessment spanning the Northern California region from north of the San Francisco Bay, to west of the Central Valley, to the Oregon border (which includes our Mayacamas to Berryessa region). The suggestion had been made by the organizers to “cut out” chaparral zones from the study, because of how different it was from other vegetation types.  Those working on the ground came back with a clear response: we can’t cut it out—it’s everywhere! From Pepperwood to Mendocino National Forest to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, to the new Snow Mountain Berryessa National Monument, land managers are dealing with a forest-shrub patchwork punctuated in places by grassland meadows.

The workshop: bridging from science to practice

Our spring invitational workshop was a major culmination of our Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Initiative launched in 2015, and was specifically designed to bring scientific researchers and land managers together to compare notes on what we know and what we don’t know about the relationship between fire, forest ecology, and vegetation management in the inner coast ranges of Northern California. It became rapidly clear that as a community we need to tackle the thorny issue of how to manage a patchwork system of forest plus chaparral.  Throughout the sessions we were constantly aware of the need to balance containment of fire hazards to human health and property while acknowledging the natural role of fire in this landscape, and how historical approaches to fire suppression have actually increased the potential severity of fires today.

We were honored to hear fire ecology highlights from experts including Dr. Scott Stephens of UC Berkeley and Dr. Jon Keeley of the US Geologic Survey.  I learned a lot about fire adaptive strategies of chaparral plants, including how fire can actually stimulate seeds to sprout, and that many plants are “stump sprouters,” a strategy that enables them to spring back after a fire. Pepperwood’s Native Advisory Council Chair, Clint McKay, shared how dominant fire would have been in this landscape prior to the arrival of American settlers.

We also learned from John Battles of UC Berkeley about how the state accounts for carbon in forested ecosystems, and from John Kelly of Conservation Fund about how to actually manage traditional north coast forests for carbon sequestration.  Land managers from the National Park Service, Forest Service, and CAL FIRE shared case studies from the field that showed how vegetation management can sometimes cause unintended consequences, especially if follow up treatments are not funded and pursued.

“What we need is an opportunity to bring our community together to look at all of these factors and their relationships,” shared participant Caitlin Cornwall of the Sonoma Ecology Center in the interactive sessions following presentations.  Folks gathered around key themes including fuels management, restoring traditional ecological management techniques—including prescribed fire—to the land, and how to advance multi-objective forest management.

Clearly there is a critical need to continue this groundbreaking dialogue.  With the momentum generated by this workshop, we now have a suite of ideas for follow up activities generated by attendees.  Pepperwood is committed to continuing to serve as a backbone for filling these critical gaps in both research and practice.  Stay tuned to upcoming Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Initiative updates to see how this process unfolds.

Check out the Proceedings from the workshop here.

Read an article about the workshop in the BLM’s NewsBytes.


Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Initiative: Fall 2016 update

In addition to our spring Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Workshop, Pepperwood has been advancing this initiative on several fronts this summer.

  • Having completed a June 2016 prescribed burn in our grasslands, we are now busy completing follow up monitoring and planning for a range of experimental native grass restoration treatments. This work will inform best management practices around helping burned areas recover. Click here to watch a video and read more about the burn.
  • In July we released a draft version of our Adaptive Management Plan for review, which includes a CAL FIRE approved Forest Management Plan for the preserve. We will be seeking feedback from experts around the region from now through October before it goes final. The significance of this Adaptive Management Plan extends well beyond Pepperwood—we hope it will serve as a model and help inform management at other preserves, parks, and open spaces throughout our region. Click here to check out the draft Adaptive Management Plan.
  • We are working with CAL FIRE to prepare for a second prescribed burn treatment in Fall 2016, which will be contingent on weather conditions. Preparations include clearing excess fuels from the site and conducting baseline “before-treatment” measurements of vegetation to compare to “post-treatment” conditions over time.
  • Pepperwood is participating in two workshops, one hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, and one hosted by Graton Rancheria, to link climate adaptation strategies to traditional ecological knowledge, including how climate change affects fire risks and use of prescribed fire as a fire prevention measure.

We thank the Bureau of Land Management and our incredible Pepperwood donors for support of this cutting-edge initiative!


  1. Linda McJannet says:

    Terrific event, great article!

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