Pepperwood is now a living laboratory for land stewardship that combines modern science and traditional ecological knowledge to define best practices for our community under our rapidly changing climate.

Pre-European Contact

Pepperwood is privileged to work with our Native Advisory Council, whose knowledge and guidance allows us to place the preserve’s current management within the context of traditional practices. These practices, most likely developed since the last ice age (14,000 years before today), contrast significantly with more intensive European and US land uses implemented over a relatively short time period (less than 200 years).

Native Advisory Council Chair & Indigenous Education Coordinator, Clint McKay, shared specific indigenous management practices that would have been used at the preserve, as well as current opportunities to restore native approaches to land stewardship. Pre-European contact, Wappo villages were widely distributed in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties. Wappo land management practices, which we assume comprised the management regime of Pepperwood, were very similar to those practiced by their neighbors, the Pomo, Miwok, and Sotoyome. Most likely the entire North Bay region shared a cultural ecology over multiple thousands of years, which regarded habitat management an ancient and sacred partnership between humans and nature.

Even today, no plant is planted, pruned, or coppiced without a shared acknowledgement of the connection between it and the person collecting its leaves, branches, roots, or bark. As one Pomo woman eloquently said, “Never take without asking and never ask without giving thanks.” Likewise, at the societal level, this sacred relationship is acknowledged with elaborate ceremonies that celebrate seasonally important resources, such as the Wappo’s annual strawberry festival (Sawyer 1978; J. Parker pers. comm. 2010; C. McKay pers. comm. 2015). Ethnographic and archaeological studies, as well as oral histories, all indicate that tribal land and water management entailed a complex set of activities strategically designed to support resource abundance (Barrett 1908, Anderson 2005). Seeds of desirable plants were saved and planted, and undesirable plants were removed. Plants were cultivated with digging sticks, pruned, thinned out, and sometimes coppiced to encourage production. In particular, three oak woodlands species—California black oak (Quercus kelloggii), tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), and blue oak (Quercus douglasii)—were specially cultivated.

Sage species (called chia by Native Californians) in the genus Salvia and Indian clover (Trifolium albopurpureum and T. amoenum) were both maintained in monocultures of sometimes ten or more acres. This level of production was also true for seed crops like California fescue (Festuca californica) and numerous other plants that provided edible roots and bulbs. Plant communities that offered fiber and basketry resources like dogbane, willow, sedge, bulrush, redbud, and bracken fern, were also encouraged. Local tribes practiced a sophisticated plant-based ethno-pharmacology that used dozens of species to treat all the most common human ailments including skin rashes, pulmonary issues, headaches, pain, digestive difficulties, and eye infections (Goodrich et al. 1996). Such intense habitat manipulation had a profound effect on local animal communities.

The Native practice of encouraging willow, sedge, and bulrush kept river and stream banks secure and fostered healthy salmon and steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) populations. These species played a critical role in the local food chain. Their four annual runs through what is now called the Laguna de Santa Rosa also delivered large volumes of marine nutrients into upland spawning grounds in the headwater creeks of the Pepperwood region. Likewise, Native-managed meadowlands supported vast herds of deer and tule elk (Cervus canadensis subsp. nannodes) and their predators. This mosaic of healthy habitats also supported a diverse array of bird life (Anderson 2005; C. McKay pers. comm. 2015).

Besides cultivation practices, the most powerful Native land management tool was fire. Every North Bay habitat type was likely burned on a regular basis (M.K. Anderson pers. comm. 2012), and sometimes multiple times at the same site within a decade. Burns at the end of summer (before seed germination) were used to eliminate undesirable plants such as poison oak, thickets of Douglas-fir saplings, overly dense chaparral, and tanoaks in redwood forests (M.K. Anderson pers. comm. 2012; C. McKay pers. comm. 2015). Fall burns were used to encourage particular plant communities that respond well to fire, and those that benefit from the carbon and other nutrients fires release into the soil. For example, Native knowledge suggests that their three favorite oak species increase acorn production after the application of gentle fall fires.

European Settlement and Mexican Land Grant Period: 1820–1880

We hypothesize that the most significant human impacts at the preserve were caused by the transition from Native American land management practices to those of the earliest European settlers starting in the 1820s (Dawson 2008, Evett et al. 2013). We further assume that the landscape recorded by the earliest European and American surveyors reflected millennia of Native Californian land management practices, changes to which occurred rapidly upon the arrival of the Spanish/Mexican regimes.

The region around Pepperwood’s valleys and lowlands were claimed by the Mexican government’s Land Grant Program, whose maps and descriptions of local vegetation have helped reveal the historical ecology of the preserve (Dawson 2008, Evett et al. 2013). Widespread livestock grazing started with the establishment of the missions and then expanded with the award of these Mexican land grants to prominent settlers (Bartolome et al. 2007). Pepperwood was within the boundaries of the 17,000-acre Rancho Mallacomes land grant, which was awarded in 1843 to Jose de los Santos Berreyesa, the last alcalde of Alta California.

These early settlers prohibited Native Americans from burning grasslands with the intention of protecting livestock forage, while at the same time introducing a host of European annual grasses and weeds. In addition to these ecological impacts, European settlement took a heavy direct toll on the Native Californians stewarding these lands. The neighboring Sotoyome tribe, who had signed a peace treaty with General Vallejo in 1837, were devastated by a smallpox epidemic later that year (Smilie 1975). According to Jestes (2012) the 1837 outbreak of smallpox originated at Fort Ross and dramatically decreased native populations throughout Sonoma and Napa counties to an estimated 3,500–5,000 in 1851. Due in large part to the Gold Rush, the number of settlers in Sonoma County grew from just 500 in 1850 to 8,000 in 1858, and then to an estimated 11,000 by 1860 (Redwood Empire Social History Project 1983).

The US General Land Office surveys recorded thousands of observations of the county’s upland vegetation after California became a part of the United States in 1850. The first such survey available for Pepperwood describes the area to the north of Telegraph Hill as “dotted with horses and cattle” (Tracy 1858). The productive native perennial grasses of the coastal valleys made them ideal for raising cattle and sheep to meet the growing population’s demand for hides, tallow and meat (Burcham 1961, Ford and Hayes 2007). As domestic grazers increased, invasive species also spread throughout these grasslands, decreasing forage quality (Burcham 1961). Non-native annual grasses further dominated as native perennial species were overgrazed during several periods of extended drought (Howard 1998).

Early settlers also dramatically impacted the area’s native fauna. Large mammals, particularly carnivores and tule elk, were hunted and displaced to the point of extirpation, and by 1870 only 30 tule elk remained in California. The fur trapping industry also took a toll on populations of smaller mammals. Amphibian population declines began in our region with habitat modification and impacts to populations heavily harvested for food during the gold rush era. Amphibian population declines continued dramatically through the 20th century due to habitat loss, invasive species, and introduced disease. The resulting impacts of these biodiversity losses on disturbance regimes, the food chain, and interdependent species guilds are poorly understood.

The Early US Period: 1880–1978

Land and water use practices, particularly intensive livestock grazing, continued to transform the region’s hydrology, flora, and fauna. As the population grew in the lowlands below Pepperwood in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many wetlands and wet meadows were drained and diked and streams were channelized. “Knick points” or “head cuts” caused by channel excavation created a mechanism whereby stream bed erosion moved upstream into the foothills where Pepperwood lies. We hypothesize that channel incision during this time impacted the preserve's streams, although we are not sure to what extent. Combined with the compaction and bank erosion likely attributable to heavy grazing, we assume a cumulative impact of stream bed erosion and related slumps and hill slope landslides. All regional coldwater fisheries declined precipitously during this period, particularly Coho salmon (Onchoryhnchus kisutch) which was pushed to the brink of extinction in the entire Russian River basin thanks to habitat and flow modifications.

Redwood and Douglas-fir were preferred species for use in construction during this time, and much of the region was heavily logged to construct San Francisco both before and after the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, it is not known how heavily the local forests of Pepperwood and its environs were logged. Numerous homesteads sprang up on what is now the preserve, which were cultivated by families including the Carrillo brothers, the Garrisons, the Goodman Family, the McCanns, the Strebel clan, and the Weimars. These homesteaders ran domestic livestock, planted crops including grapes, plums, apples, and pears, and developed roads and water resources. Vineyard row mounds can still be detected along some of Pepperwood’s grassy ridges. Fencing found throughout the preserve indicates sheep once grazed the grasslands. The Garrisons also logged hardwood in Garrison Canyon for a charcoal 15 kiln located near Mark West Lodge. The Oregon oak forest in Garrison Canyon is typified by small diameter oaks which may be the result of trees planted following this harvesting for charcoal production.

Jack McCann lived at Pepperwood until 1948. He sold 1,300 acres to Phil Finnel of San Francisco who then sold it to Ken Bechtel in 1952. Mr. Bechtel continued to add parcels to Pepperwood, eventually acquiring approximately 8,000 acres including what is now known as Knights Valley Ranch. The Bechtels ran cattle on their land and developed small livestock watering reservoirs that still exist today. In the fall of 1964, the Hanley fire burnt from Calistoga to the outskirts of Santa Rosa, including most of Pepperwood except Garrison Canyon and Martin Creek. A bulldozer scar on the ridge east of the Garrison house remains from efforts to protect the property, and many of the oak trees at Pepperwood still bear fire scars. Many Douglas-fir trees were killed, with some still standing as snags around the preserve. Most stands of chaparral were renewed, and many madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and California bay tree (Umbellularia californica) stands are also stump sprouts from after the 1964 fire. In September 1965 another fire (PG&E #10) burned the length of the northwestern arm and Bald Hills on the neighboring property, ending just north of Martin Creek.

Recent Management: 1979–2005

By 1979 Sonoma County’s population had surpassed 280,000 due to the growth of its nine cities (Figure 2.2). As the local economy grew, large swaths of formerly agricultural and open space were converted to housing and commercial development. The resulting landscape fragmentation reduced its permeability to wildlife, and during this period federal and state wildlife agencies listed several species as being threatened with extinction. The local wine industry also flourished, converting additional acreage to intensive agriculture. Increased water extraction for these domestic and agricultural uses began to deplete aquifers and streamflows.

The value of the preserve as protected headwaters and a habitat refuge increased as the landscape around it was developed for human use. In 1979, Kenneth and Nancy Bechtel donated 3,117 acres of land to the California Academy of Sciences and the Pepperwood Preserve was created. Under the management of biologist Greg deNevers, the Academy developed a scientific baseline of the preserve’s natural resources including geologic maps; a list of vascular vegetation; a plant collection; and species lists of reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds. Mr. de Nevers removed some invasive plants, focusing on tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and French broom (Genista monspessulana). He also began removing Douglas-fir saplings that were encroaching into oak woodlands and removed miles of old fencing. Winter and spring cattle grazing continued during the Academy’s tenure, and a detailed description of the grazing regime under their ownership can be found in the history section of the Conservation Grazing Plan for Pepperwood Preserve (Gillogly et al. 2016).

On July 4, 1995, a 17-acre grass fire burned the area between the Goodman homestead and Three Tree Hill. About two acres of serpentine chaparral at the Pepperwood entrance burned in August 2001, sparked by a neighbor's mowing activities.

Pepperwood Foundation Management: 2005–Present

In 2005, the Pepperwood Foundation (a 501(c)3 public charity) was established by Herb and Jane Dwight to assume stewardship of the preserve from the California Academy of Sciences. The Pepperwood Foundation hosts on-site programs to enhance the biological diversity of the preserve and to promote natural science education and research. This has been made possible, in part, through the construction and opening of the Dwight Center in 2010, the dedication of the Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium in 2012, and the establishment of the Stephen J. Barnhart Internship fund in 2012, which supports Santa Rosa Junior College students conducting ecological research at the preserve.

Pepperwood’s staff grew from three in 2005 to 18 in 2017. These staff members support a robust education initiative, active research and monitoring programs, and the comprehensive natural resource management activities described in this document. In 2010 Pepperwood became home to the Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3) which advises on long-term research strategies and monitoring to understand the relationship of climate variability and climate trends to ecosystem processes. In 2015 Pepperwood focused this effort on bringing scientists and land managers together to improve our understanding of the relationships between fire, forest health, and land management and to advance best management practices by federal, state, local, and private land and water managers based in the Mayacamas to Berryessa Coast Range regions.

In 2017, the Tubbs Fire burned approximately 95 percent of the preserve, destroying several mission-critical facilities. Then, in 2019 the preserve burned again in the Kincade Fire, where about 60 percent of the preserve burned and no facilities were destroyed.