Douglas Fir Forests

– this is another of my weekly posts reprinted from Bruce Bratton’s admirable weekly e-news publication at brattononline.com

According to tradition, people are hauling Douglas fir trees into their homes and decorating them for annual winter rituals. Some purchase dense, pruned trees, while others harvest spindly saplings from the woods (aka “Charlie Brown trees”). Soon, strings of lights cast needle shadows on the walls and ceiling, infants gurgle and sputter with delight, wide eyed at the beauty. The unique Douglas fir scent fills the air – a bright lemony pine smell. Hallways are festooned with ribboned Douglas fir garlands and people weave fir wreaths to decorate doors. In breaks between storms, on crisp cool days, we saunter into the forest, catching fresh fir scent moist with rain, sparkling in the foggy, low-angled sun rays.

Mouse Tales

Douglas fir is not a real fir- it’s a pseudo-fir, creating cones distinguished from genuine fir cones by having “the tail ends of mice” sticking out the cone. Check it out sometime- there really are what looks like two back legs with an accompanying tail poking out, so cones look like a bevy of mice are feasting on Douglas fir seeds.

The cone decoy seems to have worked, evolutionarily speaking. From Northern California though Canada, Douglas fir is the sole home of red tree mice. These mice live high in canopies and feed on only on needles. On huge branches among the complex old growth Douglas fir canopy, they maintain long lived, wickedly well-designed homes that include rooms with specific uses. If they aren’t careful while they are out harvesting needles, a spotted owl will eat them – red tree mice are a favorite and important food for this equally endangered bird. We’re apparently too far south for the red tree mouse- Santa Cruz is the near the southern end of Douglas fir’s range, and maybe there aren’t enough thick forests, or too frequent of fire, for these little critters.

Northward Ho!

Moisture-loving conifers have been retreating northward for a few thousand years, and Douglas fir may also be headed that way. There are layers of grand fir pollen up until just 15,000 years ago in the sediments of a pond in northern Santa Cruz County. The nearest grand fir is in Sonoma County, nowadays. South of here, if you look at the forest on either side of highway one south of Freedom Boulevard, you’ll see a few widely spaced straggly Douglas firs – those trees look like similar to those in the hills above Elkhorn. And that’s as far south as they go along the coast. But, north of there you’ll notice that they don’t appear to be having trouble making thick forests.

Rock Scissors Paper (Douglas fir wins)

In the rush to capture the sun, Douglas fir quickly wins against all but the coast redwood around here. Look at most any of our majestic coast live oak forests, and you’ll see Douglas fir trees winding their flexible leaders between old oak branches. Play that forward, and those oak trees will be toast, shaded and outcompeted for water by these highly invasive conifers. Douglas firs are also invading coastal scrub and coastal prairie.

Pull ‘em Up, Chop ‘em Down

Kat Anderson reported to me documentation that tribal peoples have long pulled Douglas fir seedlings as part of their tending of oak groves. The tribal peoples took over from the tree-invasion prohibiting Pleistocene megafauna. Just north of here, a remarkable recent turn of events saw reintroduction of native people land stewardship with collaboration between the Amah Mutsun and State Parks. The Quiroste village site was once in a matrix of super diverse, well-tended coastal prairie framed by managed oak woodlands, but for the last hundred years, without stewardship, those systems succumbed to Douglas fir invasion. After careful planning, and with some controversy, the tribe and State Parks have been restoring the site by clearing Douglas firs…almost like the old days, but the trees got bigger and so it takes saws and a lot of work to remove them. With their work, the area is becoming more species rich and more fire safe.

Doug Fir, Associates

While coastal prairies and coast live oak forests are much more species rich, Douglas fir forests do have their own set of interesting species associates. Instead of tree mice harvesting Douglas fir needles around here, we get ants. Anywhere there are Douglas firs in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ll find 2’ tall piles of needles teaming with ants. These are Formica integroides, a mushroom farming ant, growing their fungi food in piles of Douglas fir needles. This needle harvesting critter forms armies of harvesters walking in long and sometimes wide lanes across and down human trails: watch out…don’t be rude by stepping on them!

Orchids also seem to like growing in Douglas fir forests. Also at its southern range limit, the gorgeous Calypso orchid has been documented with ephemeral populations at UCSC and near Davenport (both gone now), but has a somewhat famous large population under a north-facing Douglas fir forest in Butano State Park. Coral root orchids also seem to prefer Douglas fir forests. Curiously, ground nesting ‘yellow jacket’ wasps seem to key into coral root populations under Douglas fir. So, maybe look very carefully before walking off trail to get a closer look at the subtle but beautiful colors of coral root orchids.

Timber!

“Douglas fir doesn’t pay for itself to harvest.” That’s what local foresters tell me. By the time they do the timber harvest planning, go through the regulatory process, carefully fell the trees, trim and haul the few logs they find that aren’t damaged/diseased, mill and dry the wood, they can’t recoup their investment because someone elsewhere has produced a similar board, cheaper. The Pacific northwest and Canada, with more lax forestry regulations and healthier Douglas fir trees, are creating cheaper Douglas fir (and similar) 2x4s for sale. So, for many years, we’ve been growing some large Douglas firs on the area’s timber lands.

Then came the CZU fire…now, there are thousands of large and small standing dead Douglas fir trees: what should we do? If left, these trees will gradually fall over and create a Giant Fire Hazard. The next fire, spreading through those hundreds of acres of log piles, will be very intense, torching whatever trees tried to recover and scorching the soil badly. It will be a hot fire storm, to a great extent our fault.

Biomass Fuels?

If you have toured the CZU Lightning Complex Fire area, you have probably noticed piles and piles of logs. Burned up trees are dangerous to houses, roads, and power lines, so they must be felled and hauled away. “Away” is an odd word…mostly it means a landfill (another odd word). Ever throw something away? It is instructive to visit ‘away’ at the end of Dimeo Lane or near Buena Vista. We must find a new ‘away’ soon, but no one wants ‘away’ near their homes or over their groundwater. Piles of post fire logs will fill up landfills quickly, especially with more frequent fires. Why not use modern technology and turn those logs into electricity? There are new carbon-neutral, mobile wood-fired power plants that burn wood, make electricity, and create ‘biochar’ that has been shown to be a useful soil amendment for agriculture. Keep your fingers crossed that we might get one of these at one of our local landfills sometime soon. That way, when you throw something ‘away’ that can be safely burned, you’ll be making your own electricity and enriching agricultural soils.

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