Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) is an extraordinarily valuable endangered species that has received insufficient conservation recognition. The stand of pines around Año Nuevo have been heavily impacted by wildfire but are regenerating well (for now). Meanwhile, much of the Monterey pine stand on the Monterey Peninsula is effectively gone. Cambria’s Monterey pine forest has likewise been compromised. In both cases, while there is what appears to be Monterey pine forest in and among homes, those trees are what are termed ‘relictual’ – without fire, they will not regenerate and no one is suggesting that prescribed fire be used in neighborhoods to manage those forests to perpetuate them as they would naturally need to be. In an ideal world, homeowners in Cambria and on the Monterey Peninsula would be so interested in conservation that they would participate in an expensive program to replant older pines with enough genetically appropriate seedlings as to maintain those populations, but we have too little leadership, interest, and funding to support that kind of initiative. My hope is this becomes a reality. The first step is to build awareness and interest. Your job is to help tell this story to increase support for the protection of this pine. The next step is to gain State legal protection of this endangered species.
Monterey pine is an enormously important tree for producing timber around the globe. Some of my advisors suggest I start any argument for conservation in the economic realm, and so I start here. If you are going to discuss this tree in this context, the first thing you need to do is to use the correct terminology, starting with the right name for the tree. Call the timber tree ‘radiata pine.’ That’s because it has been so intensively bred as to be easily distinguished from its wild counterpart.
10 million acres of radiata pine occur in timber plantations, mostly in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Chile.
As the effects of climate change intensify, it will become increasingly important to maintain and adapt the genetics of radiata pine. While there is some genetic diversity already embedded in plantation radiata pines, there will inevitably be a need for wild genes to augment the plantation trees. And so, conservation of the wild populations becomes important even to the timber industry. Because the wild populations are distant enough from each other, each population has unique attributes that would be important for the health of radiata pine for future timber production.
The Five Pine Populations
There are five wild Monterey Pine stands, three in California and two in Baja, Mexico: Año Nuevo, Monterey, Cambria, Cedros Island, and Guadalupe Island. The Año Nuevo stand is the largest, growing from southern San Mateo County in the north to near Bonny Doon Road in the south. The Monterey stand is bounded to the north by Highway 68 and then into the northern Big Sur to the south. The Monterey stand occupies a series of ancient marine terraces, each with very different soils, an ‘ecological staircase’ with each terrace supporting very different biotic communities. As you move up the staircase, the pines become increasingly short-statured due to age of the soils increasing and, therefore, the soil fertility decreasing.
The population in and around the town of Cambria. There are also two very odd populations on islands to the west of Baja California. Cedros Island is 14 miles offshore of central Baja and Guadalupe Island is 130 miles offshore of northern Baja Mexico. The Guadalupe Island population has historically been highly threatened by goat grazing, but goats have been recently controlled and now there is hope. The Cedros Island population fares better. The two Baja populations of Monterey pine stand out in having only 2 needles per bundle as opposed to the 3-needle bundles from the other populations.
Local Importance, Local Threats
Superficial consideration might suggest that Santa Cruz County’s Año Nuevo stand of Monterey pine is well protected, but there are important issues to consider which might lead to different conclusions. This stand of endangered pines is the largest and much of it is located on property where the owners are amenable to good stewardship. And, this stand is also likely the origin of the plantation ‘radiata pine,’ and so contains the historical suite of genes that have been so important to forestry. This location is the only one where Monterey pine hybridizes with another species – knobcone pine. Sometimes, people refer to ‘hybrid vigor,’ and breeders once saw that expressed from trees grown from Año Nuevo stock in their trials as they selected the best trees for plantations.
Although the Año Nuevo stand has strong potential for conservation, there is no plan to guide that conservation and no leadership in convening and focusing that stewardship. An invasive pathogen, pine pitch canker, has the potential to continue spreading, killing up to 80% of the trees. Other pathogens will no doubt be introduced due to carelessness in regulating global trade; those pathogens will likely be spread along recreational trails and roads through the population. There is also the issue of fire…
The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire raged through most of that population spurring (in patches) a whole new generation of trees. How frequently will the stand burn is an important question – too frequently and the pine may be unable to persist for many more generations.
For millions of years, the distribution and health of Monterey pine has been shaped in a dance between fire and fog. Not too long ago, Monterey pine circled the Monterey Bay, but it has persisted only in the foggiest and most fire-free areas. With climate change, wildfire is expected to increase in frequency and intensity. The 2020 fire left large numbers of dead pines and other trees standing; those present a massive fuel load for subsequent fire(s). With so much fuel loading and anticipated increased fire frequency, I am concerned that fires will become too frequent and intense for adequate regeneration of Monterey pines. For those of you who want to view a now very rare healthy and diverse Monterey pine forest, I strongly recommend that you visit the very few remaining areas very soon.
Where to Go
While it will be instructive to see how Monterey pines are regenerating from fire at the Año Nuevo stand, it is perhaps more enjoyable to see mature stands near Monterey. Within the Año Nuevo stand, you can see post fire regeneration by gazing into the forest along Highway 1 at Waddell Creek beach. If/when BLM opens its northern trails at the Cotoni Coast Dairies, visitors will be able to glance one of the southern-most patches of the Año Nuevo stand of Monterey pine is on a hillock above those trails. Near Monterey, the Huckleberry Hill nature preserve is worth seeing as is Point Lobos State Park and Jack’s Peak park.
What You Can Do
In 1999, the California Native Plant Society petitioned the State of California to list the species as Threatened; the State however refused to consider the petition due to lack of staff resources/time/money to adequately process the petition. This example joins a plethora of other similar situations: the State of California needs citizen support to allocate the necessary funding to list deserving species as Threatened or Endangered so that they will be adequately protected at the local level. We should all be writing to the California governor and our local state assembly and senator members to ask for increased budget and attention to promulgating and analyzing listing petitions for species including the Monterey pine. Here are the contact emails: Governor Newsom, Senator Laird, and North County Assemblymember Gail Pellerin or South County Assemblymember Robert Rivas.
-this article orginally published in my weekly column at BrattonOnline.com, where Bruce Bratton’s team updates our community about local issues from experts who tirelessly track such things. Thanks Bruce!