Getting Unhealthy Sierra Forests Healthy Again: A Photo Journey

I was fortunate to spend many childhood summers in the Sierra Nevada forests around Lake Tahoe, exploring and enjoying.  But as a child, I had no idea that the seemingly pristine forests that I loved, which seemed so ancient and enduring, were in fact new environments, the product of complete ecological devastation starting in the late 1800s.

Lake Tahoe forests used to feature massive, thousands-year-old pine trees, spaced well apart on land where the underbrush was cleared out by regular forest fires, usually intentionally set by the local Washoe Indians.  The Washoe summered by the Lake and wintered in the Nevada desert.  These trees were so big they rivaled Sequoias in size.

But when the Washoe were systematically displaced and killed by invading Americans in the mid-1800s, with a corresponding loss in decision-making authority over land use, the forests were placed at tremendous risk.  With gold discovered nearby and then silver in Nevada, the huge mining companies that went to work needed lumber for their mines.  They began completely clear-cutting the forests, and the wealth from the mines enriched San Francisco and made it the city we know today.  The pattern of clear cut scars are still visible in the mountains above Sand Harbor in Nevada, where loggers constructed giant flues to send the old growth trunks shooting down into the lake below, to be barged off to Nevada.

In the wake of this annihilation and forest fire suppression, fast-growing fir trees moved in.  These fir trees weren’t as drought and fire resistant as the pines they out-competed and replaced, and they grew up in clumps, all of the same generation.

So the result for the past century has been a thick, overgrown forest, prone to intense wildfires that devastate the landscape and lead to erosion and a repeat of the ill-fated, fast-growth cycle.  And now with climate change increasing the severity of the droughts and intensity of the summer heats, these fires are only becoming more common and severe.

In short, the American invasion of these forested lands has been a complete ecological and aesthetic disaster.  It will take thousands of years to restore the forests to their previous glory, assuming a changing climate doesn’t wipe the forest species out completely.  But we might as well begin now.

With that in mind, I’ve enjoyed exploring Burton Creek State Park in the Tahoe Basin in the last 15 years especially, as long-term work to restore the forests has begun.  CalFire has been systematically thinning the overgrown firs and clearing the forest floor into burn piles.  Here’s an example from this summer:

IMG_2177And now with the first snowfall in the mountains, CalFire has begun burning these piles, with the results visible here:

IMG_2333The foresters have been leaving behind the pine trees, focusing only on firs which can be shipped to build homes in the American southeast.  One day, if climate change doesn’t get them, these pine trees will grow large like their ancestors.  Their pine needles will kill off and prevent rival trees from growing below, leading to a clear under-story. The forest will once again tolerate and benefit from regular “cool” fires that don’t destroy the big trees.  Here’s an example from an area that was thinned about five years ago:

IMG_2181I’ll never live to see these forests restored to their old glory, but you can see examples of intact old-growth forest in places like D.L. Bliss State Park on Emerald Bay on the Lake.

But in the meantime, I’m glad to be witnessing the beginning of the rebirth of these lands, as the once unhealthy forests become healthy again.


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