by Kelly Feser Eells
In Ojai and its environs, "tree-sits" take place in
oaks. In Northern California, it's redwoods, like the famed Luna,
where Julia Butterfly Hill lived for 738 days in an - ultimately
successful - effort to halt its being logged. It might surprise
some people to learn, however, that the majestic redwood's distribution
extends as far south as the San Luis Obispo-Monterey County line.
"There's a small string of them there," said local
resident Mark Borchert, Ph.D., co-author of "Coast Redwood:
A Natural and Cultural History." The string, known as "Ragged
Point," lies at the southern gateway to Big Sur.
Borchert, an ecologist for Los Padres National Forest, has been
working out of the Ojai Ranger District office for 22 years.
While his specialty is fire ecology (and he agrees he's "in
the right area" for such study), an intensive plot vegetation
survey he conducted for the district in the mid-'80s has helped
him become somewhat of a Southern California redwood expert.
Borchert's quick to point out, however, that he is responsible
for just one of the book's seven chapters. "But I haven't
gotten any major complaints from Humboldt State University,"
Considering the fact that the oldest redwoods have been around
longer than 2,000 years, "Coast Redwood" the book is
a relative youngster in that it went from seed to fruition in
just seven. "I got involved in the project," said Borchert,
"in 1994, as a consequence of the vegetation project."
It was Cachuma Press publisher John Evarts, editor and co-author
of "Coast Redwood," who made the first move. "Mark's
done some great research," said Evarts, "and should
be better known!"
Borchert's contribution to the lushly illustrated book is, as
might be expected from an ecologist, concerned with the ecology
of the redwoods and the ecosystems unique to each forest. "The
focus of my chapter is primarily the disturbance factor,"
he said; "flooding, fire and landslides."
Though fire is a disturbance associated with all three forest
types - alluvial-flat, redwood/Douglas fir, and redwood/mixed
evergreen - it has its biggest influence on the ecosystems of
redwood/mixed evergreen forests, like the Ragged Point string.
"Flooding, of course, is the biggest factor in the northerly,
wetter forests. In the '60s, for example, during that huge flood,
when the banks of the Eel River overflowed, layers and layers
of mud, silt, sediment buried everything. Including the trunks
of trees. But the redwoods, the ones found in these alluvial
flood plains, they didn't suffocate."
He explained that some redwoods' response to "burial by
sediment" is to send out new roots that shoot upwards, where
the oxygen is, creating a temporary, sustaining root system while
a more permanent one develops below. "They're remarkably
adapted to dealing with flooding (up) there."
In addition to fire, sea spray helps define the ecology and shape
the look of certain central coast forests. The redwoods that
dot Big Sur's bluffs, for instance, are exposed to a continuous
shower of wind-carried sea salt - an element known to stunt many
tree species' growth. The redwoods in this area grow no taller
than 30 feet, with some fully mature trees measuring a relatively
miniature 3 feet high.
Another disturbance factor, Borchert noted, are people. "And
they've been both a blessing and a curse."
On the downside, a full 95 percent of the coast redwood forests
have been logged once or more. "Only 5 percent of the entire
forest hasn't been logged; 'old grove' forests are really rare."
Though the most heavily logged areas, like the Santa Cruz Mountains,
"have seen a lot of second growth," Borchert indicated
that more attention needs to be paid to the effects that various
logging methods have on indigenous redwood plant communities.
On the upside, "the Rockefeller Grove (named for John D.
Rockefeller, prime contributor to the Save-the-Redwoods League
established in 1918) was set aside early enough" to, not
only ensure the preservation of the world's largest contiguous
old-growth forest, but make old-growth and/or ancient ecosystems
a point of reference from which future forest policy discussion
could be based. Indeed, philanthropy is credited with much of
the 100-year-old redwood conservation movement's successes. "The
book chronicles this really well," said Borchert.
"The whole thing is well-written. Cachuma Press doesn't
put out a lot of titles, but the ones it does are all really
While he admits, "I'd love to do something like that again,"
he's more enthusiastic these days about several projects in the
works at Los Padres' Ojai District office. "For example,
there's one currently under way where we're looking at creating
a buffer zone of burned fuel (chaparral) at the urban interface
- where the National Forest meets the city."
He emphasized the important safety role prescribed fires play
in areas like Ojai, where houses are built too close to the fuel.
"It's called 'fuel' because we think of it as leaves and
stems just ready to burn. In creating a buffer zone, the fuel
doesn't burn as quickly into the city. With the Painted Cave
Fire in Santa Barbara, (the combination of) slopes and strong
wind, well, that could happen with Ojai's chaparral. It's a highly
flammable vegetation type. But it's always been here, well before
people were. And it's been the source of large fires since Columbus."
"Coast Redwood" is available at Local Hero, 254 E.
Ojai Ave., where, this Earth Day, April 22, Borchert will be
on hand for a book signing and slide show presentation. Call
646-3165 for more information.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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