Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series about the indigenous forests that blanket Sonoma County — their past, present and threats to their future.
Sonoma County’s early chronicles are full of praise for the trees and forests. In 1877, one writer described looking over “a sweep of majestic forests unsurpassed on the continent — tier upon tier, range upon range of redwoods.”
About half the county’s vegetation was forest and open woodland at that time according to estimates; the rest was a mix of grasslands, chaparral and wetlands. The dense redwood forests on the Russian River floodplain, where Guerneville now stands, were considered “the finest body of timber in the state.” One tree was 23 feet in diameter; another measured 368 feet high and, at the time, was “the tallest tree yet discovered in America.” These are just shy of modern records; we’ll never know if even bigger trees went unrecorded.
Jose Altimira was impressed by the huge valley oaks near the Sonoma Mission, which he founded in 1823. They grew in a roblar covering dozens of square miles. Not exactly a forest, roblar is Spanish for a place where oaks are prominent within a mosaic of grasslands and wetlands. Englishman Frank Marryat later described traveling through Sonoma Valley like this: “It seems ever as if we were about to enter a forest which we never reach, for in the distance the oaks, though really far apart, appear to grow in dark and heavy masses.”
Because they were desirable places to settle — flat with some shade and water, but not too wet — most of our towns grew up in roblars.
The Wappo name for the Santa Rosa area is wici-lo-holma-noma, or “meadowlark woods,” suggesting both grassland and trees. Windsor was named for its resemblance to the oak-studded grounds of England’s Windsor Castle. Even today, 200-year-old oaks can be found in Santa Rosa and other areas, adding habitat and character to many neighborhoods.
Of course, the county is home to more than just redwoods and roblars. Altimira “fell in love” with the riparian forest of “alder, cottonwood and bay” along Sonoma Creek, and he mentioned “madrone, bay and Douglas fir in the hills.” As he noticed, our forests are complex and diverse. We have 10 native oaks, numerous other hardwoods and 19 conifers, nearly as many as the “Evergreen State” of Washington.
Where particular species grow depends on many factors, including soil type, available water, local microclimate and human culture. Redwoods are restricted to the reach of coastal fog, needing the “fog drip” from their needles to get them through the dry season. Gray pines are typically found along the county’s drier eastern edge. Knobcone pines need fire to open their cones and release their seeds; like salmon, the parents must die for the young to live. Some trees, like bay and Douglas fir, thrive in a variety of habitats.
It’s tempting to imagine 19th century settlers stumbling into an Eden here, unaltered by humans. In fact, the region’s first peoples had been actively shaping the landscape for millennia. The “park-like” roblars were the result of intentionally set fires. Regular burning reduced underbrush, recycled nutrients and controlled pests like acorn worms. Families held the rights to gather acorns from particular trees and cared for them by pruning branches and fertilizing the soil with ground seashells.