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Sonoma County Forests:

Past, Present and Future

This is the first in a series of three stories about Sonoma County forests that will be published in Sonoma Outdoors.

Part 1: The history of Sonoma County forests, January

Part 2: Where our forests stand now, February

Part 3: Our forests’ future, March

The 2017 North Coast Forest Conservation Conference, “Growing Resilience,” will take place June 7-9 at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm, 7450 Steve Olson Lane, Forestville. More info: Sonoma County Forest Conservation Working Group, sonomaforests.org.

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.

High Sierra Camps

- High Sierra Camps are typically open June through September, with nightly rates of $105-$180.

- Guided hikes (3, 5 or 7 days) also are available, as are saddle trips.

- Each summer’s lottery application period is Sept. 1 to Nov. 1, with winners notified in the spring and any remaining dates offered online.

- Watch for summer openings at yosemitepark.com.

- Detailed information about trip preparation, trail descriptions and photos are available at yosemitepark.com.

Such tending is really a form of agriculture. The resulting healthy trees ensured abundant harvests. Other trees responded to pruning by sending out straight shoots needed for making things like baskets. People took care of the trees, and the trees took care of the people. It was a reciprocal relationship.

Altimira imagined the oaks turned into firewood and ox carts. He noted redwoods and Douglas fir on Sonoma Mountain that “would provide plenty of lumber for building a town.” He made no mention of finding a balance between giving and taking, and so the long-standing relationship between humans and trees began to change.

General Vallejo built the county’s second sawmill at the base of Sonoma Mountain in 1839 (the first was on Mark West Creek). By the 1850s, the mountain’s timber was gone. Elsewhere, operations were just ramping up.

Marryat witnessed the Russian River’s “unsurpassed forests” just as commercial logging was beginning there. He was deeply moved by the “still forest,” even as it filled with “the sound of the ax and the shrill whistle of the steam engine.” But watching the primeval giants fall also filled him with awe as they “made the earth vibrate“ and sent forth a “booming echo that startled the game far and wide.” It took a week for two men to fell a tree. Once on the ground, a crew cut it into lengths so teams of oxen could haul it to the mill.

After the railroad arrived in the 1870s, it was boasted that: “Ties from this county are laid on the desert of the Colorado … Every train which crosses the Sierra rolls over the … forests of Sonoma.”

Trains made it much easier to ship local products to distant markets. Woodcutters soon cleared hillsides of oak and madrone, turning them into firewood and charcoal for San Francisco’s heating and cooking needs. The trains themselves were fueled on Sonoma County firewood.

Tan oaks provided bark used for tanning leather, a big industry in those days. In a scene reminiscent of the slaughter of the Plains buffalo, thousands of tan oak were stripped and left to rot. By the early 20th century, much of our woodlands had become open grazing land. Marryat had thought the redwoods were “inexhaustible.” Yet within a few decades, most of the old growth forests were gone.

One response was to plant trees. Eucalyptus seemed a good choice, since Australia produced high-quality lumber, furniture and ties from these trees. Hundreds of thousands were planted by Jack London and others. The eucalyptus grew quickly, but the wood warped and split; Australian products came from much older trees. Commercially, eucalyptus plantations were a bust.

Meanwhile, the stumps of redwoods, oaks and madrone were tenaciously sending up multiple fresh shoots. “Family circles” of trunks in our modern forests are a legacy of those times. After the 1906 earthquake, second-growth forests were cut again to rebuild San Francisco.

Few people who spent time in Sonoma’s “majestic forests” were without some appreciation for them. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve was originally set aside in the 1870s by logger James Armstrong. Even as the railroads accelerated the cutting of forests, they sparked early conservation efforts. John Muir himself was friends with railroad baron Averill Harriman, whose interest in preserving forests was partly to sell tickets to tourists who wanted to see them.

While not always in balance, taking and giving have always been at the heart of our relationship with trees. Impressive individual trees and the diversity of species and forest types give Sonoma County much of its unique look and feel. They are a local treasure, adding immeasurably to the quality of life here.

Arthur Dawson is a Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist. Contact him at baseline@vom.com.

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