North Coast's pygmy forests have an aura of enchantment

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WHERE TO SEE PYGMY TREES

It’s estimated that less than 2,000 total acres of the rare pygmy ecotome remains, scattered and largely unprotected in Mendocino and northern Sonoma Counties, where they’ve been used for garbage dumps, airstrips, and private development. Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts – Hans Jenny’s wife and Teresa Sholar’s husband brought the first successful lawsuit to limit their destruction with the Sierra Club in the 1980’s – some are now under California State protection and accessible to the public.

Here’s where to see them:

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, five miles north of Mendocino, has a 2.5 mile easy to moderate trail that starts at the ocean and climbs a well-signed Ecological Staircase through a beautiful sequence of plants and forests on five terraces, with the Pygmy Forest at the topmost. Parking and trailhead are just off Hwy 1, and a self-guided nature tour provides interesting detail on what you’re seeing. Open sunrise to sunset, it’s free. No camping in the Reserve, but available nearby.

Van Damme State Park

Van Damme State Park, just south of Mendocino, provides two ways to see the pygmies. Walking up the aptly named and lush green Fern Canyon trail, the Pygmy Forest is about 8 miles from the trailhead, and 500 feet higher. Alternatively, one can drive to a 0.25 mile short Pygmy loop in the Park, by turning east on Little River Airport Road, just south of Mendocino on Hwy 1. Drive inland for 2.8 miles to the signed parking lot and trailhead on your left. The pygmy forest trail here is actually a raised wooden platform, to protect the extremely slow growing life underfoot, and wheelchair accessible. The State Park has an $8 day use fee, but the Airport Road access is free. Camping is available in the park.

Salt Point State Park

Salt Point State Park, 20 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1, has a 1.4 mile long hike to Pygmy Forest, out and back, or add another mile to do the hike as a loop. For both, start from the Woodside Campground parking area on the east side of the highway just south of the main park entrance. Take Central Trail to North Trail, climbing through redwoods and marine terraces 500 feet in elevation to the pygmy section, which has a somewhat different mix of trees (no Bolander pine) than the Mendocino sections. Park fee is $8. Camping is available in the park.

In the summer of 1956, a small team drove up from Anaheim California and into the Pygmy Forest east of the village of Mendocino. They were on a mission: to bring back specimens of the rare miniature trees that grew there.

With the help of a State Park ranger, Walt Disney’s crew carefully extracted an ancient, gnarled pygmy Bolander Pine, drove home and transplanted it in the new dwarf forest Walt was creating for Snow White in Storybook Land. There, to everyone’s surprise, it reportedly resuscitated and began to grow towards its full natural height, 10 stories tall.

Hidden within a long, narrow strip of the westernmost coastal hills of Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, the pygmy forests still have an aura of enchantment today. They’re inhabited by stands of rare wispy pine and cypress trees, some more than a hundred years old, but still as thin as broom handles and barely as tall as a standing adult.

The stunted trees live in a realm of their own, an ecological niche of white bleached soil and lichens, awash in sunlight, an eerie oasis surrounded by dense forests of towering redwoods and firs.

After nearly a century of study, the mystery of why they only grow here, and stay so small, is still being unraveled, although a handful of dedicated investigators have been steadily collecting the clues.

When people come to study the pygmy forests, the expert everyone calls is Teresa Sholars, a trim, energetic local ecologist, who obliges with personal tours, encyclopedic knowledge and an educator’s passion for her chosen subject.

Now an emeritus professor, Sholars was 21 when she first encountered the pygmies with her botanist husband Robert. Coming to Mendocino in the ‘70s, they fell in with a colorful Swiss researcher who was commuting from UC Berkeley, Hans Jenny.

Jenny, the top soil scientist in America and internationally renowned, was trying to understand the unusual earths of the pygmy region, and fighting to rally protection for their globally unique ecology.

Teresa spent the next 40 years studying the forests, and working to preserve them, first with her husband, and after his death, as a professor and an expert with environmental, native plant and community groups.

The first clue to the pygmy mystery, and the one Jenny uncovered, is buried underfoot. Drive along winding Highway 1 near Mendocino and in places you’ll find yourself on a flat straightaway. To the west, the flat coastal plain drops off a cliff into the blue Pacific, and to the east, a rank of forested hills climb, one above the other, a thousand feet or so.

It’s not obvious from the car, but if you walk up into those hills it’s possible to see they’re actually a series of relatively flat platforms, separated by fairly steep slopes — a giant staircase — all the way down to the sea.

On the staircase, under carpets of redwood forest, tan oak groves, huckleberries, ferns and soil, Jenny and other investigators discovered ancient sand dunes, and then seabed. The platforms weren’t hills, but a series of marine terraces, giant flat slabs of wave-cut sandstone from the ocean floor.

The individual steps were carved by the high sea levels between Ice Ages, and then left exposed when the ice returned, lowering the sea level again. When sea levels were low, cliff faces were cut in the seaward edge of the exposed flat platforms by the Pacific surf, and then the steps were preserved, one after the other, as the entire coastline was pushed up over time by tectonic forces.

WHERE TO SEE PYGMY TREES

It’s estimated that less than 2,000 total acres of the rare pygmy ecotome remains, scattered and largely unprotected in Mendocino and northern Sonoma Counties, where they’ve been used for garbage dumps, airstrips, and private development. Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts – Hans Jenny’s wife and Teresa Sholar’s husband brought the first successful lawsuit to limit their destruction with the Sierra Club in the 1980’s – some are now under California State protection and accessible to the public.

Here’s where to see them:

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, five miles north of Mendocino, has a 2.5 mile easy to moderate trail that starts at the ocean and climbs a well-signed Ecological Staircase through a beautiful sequence of plants and forests on five terraces, with the Pygmy Forest at the topmost. Parking and trailhead are just off Hwy 1, and a self-guided nature tour provides interesting detail on what you’re seeing. Open sunrise to sunset, it’s free. No camping in the Reserve, but available nearby.

Van Damme State Park

Van Damme State Park, just south of Mendocino, provides two ways to see the pygmies. Walking up the aptly named and lush green Fern Canyon trail, the Pygmy Forest is about 8 miles from the trailhead, and 500 feet higher. Alternatively, one can drive to a 0.25 mile short Pygmy loop in the Park, by turning east on Little River Airport Road, just south of Mendocino on Hwy 1. Drive inland for 2.8 miles to the signed parking lot and trailhead on your left. The pygmy forest trail here is actually a raised wooden platform, to protect the extremely slow growing life underfoot, and wheelchair accessible. The State Park has an $8 day use fee, but the Airport Road access is free. Camping is available in the park.

Salt Point State Park

Salt Point State Park, 20 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1, has a 1.4 mile long hike to Pygmy Forest, out and back, or add another mile to do the hike as a loop. For both, start from the Woodside Campground parking area on the east side of the highway just south of the main park entrance. Take Central Trail to North Trail, climbing through redwoods and marine terraces 500 feet in elevation to the pygmy section, which has a somewhat different mix of trees (no Bolander pine) than the Mendocino sections. Park fee is $8. Camping is available in the park.

The time gap between Ice Ages and the formation of each terrace was about 100,000 years, and as a result, each step on the staircase is 100,000 years older than the one below it. And at the top, beneath the Mendocino pygmy forests on the fifth terrace, the ground is half a million years old or more.

The hike up the staircase from the beach bluffs is a moderate climb, and Sholars recalls, back when she was doing her dissertation and taking core samples at the top, they would ride there on horseback. The trail climbs through a succession of ecologies from step to step, including crane-your-neck tall groves of redwoods and firs, with trunks as wide as cars, before emerging onto the brightly exposed pygmy plateau.

“Locals like the pygmy forests” she said, “because they’re sunny, and you get a break from the perpetual shade of the woods.”

The transition to the short, spindly trees is dramatic. What makes these ancient terraces so unusual is that over the millennia they were uplifted flat, not tilted or fractured, and against all odds, have remained both intact and level to this day. As a result, their surfaces have sat exposed to thousands of centuries of weather. So long, in fact, that the oldest soil, at the top, has now been leached of nearly all nutrients.

And the soil is not only nearly infertile, it has become as acidic as vinegar, and has formed a shallow layer of concrete-like hardpan that’s impervious to water. It was this extreme weathered soil, Jenny suspected, that shaped the pygmy life that grew on it. By earth’s standards, the soil is extremely inhospitable, more like an alien environment.

Only a handful of living things manage to grow here, a select, small community of plants that have adapted to conditions at the very edge of life. How they do it still isn’t fully understood. But those that survive, are terribly stunted.

And if the trees are placed in fertile soil, like the Bolander Pygmy in Disneyland, they begin to grow normally again.

Sholars agrees that for the average visitor, calling these special places “forests” can be misleading. For one thing, the trees aren’t photogenic, and given their size, it may be hard to see them as trees at all. More than one reviewer on social media has expressed disappointment. But others see the magic of the place.

In the realm of the pygmy cypress and Bolander pines, with their thin trunks, spare branches dressed in lacy grey-green lichens, meager needles and scaly grey bark, it takes a conscious effort to remember that some have been growing here since Woodrow Wilson was President. And some are species so adapted to their unique environment, that they grow nowhere in the world but here.

As mysterious as the trees may be, the true marvel of the place may be something else: the chance to walk deep into time, and stand on earth that was here before our species had even evolved and departed Africa.

That’s a ride even Walt Disney couldn’t design.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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