The Eel River Recovery Project is hosting another public event at the Willits Hub on forest health on Saturday April 8 from noon to 6 PM. Representatives of the Redwood Forest Foundation and the Institute for Sustainable Forestry will make presentations and join a panel and the Native American perspective of forest health will also be shared. Forest health is a key to maintaining biodiversity, our clean water supply, production of wood products and the prevention of catastrophic fire. The condition of forest lands within the Eel River is highly variable, but with many areas are in need of improvement.
The Redwood Forest Foundation Inc (RFFI) is a non-profit corporation that is based on the community forest model. Richard Geinger is on their Board of Directors and will represent them on April 8. In 2011, RFFI acquired a loan from the Bank of America for $65 million and bought large portions of the watersheds on the west side South Fork Eel River between Piercy and Leggett. Restoration of streams flowing from RFFI lands is also essential for restoring coho salmon. The land was heavily logged by the previous owners and the amount of large diameter trees available for logging currently is low. RFFI instead logs smaller trees in a stand to reduce competition for water and nutrients, in a practice known as “thinning from below.” This reduces moisture stress and competition for light for remaining trees, so they may grow much more rapidly, and their resistance to insect infestation and disease is greatly improved.
The long term legacy of logging has also profoundly altered the hydrology of watersheds and the amount of water produced. Studies of the upper Mattole River watershed in an area bordering the Eel River watershed to the west by Humboldt State University professor Andrew Stubblefield and others found that 40-60 year old second growth forests that are “over-stocked” use much more water than old growth forests. A Friends of Eel sponsored Eel River flow study confirmed this finding in lower South Fork Eel tributary Bull Creek, where flows have decreased 50% since 1950. Although the watershed is now in Humboldt Redwood State Park, half of the watershed was clear cut in the 1950s and 1960s. Since more than half of forest lands within the Eel River watershed were similarly logged in that time period, it is likely that increased forest evapotranspiration is a significant part of the equation for decreased water supply.
Ernie Merrifield is an elder of the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT) and sits on the Eel River Recovery Project Board of Directors. Ernie will explain how indigenous peoples used controlled burns in the winter and spring to maintain a landscape mosaic of grasslands and oak woodlands that produced abundant game animals that they could eat. Their diet also relied on acorns, so preventing encroachment of conifers in oak woodlands also maintained their food supply. Studies by Six Rivers National Forest indicate that native oak woodlands occupied 36% of the North Fork Eel River watershed historically, but that the extent of oaks is now 9% of the basin area, despite the fact that much of the watershed is in Wilderness. This suggests Native Americans were in harmony with nature and used fire to improve conditions for the benefit of the animals and themselves. Native burning practices are being revived by the Kruk Tribe in the Klamath basin and their co-management relationship with the Klamath National Forest may be a model that could also be applied in the Eel River watershed.
In addition to maintaining grasslands and oak woodlands, controlled burns can also be used to remove fuels from the forest floor, which reduces the risk of catastrophic fire. Although fires were frequent in the Eel River watershed during the recent drought, most burned slowly along the ground and naturally reduced fuels. An example is the Lodge Fire that burned extensive areas of the Elkhorn Ridge and Cahto Peak Wilderness Areas in the South Fork Eel River watershed, which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. According to BLM fire staff, hot burn areas that caused stand replacement were rare and instead the fire substantially benefitted forest health.
The Institute for Sustainable Forestry will be represented by Jeff Hedin, who will explain the importance of non-industrial private timberlands and the need for forest health improvement on them. Vast areas of forests in the Eel River watershed are now owned by people whose interest is in rural residential development or growing cannabis, not logging, but the lands they bought were often previously logged. These forests will not improve in health over time, and instead will be prone to insect infestation and future catastrophic fire. Private land owners can often address forest health issues with grant money provided by the California Department of Forestry, but some cost-sharing or in-kind work must be supplied. Reducing stand density near homesteads and gardens not only reduces fire risk, but may also reduce molds and fungus that sometimes attack cultivars. Cumulatively, watershed-wide improvements in forest health can also restore hydrology and increase future water supply.
On Saturday, April 8 at 11:30 AM the doors at the Willits Hub at 630 South Main Street will open, with coffee and refreshments served. Presentations and a panel discussion will proceed from noon to 4 PM and will be followed by a BBQ from 4-6 PM. There is no charge for admission, but donations will be accepted. People are encouraged to support ERRP and Willits Hub crowdfunding by going to www.EverRibbon.com/ribbon/view/64018 before April 15. The forest health field trip planned for April 9 has been postponed until early June. See www.eelriverrecovery.org for more information.