California’s Forests

California’s forests are unique and very diverse due to diverse topography and soils – both resulting from the uplift of the Sierra Nevada now thought to have occurred about 40 million years ago*. In fact, California has been designated as a World Biodiversity Hotspot due to 60% of its flora being native to California. There are about 52 conifer species in California, 14 of which are endemic and only occur naturally within the State. Oaks are also diverse with the State having about 20 species. Since our forests are so unique, special care needs to be taken to ensure their conservation and sustainability.

Stanford scientists crack mystery of the Sierra Nevada’s age

California is a very large state with an area of approximately 100 million acres. About 33% is classified as forestland. About 58% of our forests are dominated by conifers. The mixed conifer type (mostly Douglas-fir,  ponderosa pine, sugar pine, Jeffrey pine, incense-cedar, and white fir) covers about 7.8 million acres. The ponderosa pine type covers 2.2 million acres; sub-alpine type (notably bristlecone pine and mountain hemlock) covers about 390,300 acres. Other western conifers cover about 1.5 million acres. Oak (hardwood) woodlands cover 13 million acres.*   An additional, critically important vegetative type particularly in Southern California is chaparral, which is an extensive array of drought-tolerant, fire-prone, woody shrubs and small trees that dominate south- and west-facing foothills.

California’s forest resources

What makes our forests even more amazing is that California is home to the world’s tallest tree – coast redwood (379 feet); the world’s most massive tree – giant sequoia (52,500 cubic feet); and the world’s oldest tree – bristlecone pine (4,853 years). We also have the rarest pine in the US – Torrey pine. And because we have the most diverse forests in the US we have the most diverse wildlife and aquatic habitats. What a legacy!

Forest management (See Topic 5) in California is difficult to generalize because we have very diverse forest ownerships – Federal (57%), Industry (11%), Non-industrial private (29%), State/Trust (3%), and Tribal (<1%). Each ownership has its own goals and management objectives.

Management on federal forests is governed by statutes, laws, and public participation. In contrast, private forests are regulated by State Board of Forestry and Forest Practice Rules, which are the most strict in the US. This makes it very difficult to make simple, generalized statements regarding forestry in the State and what practices are desired – for example to reduce the risk of wildfire (See Topic 6).

So what are the major threats to sustainability of California forests? The most immediate is conversion of forests to meet the needs of increasing population and urban development, agriculture, and losses due to wildfire (See Topic 6). The most, at-risk forest type is blue oak woodlands. Forests are not static ecosystems, but are increasingly at risk due to climate change and human activities.

Throughout history, the health and welfare of societies have been fundamentally tied to the health and welfare of forests (See Topic 5). Here in California we are most fortunate to have wonderful forests. Managing them sustainably is essential to maintain the benefits, uses, and values of their diversity for our generation and for generations to come.