Headwater Forests


“To protect your rivers, protect your mountains.”
—Chinese Emperor Yu

The principles underlying the maintenance of a healthy water cycle tell us to start sinking water into the ground at the top of the watershed. The management of the forests in the headwaters of Elder Creek is perhaps the most critical issue in the current water crises we face.

Trees, and plants in general, affect the water cycle significantly. Here a just a few of their benefits:

  • their canopies intercept a proportion of precipitation, which is then evaporated back to the atmosphere (canopy interception)
  • their litter, stems and trunks slow down surface runoff
  • their roots create macropores – large conduits – in the soil that increase infiltration of water
  • they contribute to terrestrial evaporation and reduce excess soil moisture via transpiration
  • their litter and other organic residue change soil properties that increase the capacity of soil to store water

As a result, the presence or absence of trees can change the quantity of water on the surface, in the soil or groundwater, or in the atmosphere. This in turn changes erosion rates and the availability of water for either ecosystem functions or human services. (http://www.ccjcin.org/trees.htm) With very few if any exceptions, the more trees, the denser the canopy, the more benefits to the hydrologic cycle.

Headwater forests are nature’s perfect design for creating a balanced and resilient riparian community of life immediately downstream by minimizing flooding and storing water to be released slowly during the summer.

“Headwater streams and riparian areas are a nexus of biodiversity, with disproportionate numbers of species tied to this habitat,” says Dede Olson, a research ecologist at the PNW Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon. “Nevertheless, our knowledge of the ecology of these systems remains sparse, even though they are undergoing widespread degradation at alarming rates.” (http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi99.pdf)

The headwater forests in the Yolla Bolly mountains have been logged since the 1940’s, heavily until the 1980’s, fairly lightly since then. Diverse and dense old-growth forests have been replaced by regrowth of many trees with a narrow age range and decreased diversity.

Compared to the theoretically perfectly balanced, intact forests with extremely diverse species composition that Euro-Americans inherited, the forests of the Yolla Bolly’s today are undoubtedly a pale comparison. This leads us to ask a lot of questions:

What was the condition of the forests of California when humans arrived?

What was the condition of the forests of California when Euro-Americans arrived?

Did the indigenous people manage these forests by removing significant numbers of medium- to old-growth trees?

Since there is a history of regular burning in the forests until about 100 years ago, and the suppression of fire since then has lead to denser vegetation (called fuel loads), is it wise to carefully thin out some of this density to try to regain some of the structure of the ancient forests?

If thinning could reset much of the forest to a state that could then be maintained with regular use of low severity fires, would we then be able to completely phase-out logging, since the healthiest forests ever known to humans have been tended to by non-industrialized human cultures that did little or no logging?

If so, then doesn’t it make sense to plan the transition to sustainability by including a plan to phase-out logging as an economic endeavor?

If the current subsidies given to logging companies were also gradually transitioned toward the hiring of people to use traditional forest management practices, what would be the societal effects?

If this was done, and the results were improved water cycles, improved biodiversity and improved biological integrity (as would be expected), why would anyone want to work logging the land when they could get paid the same wage for restoring the land?

Will you help us pressure government officials to transfer subsidies from logging and ranching on federal lands to restoring these lands?