Once Monterey pines stretched all the way from modern San Diego to Sonoma County. Over tens of thousands of years the forest swelled and ebbed in response to changing climate. Its current retreat — just 2,500 acres in Cambria — is profound, a consequence of changing climate and human activity.
Humans appeared very late in the Monterey pine forest’s history. The first people who lived in our part of it — Salinans and Chumash and their ancestors — are said to have tended the forest like a garden, harvesting what they needed and investing effort to keep it producing. It provided food, shelter, tools, medicine and much more, year after year.
When Europeans began settling, a new sound echoed through the forest: sawmills. They produced lumber for cabins, sheds and houses in the community named for the rough lumber — Slabtown. Some of our local buildings still date from that era. Local pine was shipped throughout the county, to San Miguel, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo.
Whaling boomed at San Simeon, and mining of cinnabar for quicksilver flourished inland from the coast. The dairy industry had its start at about the same time, and soon was thriving. The forest was cleared away for some of this, and supplied fuel for fires and timber for structures until more durable redwood could be imported.
The forest provided a backdrop for the bustling town following its christening as “Cambria.” The town was known for its celebrations — rodeos, California Admission Day, Fourth of July — that attracted crowds from around the county. After all, it was for a time the county’s second largest town. A popular setting for such events was Phelan Grove, a clearing in the woods on what was then the Phelan Ranch, now the Cambria Pines by the Sea Ranch, owned by Ralph Covell, northeast of town. Music, speeches, rodeos and barbecues thrived in the shelter of the pines.
In the 1920s the forest was given a new role, part of a dream that was marketed for vacationers. Cambria Pines by the Sea, the development north and west of the early settlement — was the “San Joaquin Valley’s Beach Front” with myriad vacation activities. The balsam-scented ocean breezes were said to be healthful and the views enchanting. And the forest could be a good investment in the economic depression of the 1930s. The 25- by 75-foot lots sold slowly, so it took awhile for people to realize that the dream of forest living would be impossible if there were too many such dreamers. Did the attraction of the forest doom it?
The creation of Pinedorado in 1949 marked a new perspective on the forest. Cambria’s pines were honored and also given added value with “dorado” — gilding. Proceeds from the festival of the gilded pines would help pay for the community hall (now Veterans Memorial Building) that was moved to Cambria from Camp San Luis. About the same time Camp Ocean Pines was established, an%other name that honored the forest and an enterprise with a wholesome purpose.
In the 1970s a new perception of the forest emerged, an ecological perspective. The forest had intrinsic value, and was a part of something much larger. Notable early efforts to conserve portions of the forest came with the conservation of Fern Canyon by the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County and Greenspace’s acquisition of pocket parks and Strawberry Canyon (historically known as Strawberry Valley). The State of California funded some of these projects as well as purchase of forested parkland. The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve conserved a 70-acre forest stand, and the agricultural conservation easement on Hearst Ranch protects another stand.
While the forest is ancient, human engagement with it has been brief. People have tended, clear-cut, and settled the forest. They have bought, marketed and sold it. They have celebrated in its shade and honored it in names. More recently we are trying to understand it and husband it.
But people also ask, quite reasonably, whether it is too late. Especially with the drought. History indicates that a forest can recover from climate change. But can it recover from humans?
Pine forest stories and photos
I’m putting together a book about how people have engaged with the Cambria portion of this ancient forest. I’m looking for stories and photos to illustrate what is described here. Please contact me via email (email@example.com) if you can contribute either. I am indebted to many for information, and all will be credited when it goes to press.