Driving down Burton Drive in the chilly spring morning, I’m struck again by the brown Monterey pines massed like sad clouds above the East Village. I try to remember what the view was like when every tree was green. I try to imagine what this community would look like without its forest.
Admittedly, our pines are not the most beautiful trees in the world, but their silhouettes against the evening sky are striking, and there’s a scrappiness about them that appeals to me, a determination to survive in one of the last outposts of their kind that reminds me of some old-time Cambrians.
What will we lose if we lose this forest? What does it provide for us besides a backdrop for our daily doings and a draw for visitors?
Forests play a starring role in their local habitats. They build soil by taking up nutrients from the ground with water and then shedding organic materials that form layers of decaying mulch. This humus acts like a big sponge to retain water and release it slowly into the surrounding soil. The cycle not only provides water for the trees and associated native plants; it also helps prevent erosion and landslides.
Forests ingest carbon dioxide, combining it in photosynthesis with sunlight and water to create glucose molecules, the building blocks of trunks and bark, branches and leaves or needles. The end products of this process are oxygen and water, which transpire into the atmosphere. According to the Maine Tree Foundation, “1 forested acre produces 2,140 pounds of oxygen, and a single tree releases several hundred gallons of water through evapotranspiration.”
The forest’s role in giving off water is almost as important to us as the oxygen it releases. Not as a direct water source like a spring or a creek, but as the humidifier of a local body of air, which then interacts with incoming colder, saturated air and sets the stage for rain or the thick cottony fog that makes trees drip and self-water. If forests vanish, this moisture leaves as well. Global desertification of formerly green areas is in part the result of deforestation. The great historical examples of this arid transformation are the Valley of Mesopotamia, China’s Loess Plateau (where humus enrichment is making a huge difference) and sub-Saharan Africa.
“Global forest loss totaled 2.3 million square kilometers and gain was 0.8 million square kilometers from 2000 to 2012,” according to the U.N. Environmental Programme.
We might think that deforestation only has a major impact in places like Brazil or Indonesia. But the loss of the Monterey pine forest of Cambria will make the North Coast of San Luis Obispo County more like the grassy brushy inland hillsides. It will become drier here and hotter, hillsides will be prone to landslides and erosion. Look at the area southeast of Harmony, where the hilly pastureland is split by long cracks. That kind of slippage happens when there are no roots to hold the soil.
With so many standing dead trees around our houses and favorite hiking areas, the forest is becoming the local “problem child.” A logical response might be, “Well, let’s just clear away all the trees and vegetation around the houses.” However, the real costs of radical tree removal are several, not least of which is the likelihood of creating another fire problem, where the rotting dead wood, decaying leaf material and wetter green trees are no longer there to slow the advance of a burn.
The second issue is carbon release. When trees are felled in large numbers in a short period of time, off-gassing of carbon occurs.
Geographer Matt Hansen states, “Removing forests not only means the loss of their carbon-carrying capacity, but also … that large amounts of greenhouse gas are suddenly released into the atmosphere through wood-burning and clearance activities, compounding climate change problems.”
Forests sequester carbon for the rest of the planet’s nonplant life forms. When trees die of disease or are cut down, carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to the global greenhouse effect.
So, how can we deal with the increasing number of dead pines around our community? First, we can honor this forest, be more conscious of what it’s doing for us each day in providing oxygen, water, ground shade, soil stability and habitat for other creatures. We should not take advantage of the present crisis to take out healthy, living trees in order to improve an ocean view. That’s not the spirit of this community, and it harms the integrity of Cambria’s forest ecosystem.
Second, we do need to remove a substantial number of standing dead trees and “fire ladders” of dry nonnative plants. We also need to enact the existing Cambria Forest Management Plan that has been neglected and left unfunded for more than a decade. And we need a reuse program that offsets impacts of downed trees on atmospheric carbon load. This program might include a temporary co-generation plant that provides heat-generated electricity for a major local facility. It could support local light manufacturing that turns chipped wood into mulch or animal bedding or a sawmill to make usable lumber for small building or furniture projects. (Note: Local timber shouldn’t leave the area — it may be infested with nonnative pitch canker and other diseases that can spread to uninfested forests.)
Third, we need to replant healthy native Monterey pine seedlings and other native plants, create dripline trenches around trees to capture water, and develop individual household water reuse/recycling systems. We also must ensure that Scotch broom and other nonnatives don’t crowd out the plants that have lived in our stretch of the Central Coast for thousands of years.
Remember that trees give us life. They are not the cause of this predicament, not the enemy. The health of this forest, and of our community and economic well-being, rests with us, with how we treat our trees, how we work together.