Monday, October 5, 2015

Time Heals All Wounds. Or Does it Just Hide Them? The Ghosts of Nelder Grove

It's a beautiful place, really. It was one of the most serene places I've been in my travels, away from busy roads, cities, tourist traps, and most of all, crowds. We were only 10 miles from Yosemite National Park on a Sunday afternoon, yet we shared the place today with just six other people, all of whom were quietly looking up as if in a a medieval cathedral.
Sequoia groves are like that. The ancient trees are so big and so tall, so grand, that they seem to inhabit a different universe than "normal" trees. They tower above, like placid gods looking down on their earthly domain. They are the only species in their genus,  Sequoiadendron giganteum. The species, or species very much like it, once grew across the northern hemisphere. Through habitat loss, perhaps related to the ice ages, they disappeared from most of their range. Only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada have they survived, living in 68 isolated groves, and numbering only in the few tens of thousands (the more widespread Coast Redwoods of northwest California are related, but are classed in a different genus).
We were walking through a mountain cathedral, marveling at the beauty and size of the incredible trees, but I realized there were ghosts all around us. There were only 16 mature Sequoia trees along the trail we were following, but there were dozens of gigantic stumps. This serene forest was a shadow of its former glory. Someone had cut down these forest giants. According to the Friends of Nelder Grove, the entire grove includes just over 100 mature trees spread over 1,540 acres (2.4 square miles). There are 277 stumps hidden in the shadows. Three quarters of the trees that had survived for 2,000 years or more were cut down in a few decades, between the 1890s and 1920s.
The sad part is that the wood, though resistant to rot, is brittle and was rarely used for anything more substantial than grape stakes and shakes, even toothpicks. As much as 75% of the wood went to waste, as most of the trees shattered when they hit the ground. Loggers would build trenches filled with tree branches for the trees to have a soft landing, but to no avail.
The remaining trees have been protected since the 1920s, but they still face some serious threats. The trees are adapted to fire. Their trunks are very thick and do not readily burn, so the wildfires that would burn through the grove every decade or so would kill off saplings of other trees and clear the forest duff, but would rarely kill the Sequoia trees. The nature of the fires has been changing. The policy of the Forest Service for decades was to suppress fires at all cost, allowing the other conifers like White Fir and Sugar Pine to grow very tall, reaching the lowest branches of the giant Sequoia trees.
Sugar Pines are especially susceptible to catching fire, and the fire rises up the trunk into the crown. Crown fires can kill the Sequoia trees by destroying their foliage. So by protecting the trees from fire, we've made it easier for fire to destroy them. The situation has not been helped by the growing effects of global warming. Ongoing drought has led to super wildfires on a scale never before seen in the Sierra Nevada. Several recent fires burned through 200,000 acres or more.
The deep conifer forests threaten the Sequoia trees in a different way. The seedlings need bare soil and sunny conditions to germinate, but the thick forest instead provides shade and thick forest duff. The remaining ancient giants are not being replaced by young trees, not at a rate fast enough to guarantee the future of the grove.
At least we've reached a point where we know what many of the problems are, and steps (sometimes baby steps) are being made to preserve the future of these incredible trees. In the meantime, the Nelder Grove is a quiet treasure, a beautiful place for meditation.
The Nelder Grove is off of Sky Ranch Road, about 8 miles off of Highway 140 north of Oakhurst, just a few miles from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. The last two miles of road are unpaved, but the gravel is well-graded. Our walk was along the Shadows of the Giants trail, but there is a network of trails throughout the grove. The Mariposa Grove in Yosemite is presently closed to visitation as the site is being renovated to improve the visitation experience and protect the trees. Of course when it is finished, the grove will still be visited by hundreds of thousands of people yearly. If you want to see a Sequoia grove the way it should be, quiet and uncrowded, check out Nelder. For more information, check out the web pages of the Friends of Nelder Grove, or this Sierra Nevada Geotourism site.