Are Woodlands Important?

MR 28 oakwoodland at risk

As more and more studies are being completed, all signs point towards a severe decline in White Oak and Black Oak forests. This appears to be a phenomena that afflicts the entire range of these trees, from California to Canada. While deforestation may still be an issue (think wineries), the common thread throughout the western US is fire exclusion.

We have a pretty accurate picture of historic fire patterns. For woodland areas throughout Humboldt, a fire would burn any given area every 6-15 years. This is going back several thousand years…that is up until the early 1900s. By the 1920s the west had begun to implement a fire prevention policy for forests. In other words, put out forest fires no matter what. As result, we now have some forests that have not had a fire for over 100 years. Frequent fires historically prevented Douglas-fir from encroaching into oak woodlands, as seedlings would die before becoming large enough to withstand the fires.

Now unchecked by fire, we have rapidly growing Douglas-fir replacing oak forests that are hundreds of years old. In the next 20-30 years we will loose tens of thousands of acres of oak woodland. It will not be feasible to “save” all of this forest. Many people are trying, or at least learning how to conserve what they have on their land.

While its impractical, and probably pointless, to be trying to convert established Douglas-fir forests back to oak (assuming they were oak forests pre-fire exclusion), it could be time to be preventing the encroachment were it hasn’t killed the oaks. These oak trees are surprisingly resilient. But they need light to live. Once the Douglas-fir is dominating the overstory, the oaks have no chance. Its do or die for areas in these pictures. I believe in 20 years these oak woodlands will be Douglas-fir timberlands – unless the fir is removed.

Comercial DF in oak

Are oak woodlands important? Consider that they are are a less common habitat type in Humboldt, even more so from what has been lost in the past 40 years. Yet these woodlands are the most diverse forests in terms of plants and animals. They are crucial in maintaining our deer and up in coming elk herds. There is a reason the indigenous people of the area favored the oak woodland.

Intrinsically one forest type is not more important then the other. Yet considering the relative abundance of old growth Douglas-fir, I would consider this type important, especially in Humboldt County.

MR 28 oakwoodland at risk2


  1. Great article: my classmate Mohamad Alnakhlawi recommended it to me. We spent a week in the Mattole in August, and several people mentioned the encroachment of douglas fir into oak woodlands. I fear for the biodiversity consequences this undoubtedly has. On a more subjective note, I grew up in deciduous woodlands. So while no type of forest is inherently better than another (we need diverse micro-habitats), I definitely feel more at home in oak woodlands.

    1. Thanks Josh. Here is Humboldt we only have about 150,000 acres of true oak woodland – out of 1.5 million acres of forestland. And Douglas-fir encroachment is set to reduce that area by have in the next few decades. I also fear the consequences of this.

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