Old Growth

Old Growth Trip

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When I have the opportunity, I love to explore old growth forests. These are plentiful in Six Rivers National Forest, as well as Shasta-Trinity and Mendocino National Forests. Here some pictures from a recent adventure. This forest is almost what would be called “California Mixed Conifer” but has some coastal nuances. Less pine and the presence of tanoak, alder and certain willow. These forests are also what we call “primary” forests, never been logged. Many thousands of acres of forest along South Fork Mountain transitioned from oak woodlands and savannah in the past several hundred years. Here is another example of transition – in an extreme sense – from oak to conifer forest.


Old Growth *Black* Oak

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This ancient hulk of a black* oak tree appears unstoppable. As parts of it die, new growth emerges. In this way, trees that produce sprouts can persist indefinitely, until site conditions change. Who knows how old this tree is. Technically, white oaks are thought to have a life span of up to 300 or so years. But I always have wondered if that takes into account new growth that eventually replaces the dying stem. Could some of these trees be thousands of years old? Regardless, trees like this contribute to the biodiversity of the landscape and have practically all flavors of the food web…

*I first thought this was a white oak, but a fellow forester pointed out that it is really a black oak. Thanks!

Crazy Trees

Look at this crazy Douglas-fir. This tree is in the stand I wrote about last time. Judging by its appearance, Id sat that this gnarly bastard has been around for a while. It is likely one of the parent trees that ultimately led to the widespread encroachment of this previous woodland.

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I also came across this oddity. Well, at least it is unique to this particular stand and is pushing the extreme western portion of its range. Like the Douglas-fir above this tree appears to be a veteran is quite old. Can you tell what it is?

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The Grandfather Tree

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This is the largest Douglas-fir tree I have ever seen (in Humboldt County). And I have never seen such ridiculous limbs. The limbs themselves are like 4′ feet in diameter and 80′ tall! The fact that it can support all that weight is a testament to the structural integrity of Douglas-fir.

What causes that swelling of limbs at the base? In general we find that tree structure is strongly correlated to its environment. Open grown trees photosynthesize more allowing for larger, more frequent limbs. And it is not uncommon to find these old, wolfy trees throughout the region with large limbs near the base. Often times these trees are hidden in younger forests that have emerged more recently, as is the case with the Grandfather Tree.

Many forests in Humboldt where previously woodlands, dotted with the occasional Douglas-fir. Prior to 1920, the forests were mostly white oak, black oak and grasslands. Of course all forests have minor smatterings of other species. All waiting for their moment. When the light or climate conditions change they may get a chance to turn the tide.

When fire was removed from the system, new forests quickly emerged. The new forests grew up in single regeneration events, so their structure tends to be uniform. Because they grow up so dense, they crowd each other out. Many die and the trees that win drop their lower limbs early, stretching upwards to out compete their neighbors.

But that is only part of the story. Genetics ultimately are the major player in tree structure, however it can be harder to notice to the casual observer. The Douglas-fir genome is very complex and after a few hours of reading about it online, I needed to take some advil! In short, conifer genomes are long and extremely complex. A product of being hundreds of millions of years old. In general the variation is subtle and difficult to notice, but occasionally you can find pockets of trees that all share some common characteristic such as sweep or taper.

All of these trees share genes that favor larger than average limbs. But it is rare to find trees with the kind of structure as the Grandfather Tree. Not surprisingly, there is a definite cohort of trees with large lower branches scattered in the surrounding forest for hundreds of acres around this tree.

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Take a look in the bottom right corner of the picture. See the smaller tree with the large limbs? Another grandkid tree.

In forests that have been intensively managed, logged and replanted many times, genes like this are on the decline. Much research has gone into developing Douglas-fir seedlings that will grow straight, tall trees with little taper. While this is good for wood production, it may not be the best for the trees long term strategy, which is to persist in a variety of climates and micro-sites. Not to mention the obvious value complex crown structure provides to wildlife, which has evolved along side these genetically diverse forests. Something to think about as we walk around these forests we call home.

Return to the Chasm of Death

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I love this spot – a beautiful yet dangerous perch. I was fortunate enough to return last month to plant some trees in a near-by logging unit. Of course being near this area, I had to take a quick hike to this spot to look down on the Mad River. As I took these pictures though, I could hear a horrible cry echoing up from the canyon. Im pretty sure it was a cow, who had either wandered down too far and gotten stuck on a cliff – or had slipped to the bottom and some how survived. I could not see where it was, but it was down at the bottom for sure, and tragically that spelled certain doom for the poor animal. After seeing this area from below during summer steelhead surveys, I can tell you there is no way to get up, without swimming down the river to a better spot – and that is all but impossible in the winter.

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Terrain like this reminds us of the stark realities of life and death. As humans we somehow find beauty in this chaos. This is what pushes us to hike to inhospitable locations, climb mountains and cliffs, and visit harsh environments. I certainly had empathy for the suffering animal, but also could acknowledge the boon to other creatures that would inevitably benefit from its demise.

Old Growth Live Oak

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One of the neat things about working as a forester is passing through the hard to get to places. Not just off the path, but on rock faces, landslides, stream canyons, etc. Topography and geology can create a impressive diversity of habitats within a forest. This chaotic assemblage of micro sites is one of Humboldt Counties trademarks.

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Old growth live oak stands like this one are not uncommon in our region, at least where access is difficult. These trees can cling to these rock outcrops for centuries. These places tend to be very harsh. Poor soils and exposure to high winds can stunt tree growth and beat a tree down. They can persist, but will never grow very large. Occasionally they are sheltered from such effects and you can find huge live oaks that almost defy imagination.

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Here is another one. This tree is just ridiculous. There were a few more like it nearby, but this one had the perfect crown. Its like a plasma globe of branches reaching out for the power of the sun. Nooks and Crannies!

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East Fork Willow Creek

Old Growth in East Fork Willow Creek.

Old Growth in East Fork Willow Creek.

I have wanted to hike around this forest for years. You can see this area from the highway and can access it pretty easily from the East Fork Camp ground when its open. I happened to have some extra time last month and hiked up into the forest a little west of the camp ground from the 299.

This is one of the largest pacific yew trees I have ever seen. I find it impressive that it is living right off the highway turnout.

This is one of the largest pacific yew trees I have ever seen. I find it impressive that it is living right off the highway turnout.

This forest has it all. Douglas-fir, tanoak, madrone, golden chinquapin, and more. The understory has the same species where light allows, as well as the occasional pacific yew. Sword fern and huckleberry make up the bulk of the ground cover. Eventually I saw a huge tree that appeared to be the biggest in the area.

After tromping around for a bit, one tree caught my eye.

After tromping around for a bit, one tree caught my eye.

I only has a few hours, and Id like to get in here someday and explore a little more thoroughly. The campground looks like a nice escape from a hot summer and even in this dry summer we are gearing up for, I bet the East Fork will keep water.

Forest Panorama

Forest Panorama

Old Growth Live Oak

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Quercus chrysolepis. It is not uncommon to find old growth live oak in Humboldt County. Because it tends to grow in places that are not easy to get to, it has been largely unaffected by past management.

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These trees are known to be long-lived and may reach ages exceeding 300 years. If you ever come across exceptionally large live oak, you can start pondering the past several hundred years and what these trees have witnessed.

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Want to find big live-oaks? Look near rock outcrops and poor soils. The biggest live-oaks I tend to find in hard to get places, often in steep canyons and bluffs.

How Old are Those Trees?


The tight rings of this stump caught my eye. The two yellow pencils represent 100 years from the edge of the bark, and then another 78 rings to the red pencil. That is 278 years to where the heart wood column had rotted out. I took a few measurements to come up with a average of 18 rings per inch in the central part of the stump – and measured approximately 6 inches to the theoretical pith. That makes for a total age of 386. Wow!


In the 1950s-1960s large tracts of privately held land where harvested on South Fork Mountain. The evidence is still present, in the form of stumps (obviously), old porcelain signs like this one, and cull logs left on landings.


Fortunately, most of the USFS held stands in the upper elevations of South Fork Mountain have been left intact. Due to the short growing season in the sub-alpine areas (+4,000′ elevation), trees can take along time to mature. The true fir trees in this picture are well over 6 feet in diameter. Based on the age of the stumps on adjacent private lands, these trees are easily close to 400 years old. Food for thought next time you are on Route 1 and wondering about the old growth stands you are driving or hunting through.

Old Growth

This Douglas-fir predates fire suppression. That makes it at least 100 years old, probably more like 150-200. It is living on the edge of a oakwoodland – prairie where thousands of seedling Douglas-fir are growing underneath the the white oak canopy. In time, not much time, the fir trees will top the oaks, forcing them to die out underneath a new forest of conifer. This is new to this region, where for thousands of years fire has prevented climax species such as Douglas-fir from dominating the forest. In the absence of fire however it thrives and remarkably quickly replaces oak as the dominate tree species.