What on Earth is Stewardship Anyhow?

What on Earth is Stewardship Anyhow?

You have probably been hearing the word “stewardship” for a while now. It’s a popular word these days, and, although the Sempervirens Fund staff have gotten pretty familiar with it, we want to make sure you know what we mean when we say “stewardship.” After all, it is because of you that we are able to steward redwood forestlands, an activity that is at the core of our mission.

Botanical diversity.

Coyote brush (the smaller bush and mostly bare one too), lupine (blue flowers), Monterey pine (with the orange-ish catkins growing on it), and live oak tree in this photo display some of the botanical diversity found on Cotoni-Coast Ridge. Photo by Ann Blanchard/SVF

If you put a group of conservation professionals in a room together to define “stewardship,” a long conversation would commence. That’s because stewardship can comprise a whole host of activities associated with caring for the land. These stewardship activities vary with the landscape, the property, the season, the history of the land and the future conditions that a landowner or manager desires to create. Stewardship can include planting trees, pulling weeds, improving salmon habitat in streams, tracking wildlife, fixing roads, removing roads, building fire breaks, creating trails, putting up or taking down fences, and more.

Here are just a few stewardship actions made possible by your support.

Botanical Bounty

Purple needlegrass.

Purple needle grass was an important food source for Native Americans in California. Designated California’s State Grass, purple needle grass is considered a sensitive vegetation type by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Photo by Alice Cummings

Earlier this year, you helped us to purchase and protect the Cotoni-Coast Ridge property near the town of Davenport. This beautiful 106-acre property sits on the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Unlike most of our properties, only about one-quarter of Cotoni-Coast Ridge is redwood forest; the balance sustains a mix of iconic California coastal grasslands, coastal scrub, Monterey pine, Douglas fir, and oak woodland.

Because Cotoni-Coast Ridge possesses a wide assortment of habitats, the first step in stewarding the property is to better understand it. Before purchasing any property, we perform multiple site visits to assess conditions and identify natural resource values. For this property, however, we wanted to deepen our knowledge of what grows on the property, which areas have the highest stewardship needs, and what are the best ways to address those needs. To gather this information, we hired a botanist to research the area. He is now spending time on the property in order to study it up close.

So far, the research indicates that this land is even more exceptional than the initial evaluation indicated. The amount of intact native vegetation is highly unusual, making it exceedingly important for conservation. At least 168 different plant species grow there in eight distinct vegetation communities, including thriving purple needle grass grasslands. California grassland is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States and the lovely purple needlegrass is becoming increasingly rare in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Even with more learning to come, this botanical study already is shaping our stewardship plans for Cotoni-Coast Ridge and efforts to protect purple needle grass and many other plants in this captivating landscape.

Wildlife Watching

Mountain lion.

While this intersection may appear remote, this mountain lion is using a route heavily trafficked by wildlife moving between the Big Creek and San Vicente Creek watersheds. SVF/POST Sensor Cam

Stewarding the forests involves comprehending who uses the land and how they use it. Wildlife cameras play a key role in gaining that knowledge. We install motion-triggered cameras on all of our properties, leaving the equipment in place for months to track critter activity over extended periods. The resulting images tell us so much.

The cameras have captured images of foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, badgers, bobcats, mountain lions, hawks, golden eagles, wild turkeys, even a peacock, and other animals doing all sorts of wild things like chewing, scratching, marking territory, howling, playing and running. Last winter we installed cameras at the site of one of our creek restoration projects. The project involved the strategic placement of logs to help create an instream habitat for salmon and other aquatic species, but the cameras photographed bobcats, mountain lions, and other creatures using the logs as bridges to cross the creek. The restoration project provided a benefit for wildlife that we had not anticipated!

While the images are fun to look at, they also inform how we steward the land. We might avoid areas where bobcats are leaving their scent so as not to interfere with potential mating cues. We might route public access away from corridors heavily used by wildlife. If we capture images of human trespassers on our properties, we may need to reinforce our gates or otherwise ensure that trespass is not threatening the land in any way. Monitoring by camera is critical to knowing just what’s out there in the wild.

SVF/POST sensor cam images.

Left: You never know what surprises will appear. An occasional pet peacock dressed to impress may wander over from a neighbor’s yard. Right: A curious bachelor group of young mule deer cautiously explores San Vicente Redwoods. SVF/POST Sensor Cam

Rocking and Roading

Did you know that Sempervirens Fund maintains nearly 90 miles of roads, most of which are legacy haul roads from prior logging operations? Many of the roads are no longer in use. In time we hope to eliminate these roads and restore the areas to their natural state. But other roads continue to be needed, allowing access for routine land maintenance and restoration activities. They also enable access for public services, like fire trucks, and in some cases they function as firebreaks, particularly along mountain ridge tops.

Overburden scrap rock.

Overburden scrap rock that was once dumped into creek drainages is now being repurposed and sorted into specific sizes to create an erosion-resistant road material. Photo by Nadia Hamey

Both removing roads from the forest and maintaining roads in good working order compose a big part of our land stewardship activities.

In recent months we have been busy with loud, dirty, vital roadwork in the San Vicente Redwoods. This 8,500-acre property is bisected by Warrenella Road, a long dirt thoroughfare that is essential for property management today and will likely be a key road for public access in the future. In early 2017, the heavy winter rains severely damaged sections of Warrenella Road, leaving areas unpassable from boulders, sinkholes, and deep cracks in the ground. To prevent further erosion, we have been “rocking” the road.

Overburden rock.

Left: For each mile of roadwork completed, we used approximately 2,375 tons of overburden rock from the quarry. Yes, that is almost 30 million pounds of rock! Right: The same rock that was used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake/fire and to build the Panama Canal now forms a durable pathway on Warrenella Road. Photos by Nadia Hamey

With our partners at San Vicente Redwoods and skilled contractors, we repurposed “overburden” rock (discarded, unwanted rock) from a defunct quarry on the property. Using excavators, bulldozers, rock screeners, and more, we processed the rock and moved it onto six miles of dirt road to creating a solid, yet permeable, surface that can withstand harsh weather and frequent use. This project is a great example of creative reuse – reusing abandoned industrial material to solve road problems.

Re-Creating Resilient Forests

One of the fundamental goals of stewardship is to ensure that the land is robust enough to recover readily from future threats. For the Sempervirens Fund, this means that we want the forests to be healthy, rich with different species, and able to adapt to change or disturbance. This is no easy task.

Dense forest.

This shows a dense, overgrown, forest in the Deadman Gulch area in San Vicente Redwoods. Note the old stump at the center. The trees flagged with pink tape will be removed in order to provide the larger, dominant trees with better access to sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil. Photo by Ian Rowbotham/SVF

Some of the woodlands in the Santa Cruz Mountains are far denser than those in more pristine natural forests. Clear-cut logging in the 20th century left stumps, and from each of these numerous small redwoods now grow. Over the same period, people suppressed wildfires, leading to a greater density of trees than Mother Nature intended. Some fire in the forest is good – it clears brush and thins out the weaker trees, thereby allowing the stronger, remaining trees to thrive. Overgrown forests include small, thin trees with deadened lower branches. With intense competition for sunlight, water, and nutrients in these thickets of trees, growth on the forest floor diminishes, and forests become less diverse. These forests are also drier, and therefore more likely to be completely destroyed by fire, as well as more susceptible to disease, pests, and drought.

One stewardship method used to transform these dense pockets into strong, resilient forests is “crown release thinning.” By removing carefully selected trees -usually young, spindly ones- from the forest, we provide more room for larger trees to grow and reduce contention for the life-sustaining resources that allow them to thrive. Over the past two years, we have thinned 110 acres of redwood forests and we plan to thin 500 acres more.

Selectively-thinned forest.

On one of our properties near Boulder Creek, we removed selected trees from the forest, creating more room and reducing competition. Already the forest looks so much healthier! Photo by Ian Rowbotham/SVF

This type of stewardship work is slow going, and, really, it never feels great to cut down a redwood tree. But the remaining trees (and the forest overall) are tougher because of it. Their branches get bigger, stretch out, and create complex canopies in the treetops. As they grow, they sequester more carbon. New growth sprouts on the forest floor. Inch by inch, we are returning these forests to their natural state – resilience.

This article was originally published in our Fall 2018 Mountain Echo Newsletter.