Correcting some misconceptions

In light of some of the commentary regarding the recent effort by the USFS to plant trees within the Station Fire scar, I wanted offer some information regarding the history and ecology of the Angeles National Forest.

Calling the Angeles National Forest (and especially that portion within the San Gabriel Mountains) a “Forest” is really a misnomer. The region is actually dominated by native shrublands, particularly chaparral. This is why we (the California Chaparral Institute) have proposed changing the name to the Angeles National Chaparral Recreation Area to better reflect what’s there and how the land is used. There are obviously lots of trees at higher elevations, but they really represent isolated “sky islands” of habitat that have been slowly reduced because of climate change over the past 14 million years. With the influence human activity on climate, this displacement has been accelerating over the past 100 years. The Station Fire, as unfortunate as it was, merely accelerated a change that has been occurring for a very long time.

Whenever the first humans arrived on the North American continent (there is strong evidence that a large contingent entered at least 11,000 years ago), their numbers were probably not significant enough to have a meaningful impact on the landscape until 5,000 years ago. However, once established, early Native Americans sometimes burned chaparral in an effort to increase favored natural resources (herbaceous seed crops and deer), reduce grizzly bear contact (chaparral was their favored habitat), and as a weapon against tribal enemies. To a limited degree, Spaniards continued the practice in order to expand grazing land. Once Americans arrived on the scene, fires caused by ranchers, miners, and hunters became so frequent the United States government recognized something needed to be done to protect valuable watersheds. US. Forest Reserves were first established in 1891 in part to address this concern. On December 20, 1892, the boundaries of the first reserve in California were drawn in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles, becoming part of the Angeles National Forest in 1908.

The current reforestation effort is not the first in the San Gabriels. During the 1920’s over a million conifers, a substantial share of which were non-native, were planted in the San Gabriel Mountains. Most were eventually killed by fire or drought, finally convincing foresters that chaparral, not forest, was the most sustainable plant community in the area. The current USFS effort to plant trees failed to fully consider the implications of this history.

The belief that shrublands are not the natural state of most of the Angeles, especially the San Gabriels (photo below), is not supported by historical, geological, or biological research. The conflict some appear to have with the data may be a matter of location or time. Although Coulter pines and pinyons grow below the 5,000 foot level, most of the region’s pines do not. Big-cone Douglas fir’s are generally restricted to extremely steep canyons in association with chaparral and oaks. Elevation and the limiting factors of moisture and soil type are the main reasons why about 75% of the Angeles National Forest is not forest, but primarily shrubland. It is not biologically possible for forests to exist in most of the region. However, during the late Pleistocene (28 to 50,000 years ago), forests were indeed much more prevalent. Based on pollen studies it has been suggested that plant community distribution (forests for example) dropped in elevation as much as 2,700 feet because of lower temperatures and higher rainfall than we have today.

Unfortunately, there are not many pollen studies for Southern California or historical records on conifers in the region for that matter. But there a few papers available that can provide some good background on the past and current condition of the Angeles National Forest. We have uploaded them on our website so they can downloaded easily. The last paper is linked to the USFS site.

Anderson, R.S. and P.A. Koehler. 2003. Modern pollen and vegetation relationships in the mountains of southern California, USA. Grana 42: 129-144.

Anderson, R.S., M.J. Power, S.J. Smith, K. Springer, E. Scott. 2002. Paleoecology of a Middle Wisconsin deposit from Southern California. Quaternary Research 58: 310-317.

Minnich, R.A 2007. Southern California conifer forests. Pages 339-366 in: M.G. Barbour, T. Keeler-Wolf, and A.A. Schoenherr (eds.), Terrestrial Vegetation of California, 3rd edition. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Stephenson, J.R and G.M Calcarone. 1999. Southern California Mountains and Foothills Assessment. Gen Tech Report GTR-PSW-172. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. 402 p.

San Gabriels II.jpg

6 Comments on “Correcting some misconceptions


    Correct in the sense that the majority of land area is chaparral which acts as a protective barrier for the surrounding forests. Sadly many of the actual prime forested areas were and are developed as primo expensive human living bedroom districts for the wealthy. Many once pristine old growth habitats of actual forests will never be realized again as a result of this infiltration. While living in Idyllwild CA, I remember some of the stupid things people did on their own land that destroyed some old growth pines. There were several families up there that were from the rich class Equestrian Crowd who put stables and horse paddocks all around their old growth Ponderosa Pines. I stopped by and warned some of them of the compaction danger and excessive nitrogen release by dropping and urine into the surrounding soil and that the trees even though very huge and looking like mighty fortresses were in fact fragile under such circumstances. You can imagine the arrogance and condescending replies I got from these financially successful folk. No need to elaborate here.

    Exactly a couple of years past and most of these huge old growth Ponderosas died a sudden unexplainable death. (well, to the owners anyway) I was in town one day at a Cafe and one of these residents were sitting there at a table in one of the restaurants with a group I was with and the discussion was about this sudden death of giant Ponderosas. Someone suggested maybe it was all those horses that caused the death. The individual chirped up and said “Why didn’t anyone tell us about this?” (which I presume they meant why didn’t the government officials tell us) With the innocent excuses flying all over the place of what could have happened and what they could have done to avoid this, I finally had enough and reminded the Equestrian estate owner that I stopped by their place a couple years previously when they first built their stables and paddocks and told them what was GOING TO HAPPEN. Still they played ignorrant, but the same things have happened out in the prestigious Garner Valley Ranchette Properties area, but you cannot tell some of these folks anything, especially if you’re not in their tax bracket.


    Yes sir! And you can count on it getting worse. Some of the stupid things people do on their own land and on days when fire conditions are primo. For example a common ignorrant things that happened up in Anza would be some clown doing some welding work on a trailer next to dry foxtail grasses.

    I’ve done my own share of stupid asinine mistakes though. I heated my home strictly with wood stove. I cleaned out the cinder box tray from our woodstove one afternoon thinking is was only ash from the night before. Dumped it under some Redshank I had, thinking I was doing the eco thing by returning ash back into the soil. What I didn’t realize was that there were a couple of charcoal chunks with some spark life left in them. There was a full blown gusty Santa Ana wind condition on that day when I dumped it. I was working around the other side of the house when I noticed this white billowing smoke on the other side. I ran around the corner and saw the fast moving low burning flames moving westward under the Redshank overstory. Grab the hose and got there just in time to put it all out.

    The area burned was about 20 foot square. I really dodged a bullit that day. I realized how out of control it could have been and how many of my neighbours homes and lives could have been lost, besides going to jail and being in debt the rest of my life. Plus the plagued conscience factor. ‘Whew’


    One of the things that blew me away in that article was the huge cost of almost one million dollars that was just thrown at the project. I can’t imagine such a thing would cost so much. I’d be interested in actually knowing where that cash all actually went to and WHO profited. What amazes me is that they haven’t actually changed their tactics as far as a throwing thousands of concentrated pines out there and playing the numbers game. I can tell you that seed sources are going to become more and more rare as time goes on and this gambling practice of playing the numbers won’t work anymore. I some areas they cannot find local seed source from species adapted local environmental sources. I know from experience in helping neighbours buy bareroot stock that LA Moarn Reforestation Nursery wouldn’t sell to you if they had no local seed from that surrounding area.

    I know what you mean about reforestation in the old days. Alot of Knobcone pine was heavily used as can be seen if you drive up from Banning to Idyllwild on Hwy 243. The project was called Penny Pines Plantation which is on both sides of the highway just beyond the roadside pullout at Baytree springs where all the Vietnamese congregate to to wait their turn to fill up massive containers for the spring water to be hauled back dow the mountain to their homes in Banning and Beaumont. I also know why knobcone was used. Under even the toughest conditions it can be fast growing and cover quickly. Well, I can’t blame them for the ignorance of the past, but it still seems that with all the knowledge we now have at our disposal, why are so many of the failed conventional science based technics still employed when many researchers have actually found out the truth about how things actually work ? Go figure!

    BTW, here is a recent January 2012 report on the Hwy 243 management of this area. They call it the Palms2Pines CMP Draft:

    Click to access Palms2PinesCMPDraft.pdf

  2. Timeless, we’re quite impressed with your writing ability. If you think you might want to contribute a 600-750 word piece related to the theme of “Truth” in the next issue of The Chaparralian, we would be happy to accept it.

    Specifically we are discussing when shades of truth eventually become lies… this is especially relevant when it comes to the implementation of government policy and actions by corporations to mask the real reasons for what they do.

    If you are interested, please send us an email by going to our about page.

  3. manzanita3

    ‘Specifically we are discussing when shades of truth eventually become lies… this is especially relevant when it comes to the implementation of government policy and actions by corporations to mask the real reasons for what they do.’

    Interesting subject and something I’ve spoken about before, but from a common human failing standpoint for which all forms of leadership be they religious, politician, Scientific world, big corporate businss entities, etc are all prone to do when they want something. It’s a sort of marketing tactic for which parts of a truth are communicated with generous portions of exagerration and even embellishment upon, but not all the truth is mentioned. They technically do not tell a lie, but they also do not tell the whole truth.
    I have seen it more with science and religion more than any of the others as I have to admit I have never been political. Though I have every confidence they fall into the same category of marketing themselves and their ideas.

    I don’t know specifically what you want, but I’ll email you and ask for specifics.

    Thanks again, Kevin

  4. A great essay on the problems of putting trees where they don’t belong at Charlie’s blog, Slow Water Movement.

    Where a tree shouldn’t be

    Trees are great. They clean the air, and replace carbon dioxide with oxygen. They offer shade and homes for animals. They hold the soil, protect watersheds, and improve water quality. For these reasons, among others, people like trees. People plant trees and usually this is a good thing. Except where it isn’t…

    More at:

  5. To say that the Station Fire was merely an accelerated change that was happening for a long time is a very powerful statement. It was arson. If your house was burned down (bad example?) you’d probably want it back even if you knew that it would only last 100 -200 years. It really wouldn’t matter that your neighborhood was going to be leveled by new construction, earthquake, fire, flood, plane crash, or explosion at some point in the future either. There is a “fear of loss” mindset out there (right or wrong) that many people can get behind emotionally and financially.

    I would definitely be against renaming the area from a National Forest, especially if it would create a whole new set of red tape for people like me who want to bring people into the outdoors for commercial / educational purposes. I’m already dealing with MRCA and National Park Service. At believe the Forest Service (for the most part) does a good job and they are much more flexible than other agencies I have spoken to.

    I’m not sure about the planting of millions of dollars of seedlings – I tend to give USFS / NPS some credit for knowing what their land looked before it lost trees. Whether it makes sense to replant or not is really a question of what they are trying to do with the land. I think that’s an important point. Many agencies are trained to protect the land – in that regard, they tend to want to replace what is lost. Unfortunately, humans have a hard time seeing out 100-200 years into the future when it comes to environment and trees. 200 years from now, how much of Angeles will be chaparral?

    Private land owners do stupid stuff on their land all the time when it comes to trees. It’s their right actually. They generally have less knowledge of how the trees got there and how to care for them than a forester or arborist might. In the end, the land-owner makes the call. A great example is growers of trees as crops (x-mas trees). Once those trees are cut (taken away), they are no longer doing all the great things that people love about trees – creating habitat for animals, preventing erosion, providing shade, holding water, creating O2. The next planting will start the cycle again. Yet, two different land-owners can look at that same grove of trees two completely different ways. One will want to harvest it, the other will want to preserve it. If a forest fire occurs, both will likely want to replant it, regardless of how it got there in the first place.

    • unripecocnut makes some interesting points
      not all do i all agree with
      but i appreciate them for both their content and their provocation
      i want to assume that unripe did not presume to be comprehensive
      but instead wished to add dimensions
      i like that

      one assumption, though, bears my adding some data:
      I am a land owner. I have lived on some of the lands I have owned, with a high degree of non-technological self-sufficiency. I would not, and would not have, “replanted” them if they had been burned by a fire, nor would have wanted to replace the buildings I would have lost. That is not BS nor revisionist history. For instance, I purposefully did not purchase fire insurance precisely because I considered that living on (literally) the wildland-urban interface was intentionally to receive the benefits of the wild and that necessarily meant accepting being affected by ALL the dynamics of the wild.

      Put another way, I wanted to live in intact ecosystems, in order to more easily partake of the benefits of them (such as needing less inputs and human-powered “pest control” measures in order to grow food without synthetic chemicals, and such as having 24/7 supply of some of the finest water I have ever experienced.) Fire is part and parcel to intact ecosystems. Life is full of gambles and trade-offs. Structures are “stuff”. I eventually did “lose” the benefits of the finest property I have, to date, been blessed to occupy, but it was not from fire and to want to have back what I lost is a Fool’s Errand. I left it all to her and started over from scratch. There are many ways to get burned, and regeneration is fractal — it never produces identical structures. That is how life unfolds. To expect to be able to play it differently is fantasy.

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