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The Sierra Forest Voice Newsletter

The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 13, No. 3, September 8, 2020


Congress Should Expand Funding for Prescribed Fire Through Economic Stimulus

This spring and summer, SFL led a joint effort with partner groups including the Karuk Tribe in advocating that Congress greatly boost California’s capacity to conduct prescribed burns. Our proposal outlines a series of specific investments that lawmakers could make right now, through economic stimulus legislation, that would provide critical support to federal, state, and private burners working to restore beneficial fire to our landscapes. If implemented, the plan would restore over one million acres while creating more than 10,000 much-needed jobs over the next five years.

The science is clear that we need to dramatically scale up our use of prescribed fire in California.  California’s forests are among the most fire-dependent ecosystems on the planet, with scientists estimating that 4.45 million acres would have burned annually in the state prior to Euro-American settlement. Climate change and a century of fire suppression, combined with a legacy of misguided logging, mining, and development practices, have made these forests susceptible to larger, more destructive wildfires than they would have experienced historically. These catastrophic wildfires threaten our communities, as well as the numerous ecosystem services—carbon storage, biodiversity, recreation, water filtration—that forests provide. By applying beneficial fire under moderate conditions, land managers can restore resilience to our forests so that the effects of inevitable wildfires are less severe.

Currently, land managers are only able to burn a fraction of the acres needed to make an ecologically-significant impact on our state’s forests. The California Air Resources Board estimates that approximately 125,000 acres are treated with fire each year. By comparison, California’s Forest Carbon Plan estimates that one million acres of forest restoration treatments, including prescribed fire, are needed annually to make a difference at a landscape scale.

Research tells us that capacity to burn is the most significant barrier to expanding the use of prescribed fire on both public and private lands. Land managers like CAL FIRE and the US Forest Service simply do not have the trained workforce necessary to expand their prescribed fire programs to a scale more commensurate with the ecological needs of our landscape. Despite broad acknowledgement of this barrier from land managers themselves, there is a lack of clarity among policymakers about what they can do to change the dynamic around prescribed fire now.

With this in mind, SFL set out this spring to craft a prescribed fire proposal that could be used by policymakers in a future stimulus bill. As we outlined in our June 2020 newsletter, various committees in Congress have been soliciting input throughout the year to inform legislation to create jobs in a slow economy by providing a surge of funding to federal and state agencies. This concept was used in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act following the 2008 financial collapse, and many lawmakers have suggested that the same concept be applied again to offset the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along these lines, the 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act, which was introduced earlier in the summer, would provide billions of dollars in funding for public lands, including to some accounts that support forest restoration. This bill, however, does not include any specific allocation for prescribed fire, which is critical for treating the smaller surface and ladder fuels that have the largest influence over fire behavior in our forests, and can reach rugged areas that mechanical thinning and other treatments cannot.

There is no single, specific federal budget item that supports prescribed burning. Instead, prescribed fire activities are funded through a complex patchwork of federal accounts within the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior. SFL’s proposal singles out the most important programs and advocates for funding to be directed to benefit a mix of federal, state, and private prescribed burners. The following concepts are central to our recommendations:

  • Funding dedicated prescribed fire crews that are not directly used for fire suppression
  • Ensuring that a portion of funds from the Hazardous Fuels account (one of the primary funding sources for forest restoration) are used specifically for prescribed fire
  • Investing in tribes’ capacity to implement prescribed burns on tribal priority landscapes
  • Investing in prescribed fire on private lands by building the capacity of resource conservation districts, fire safe councils, and other community-based organizations to complete prescribed fire projects
  • Ensuring that the Forest Service has the necessary resources to  plan for prescribed fire projects
  • Expanding funding  for proven existing programs like the Joint Fire Science and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that provide critical research  and planning support to get more beneficial fire on the ground

SFL sent these recommendations to members of California’s congressional delegation in early July in a group letter joined by 17 partner organizations.

The contents and timing of a future stimulus bill are currently in flux as lawmakers in the House and Senate work to negotiate an agreement. The House passed a comprehensive $3.4 trillion bill in May that would greatly improve coronavirus testing, provide additional direct payments to individuals, provide hazard pay for essential  workers, extend unemployment benefits, and more. Republicans in the Senate introduced a much less extensive proposal  that lacks many elements of the House bill and would provide less support to individuals affected by COVID and the recession. At the time of this writing, the two chambers have not reached a compromise, causing the emergency $600/week extra unemployment benefits created at the beginning of the pandemic to expire. In the absence of any agreement from Congress, President Trump recently signed several legally-questionable Executive Orders to extend these extra unemployment benefits at a lower level, that would be funded by taking funds from FEMA in the midst of wildfire and hurricane season. 

Regardless of the outcome of the current stimulus talks, SFL plans to continue making the case to lawmakers that substantial investments are needed to restore resilience to California’s forest landscapes. Because they represent a region with one of the most fire-adapted climates on the planet, our elected representatives should be leading the charge for increasing funding for prescribed fire. If stimulus talks do not materialize, we plan to do everything we can to ensure that these recommendations are considered in a future legislation or general appropriations. The health of our forests and our communities depend on these critical programs.

*Note: the estimate of potential jobs that would be supported by this prescribed fire stimulus proposal was calculated by retired forest economist Neil Christensen using IMPLAN economic impact modeling. IMPLAN uses current statewide labor and market data to calculate the number of jobs that could be supported through increased spending on specific types of projects. The analysis estimates that these investments in prescribed fire would support 10,271 jobs over five years. View the full report here.

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Feinstein-Daines Wildfire Bill Misses the Mark for Healthy Forests

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Steve Daines (R-MT) have publicly stated since last August that they intend to introduce legislation to address wildfire risk in the western US. In the year following the pairs’ initial press release, reactions within the conservation community ranged from cautious optimism that the bipartisan collaboration might yield constructive legislation, to outright skepticism of the project due to Senator Daines’ abysmal environmental voting record. Unfortunately, it appears that the latter were correct:  the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act (EWPSA), which was introduced in early August, would severely weaken bedrock environmental protections, while likely encouraging unchecked commercial logging of our national forests and eliminating opportunities for public input on forest projects.

The 53-page EWPSA consists of a number of disparate sections that address a broad suite of wildfire issues ranging from home hardening in communities, to improving wildfire detection technology, to creating fuel breaks in the backcountry. While there are sections of the bill that we strongly support (outlined below), we see no need for these to be paired with others that would needlessly weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Here we provide a short summary of the bill, with an emphasis on the sections that would have the greatest impact on forests in the Sierra Nevada.

The Bad: The sections of the EWPSA below pose a considerable threat to our public lands and should be removed from the bill or, where possible, greatly altered to add appropriate environmental safeguards.

Section 101 – Forest Landscape Projects would require the Forest Service to select three western U.S. landscapes to address wildfire risk reduction through an undetermined number of projects up to 75,000 acres in size. This may be a drafting error, since the summary issued by the Senators states that this legislation enables three pilot projects. These projects would then proceed with abbreviated environmental analysis, and with a greatly weakened judicial review process that would make it unreasonably difficult for conservation organizations to challenge Forest Service decisions that would impair sensitive resources like rare species and watersheds.

Section 103 – Establishment of Fuel Breaks in Forests and other Wildland Vegetation would create a new legislative categorical exclusion that would allow the Forest Service to create 1,000-foot-wide fuel breaks up to 3,000 acres in size. These fuel breaks could be located far from communities in remote areas of the forest, including roadless areas, without any regard for environmental impacts.

Section 104 – Emergency Actions would give the Forest Service “emergency” legal authority to conduct post-fire activities including salvage logging on areas as large as 10,000 acres. This emergency determination could be made by lower-level officials like district rangers. Once an emergency is declared, a salvage logging project could proceed with a greatly abbreviated NEPA analysis and would not have to comply with a local forest plan. These emergency projects would also be subject to weakened judicial review procedures, making it difficult to hold the agency accountable for decisions that would unnecessarily harm wildlife and other sensitive resources.

Section 105 – New Information in Land Management Plans would weaken existing protections for threatened and endangered species by allowing the Forest Service to avoid consulting with the US Fish and Wildlife Service when new information arises concerning a listed species. This provision enables the Forest Service to essentially ignore new information (such as a documented sighting in a new area) about threatened and endangered species, while crippling the Fish and Wildlife Service’s traditional role of providing oversite of projects and plans on national forests.

The Good: Despite the sections noted above, we feel that the following sections of the EWPSA are valuable ideas that would help protect communities and restore resilience to our forests. These non-controversial sections should be included in a stand-alone bill, separate from the provisions noted above.

Section 102 – Wildfire Detection Equipment would encourage the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture to increase their use of wildfire detection equipment like sensors, cameras, and satellites. These technologies can help detect a wildfire early, giving fire crews additional time to respond to incidents.

Section 106 – Hazard Mitigation Using Disaster Assistance would allow for FEMA hazard mitigation funds to be used to improve power infrastructure such as underground electrical wires. This provision would prevent new ignitions from power lines during dangerous fire weather.

Section 401 – Innovative Forest Workforce Development Program would create a competitive grant program to help nonprofits, schools, and state agencies to develop training opportunities in forestry and forest restoration. This program could help states like California establish clearer career pathways into forest restoration, thereby expanding the workforce needed to complete essential projects.

Section 402 – Western Prescribed Fire Center would establish a prescribed fire training center in the western U.S. similar to the successful National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center in Florida. Lack of a trained workforce, and the complexity of training new staff, are both considerable barriers to accomplishing more prescribed burns each year.

Section 403 – Retrofits for Fire Resilient Communities would encourage home-hardening by making fire-resistant building materials eligible for funding under the Department of Energy’s existing Weatherization Assistance Program. This would help homeowners in fire prone areas afford expensive upgrades to their homes that are critical for helping structures survive inevitable wildfire events.

Section 404 – Critical Infrastructure and Microgrid Program would create a new grant program to assist rural communities with energy resilience to wildfires. This would help communities avoid dangerous power shutoffs during periods of high wildfire risk.

The EWPSA was also introduced in the House by Congressmen Lamalfa (R-CA-01) and Panetta (D-CA-20), and is currently cosponsored by a short list of representatives from Montana and California. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, and it is unclear whether it will move in 2020. Regardless, NEPA and the ESA are as important now as they have ever been, and weakening them will only result in poorly planned projects that fail to consider the needs and expertise of local stakeholders. There are over 200,000 acres of prescribed fire projects in California alone that have already completed environmental review and are ready to be implemented. If Senators Feinstein and Daines are serious about wanting to increase wildfire resilience on our public lands, they should focus on funding these projects now rather than further weakening hard-fought environmental protections.

Defending NEPA Against Rollbacks by the Trump Administration

The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) is the lodestar of America’s environmental policy, the primary way the federal government identifies disproportionate adverse impacts, and the most widespread, systematic mechanism of public involvement in government decision-making. The Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) regulations, binding on nearly every agency, have successfully implemented NEPA since 1978 with only a single, minor revision. In July, the Trump Administration adopted changes to the implementing regulations that eviscerate environmental review, public input, and sound science in government decision making. The changes radically undermine how nearly every agency in the federal government meets the environmental justice and climate challenges of the next century. The finalized rule weakens the scope of federal agency actions to which NEPA applies, reduces the scope of impacts considered under NEPA; and curtails public involvement and judicial review.

NEPA is the nation’s bedrock environmental law. It guarantees the public a voice to provide input on proposed federal projects in their communities, like pipelines, highways, and power plants. NEPA provides transparency and accountability by ensuring the communities that shoulder the heaviest burden from risky development, pollution, and the climate crisis can have a say on projects in their backyards. These policies also ensure that the effects projects could have on public health, community safety and the quality of our air and water are independently evaluated and assessed before construction begins, allowing for alternative approaches to project development after the public provides feedback. NEPA also applies to logging and other actions on National Forest Service lands and provides an opportunity to improve logging projects by reducing harm or increasing conservation benefit.

In response to this attack, a nationwide coalition of organizations from the environmental justice, outdoor recreation, and conservation communities filed a lawsuit in July challenging the Trump administration’s attack on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). At least two other groups have also filed lawsuits opposing the rule. Southern Environmental Law Center is representing 17 environmental groups and Natural Resources Defense Council is representing a broad coalition of justice and environmental groups. The suits will be making their way through the courts in the coming months, and we will keep you posted as to their progress.

News Bytes from the Front


Increasing Pace and Scale: The SERAL Project

As this year's fire cycle has once again driven home to us, with extreme emphasis, California must increase the pace and scale of forest thinning and burning across the Sierra Nevada in order to restore a more natural fire dynamic and our relationship to it. Some of the necessary work to plan and implement more forest treatments is underway across the Sierra Nevada. In the meantime, nature is doing the rest on her own, sometimes with catastrophic outcomes for both people and forests.

Various groups are at work to find where and how in their stretch of the Sierra Nevada they can work together to create and maintain resilient forest landscapes, fire adapted communities, and safe and effective wildfire response. Collaborative groups like the Dinkey Collaborative, the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group, the South Fork American River Cohesive Strategy, the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative, Yosemite-Stanislaus Solutions, and others, are undertaking efforts to identify and prioritize where forest treatments are most needed to reduce fire risk and improve forest health. Each effort is based on a variation on the same theme:  increase the project pace and scale of forest projects across the Sierra Nevada.

The most recent USFS large-landscape project proposal was introduced this July by the Stanislaus National Forest (STF). The  Social and Ecological Resilience Across the Landscape project, or SERAL, proposes activities over 116,000-acres including 38,000 acres of forest thinning with additional areas affected by land disturbing actions throughout the project area. You can find project details at the SERAL project website.

Map showing location of SERAL project on Stanislaus NFThe SERAL proposal is a follow-up to a now defunct 2019 STF project proposal, MOTORM2K, that many saw as an overly-ambitious project plan to increase pace and scale of forest work by proposing vegetation treatment activities on 1.5M acres, over 15 years, under one NEPA decision. Smaller in size than MOTORM2K, the SERAL project is still of a size never before contemplated by the Stanislaus National Forest for non-salvage timber harvest. This proposal is highly controversial for two reasons. First, it contemplates permitting logging in a single decision over a very large area. Second, it proposes a substantial forest plan amendment to alter how logging could be conducted in conifer stands that would permit the degradation of important habitat for California spotted owl (CSO), a species at risk throughout the bioregion.

The potential benefits of proposals like SERAL include the ability to plan necessary fuel treatments, including prescribed fire, strategically across very large landscapes, which could pave the way to adopt a programmatic approach to SERAL's environmental effects analysis and project approvals. Even with an approved plan in hand, the Forest Service will continue to face the challenge of having insufficient resources to implement the suite of projects proposed, an obstacle that requires increased federal appropriations for the USFS and the help of partnerships to overcome. 

The NEPA scoping phase for SERAL closed in August, 2020, and the STF expects a draft EIS will be ready for public review around December 2020. Sierra Forest Legacy, together with several other organizations, submitted a group scoping comment letter which you can read here). We are very concerned about the proposed forest plan amendment that allows substantially more logging and habitat degradation in CSO habitat, and the agency's ability to adequately disclose the site-specific impacts from such a large project. We will be reviewing these issue in the draft EIS.


Yosemite's Blue Jay and Wolf Fires: A Much Needed Example of "Good" Fire in 2020

Wolf Fire Inciweb NPS

Image above: Wolf Fire, Aug. 13, 2020 by NPS

As large wildfires continue to burn throughout California, two small, slow-moving fires in the Yosemite high country provide an important contrast to the out-of-control blazes currently threatening communities and dominating headlines. The Blue Jay and Wolf Fires—ignited by lightning in late July and early August respectively—have been burning at low intensity in the forest understory for weeks, providing an example of what wildfire can look like when allowed to play its natural role over time. The Park Service is managing the two nearby fires with a “confine and contain” strategy, where fire managers monitor a fire closely while allowing it to burn unsuppressed in a pre-defined area. This strategy allows the fires to consume fuels on the forest floor, helping keep the fire-adapted red fir and lodgepole pine forests in the area resilient to future wildfires. At the time of this writing, the fires have burned a total of 489 acres.

Visitors to Yosemite may notice smoke from the fires from multiple vistas along Tioga Road and elsewhere in the higher elevations of the Park. Yosemite National Park has been a leader in fire management for many decades, having been early to adopt policies that recognized the natural role of wildfire in shaping the Park’s ecosystems. We are encouraged to see the Park Service safely manage these two naturally-ignited wildfires during the coronavirus pandemic.

By contrast, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen sent a letter to all of the Forest Service regional foresters and station directors in June directing them to establish a policy of full fire suppression for the 2020 wildfire season in response to COVID-19. This means that all unplanned ignitions on national forests, even those in remote roadless areas, will be suppressed this year regardless of whether they might achieve beneficial fire effects.


Here's some things for you to watch, read, and listen to while you are at home during the pandemic. We hope you are all staying well and wish you and your loved ones good health during these trying times.

Sierra Forest Legacy is now on Twitter. Follow us at @LegacySierra for updates on forest conservation and fire restoration in the Sierra, as it happens.

Efficacy of Post-fire Treatments, webinar September 24, 12 noon-2 pm PST. Virtual discussion with  Pete Robichaud, Rocky Mountain Research Station focused on "What does the current research tell us about effective post-fire recovery?" Registration is free, sign up here.

Lassen Wolf Pack
The Lassen Pack has eight new gray wolf pups, according to the Calif. Department of Fish and Wildlife, bringing the pack to at least 14 wolves. The Lassen Pack is the only known remaining pack in the state. A video clip can be viewed here.

Not If But When: Wildfire Solutions Don't miss this documentary about local efforts in Nevada County to increase the use of prescribed fire to build healthy, fire resilient forests. The film "Not If But When Wildfire Solutions" is available on Amazon Prime. (39 min.)

NPR: California Teaming up with Native American Tribes to Prevent Wildfire (4 min.)

Scientific American: California Looks to Battle Mega Wildfires with Fire  As flames once again rage across the state, officials embrace a counterintuitive firefighting approach. By Jane Braxton Little.  Read it here

ProPublica: They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?  This is a story about frustration, about watching the West burn when you fully understand why it’s burning—and understand why it did not need to be this bad. By Elizabeth Weil. Read it here. 


Science in Brief: Pyrodiversity and Habitat Use by Black-backed Woodpecker

Stillman, A.N., Siegel, R.B., Wilkerson, R.L., Johnson, M., Howell, C.A. and Tingley, M.W., 2019a. Nest site selection and nest survival of Black-backed Woodpeckers after wildfire. The Condor, 121(3), p.duz039.

Stillman, A.N., Siegel, R.B., Wilkerson, R.L., Johnson, M. and Tingley, M.W., 2019b. Age‐dependent habitat relationships of a burned forest specialist emphasis the role of pyrodiversity in fire management. Journal of Applied Ecology, 56(4), pp.880-890.

Andres Stillman and his colleagues at the Institute for Bird Populations, University of Connecticut, and the Forest Service have been busy examining habitat use for black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus). Known for their strong association with severely burned forests, these two studies explore the relationship between habitat quality and nesting success (Stillman et al. 2019a) and age-specific use of different habitat types (Stillman et al. 2019b). Used together these studies help us understand the habitat needs and other factors that affect nesting success and survivorship of black-backed woodpeckers.  

The two studies presented data collected from six fires that burned in mixed conifer forests between 2008 and 2012 on the Plumas and Lassen National Forests. Stillman et al (2019a) used a variety of methods to locate active nests and track use of nests by woodpeckers. They were interested in examining several hypotheses about habitat use and reproduction, including:

  • Factors that regulate nest temperature, for example, tree diameter and nest orientation may enhance survival;
  • Nest location may provide greater protection from ground-based predators
  • Habitat with varied fire effects creates niches that are used differentially by adults and fledglings; and
  • Nests near habitat edges (i.e. between high- and low-severity patches) experience higher predation rates.

They looked at a variety of nest and habitat characteristics, and abiotic/temporal conditions to evaluate these hypotheses and explain nest site selection.

Graphic from Stillman et al 2019They found that black-backed woodpeckers clearly selected habitat with specific characteristics. They preferred to nest in habitat patches that burned with high fire severity, but also in  relative proximity to the edge between green and burned forests. The birds also selected moderately sized trees with average diameters around  37 cm, within  high density stands. Figure 2 from their study (to the right) illustrates these relationships.   

The surprising result here was that although the birds selected specific habitat conditions for nest sites, these did not always correlate with nesting success. The best predictor of nest survival was the date nesting was initiated. They suggest that this initiation and survival relationship might be driven by birds that nest a second time after their first nest fail, or increased exposure to predators later in the season.  

The second study (Stillman et al. 2019b) looked at the variation in habitats to see if this post-fire specialist required different resources at different ages. They used radio-telemetry to track fledgling and adult woodpeckers in the same six fire areas noted above. They found that “fledgling black-backed woodpeckers selected habitat with more live trees than adults and used more heterogeneous habitats burned at lower severity.” Fledglings were less likely to use snags and more likely to use live trees when compared to adults. See Figure 2 below for these relationships.

Graphic from Stillman et al 2019b

After leaving the nest, fledglings showed an increasing propensity to use snags rather than live trees over time. The authors suggest that “Adult black-backed woodpeckers selected resources associated with food availability, but these resources occurred in relatively open, exposed habitat. Fledglings selected habitat that provided increased cover, perhaps as a strategy to reduce predation risk.”

The findings of these studies emphasize that a diversity of fire effects to forests, i.e., pyrodiversity, benefit black-backed woodpeckers and that there is an age-dependence of the use of specific habitat conditions. Further, that habitat quality alone does not predict nest success and that timing of nest initiation is a significant factor. These results indicate that delaying habitat altering activities, e.g., salvage logging, and providing a diversity of patches of forest burned at different severities are likely to improve conservation of black-backed woodpeckers.


Spotlight on Species

Silk Tassel Bush (Garrya spp.)

Garrya fremontii Vivian Parker 2011

Image above: Garrya fremontii, Fremont's silk tassel, off Wentworth Springs Rd., Georgetown Ranger District, Eldorado National Forest (2011). This population was destroyed with forestry herbicides in 2020. Photo by V. Parker.

Silk tassel bush is a unique shrub found in the biologically diverse early seral forest and chaparral plant communities in California. The shrubs are notable for the pendulous catkin-like inflorescences, which dangle like silky ornaments from their evergreen branches. Once seen, they are not soon forgotten.  

There are fourteen named species of Garrya in total, ranging from Washington and Oregon in the north, to  California and the southwestern states and Mexico, with one outlier in Guatemala in the south.  Named by early explorer David Douglas for his friend and benefactor, Nicholas Garry, the first secretary of the Hudson Bay Company, they are generally considered to be the only members of the plant family Garryaceae, or Silk-tassel Family (some authorities include the Asian  genus, Aucuba).

In California, there are six species of silk tassel ranging from the northern to the southern border, with populations occurring on the coasts and inner coast ranges, in the deserts, the foothills and the mountains. They occur at elevations ranging from coastal sea bluffs to 7710 feet.

In the Sierra Nevada, the species you are most likely to see  are Fremont’s silk tassel,  Garrya fremontii, also known as bearbrush, and Garrya flavescens, or ashy silktassel.  

The range of Fremont’s silk tassel is apparently the most broad. It is known from the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, and in the Klamath Mountains and Coast Ranges from Josephine and Jackson counties, Oregon south to Monterey County, California.  In the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada, it occurs from Lane County, Oregon south to Madera County, California.  A disjunct population occurs in the Transverse and Peninsular ranges in Riverside, Orange, and San Diego counties, California.

Ashy silktassel  has occasionally been reported within the Sierra Nevada, but its distribution appears to be primarily on the California coast from Mendocino County south to San Diego County, in the inner coast ranges, and in the foothills of the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada. It also ranges to Utah and Arizona. 

These two species intergrade easily where their distributions overlap, making distinguishing them highly problematic. Hybridization along with intraspecific variation contribute to the ongoing uncertainty about their taxonomic status. Some researchers believe that this is a relatively new plant family, evolutionarily, with adaptations to the difficult climatic conditions in the west. Under climate change, the harsh conditions of our region’s climate are going to get even harsher, making it important to maintain sufficient numbers of these and other lesser known species so that they can adapt to the changing climate. The relatively widespread distribution of the genera, and their tendency to hybridize, may be important for this family. Protection of their habitats and the ecological process of frequent fire may be essential to maintain their viability and facilitate adaptation.    

The species are, in general, distinguished by varying characteristics of hairiness on the underside of the leathery leaves, and differences in the leaf margins. These characteristics are best observed with a hand lens.  The shrubs can be six feet tall.  Seed production begins after eight years, with one seed per fruit (occasionally two).   

Fruit of Garrya fremontii by Belinda Lo

Image above: Fruits of Garry fremontii (Fremont's silk tassel) in the Plumas National Forest. (c) 2020 Belinda Ho CC by-NC.

Silk tassel bush is a dioecious plant, which means there are separate male and female plants (like Cannabis, and willow). It is thought to be primarily wind pollinated. This reproductive strategy requires the presence of both male and female plants within pollination range of one another.   

Silk tassel is generally a chaparral species, primarily found in semi-arid conditions, and in the Sierra Nevada, you are likely to see it appear after fire. Like manzanita and Ceanothus, fire aids reproduction through scarification of the seeds and opening up the forest to sunlight. Silk tassel is also able to sprout from the crown after fire.

Fire may be a requirement for long term survival of Garrya. Many chaparral species in the Sierra Nevada exist as seeds in the forest floor during the later stages of forest succession, after adult individuals are shaded out by conifer overstory and have disappeared  from the landscape. Silk tassel has been found to survive under relatively shaded conditions and may not be strictly limited to early successional forests, but it does cease to be seen in late seral forests. Fire suppression and post-fire plantation forestry are the greatest threats to its long-term survival.

In the early successional forest environment, forest managers routinely attack silk tassel bush with herbicides and bulldozers in preparation for post-fire conifer planting, alongside oak, manzanita, hazel, dogwood, bitter cherry, coffeeberry and other fruit and nut bearing species that provide essential foods for wildlife. This is particularly dangerous for silk tassel because it cannot self-pollinate. Even if an individual survives post-fire herbicide spraying, it won’t be able to reproduce if there are no other individuals of the opposite sex. Foresters are apparently not aware of silk tassel bush at all, mistaking it for manzanita which it superficially resembles when the plants are young or not in bloom. There is no biodiversity  protocol in place to protect silk tassel bush, as it isn’t considered a rare species.

The leaves of silk tassel bush are important winter and spring browse for deer, and the fruits are eaten by birds, many different mammals, and rodents. Wood rats, an important prey species for spotted owls, are also known to eat and store the seeds.

The unique silk tassel bush is but one of the plants in our forests that contribute to California’s designation as one of thirty-six of the world’s biological hot spots. California has more different species of plants than any other state in the U.S.; and there are more rare plants here than many states have plants in total. To protect silk tassel bush, forest ecosystems must be managed using methods that mimic nature. Protection of natural succession processes after fire, for example, is essential to ensure the survival of species that depend upon fire for regeneration. For as Aldo Leopold said, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Learn more:
Photos and an interesting discussion about pollination in Garrya elliptica

Find documented locations and learn more about silk tassel bush in California, at the Calflora website.



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