Sierra Forest Legacy Newsletter


In this Issue:

A Balancing Act: Protecting the Environment and Improving Efficiency

Advancing Acceptance of Emissions Tradeoffs

Public Lands Watch

New Executive Order Promotes Misguided Forest Management

News Bytes from the Front

Ishi Wilderness-Beaver Creek Pinery Fire Project


Science in Brief: Three New Studies Find that Dense Forest Habitat was More Common than Previously Believed

Spotlight on Species

Mycotrophic Plants

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The Sierra Forest Voice Newsletter

The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 12, No. 1, March 12, 2019


A Balancing Act: Protecting the Environment and Improving Efficiency

Every few years and especially at times when anti-environmental sentiments are running high, there is a call to revise, amend or gut our bedrock environmental laws. The Forest Service’s rules for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are now up on the chopping block. You can read more about that in our March 2018 newsletter. We will join with our conservation partners to defend this cornerstone environmental law, but at the same time we plan to point out to the agency how they can increase efficiency, save money and make well supported environmental decisions.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, was designed to inform us about government actions on public lands that have the potential to harm the environment before any decision to proceed is made. Along with analysis and disclosure, both laws require that the public be informed and allowed to comment on these potential future actions. These laws provide powerful protections for the environment and enhance transparency in government decision making, but they can also be costly and time consuming for the agency to implement.

            Partnerships Reduce Costs to the Agency

Inlet to French Meadows Reservoir

Image above: Inlet to French Meadows Reservoir. Photo credit: Placer County Water Agency

There is a growing trend for partners to help the Forest Service do their work. We have several examples in the Sierra Nevada of conservation organizations forming agreements with the Forest Service to provide various services—planning, fundraising and implementation—for a variety of restoration projects. Recent efforts by Trout Unlimited on the Sequoia National Forest resulted in a decision to permit restoration on ten meadows. This planning effort was supported by funding from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Deemed a success for both agencies, Trout Unlimited intends take a similar approach to planning for meadow restoration on the Sierra National Forest. In a similar vein, The Nature Conservancy joined with the Tahoe National Forest and Placer County Water Agency to undertake planning and implementation for the French Meadows Project, a forest restoration effort for the area around French Meadows Reservoir. Not only was TNC able to attract outside funds to plan and implement this project, they were able to complete the environmental analysis in about half the time compared to other projects. These projects are examples of a new way of completing NEPA for the Forest Service that saves the agency time and money while at the same time delivering high quality environmental analysis and achieving the mutual conservation goals of various partners.

            Increase Scale to Reduce Costs  

We know that often the unit cost of something goes down as more items are produced (just look at the price of 1 pencil versus 100) and the same can be true of environmental planning. The cost for environmental analysis for a small area can be about the same as a much larger area. This cost-efficiency relationship is what has driven the Forest Service in the past 15 years to bundle various projects in a geographic area into one analysis and decision document.

The managed fire amendment on the Tahoe National Forest is a recent example of this. Originally, this national forest was planning to do a forest plan amendment to allow the management of a natural ignition, i.e., lightning, in the Granite Chief Wilderness Area. Sierra Forest Legacy and TNC approached the forest and asked that they consider expanding this amendment to include the entire national forest. The analysis costs would be somewhat more, but the area covered would increase by over 30-fold. This would mean that when conditions are right and safe, a fire started by lightning could be managed for resource benefit across most of the forest.

The Sierra National Forest is taking a similar tack for prescribed fire by evaluating a prescribed fire decision for their lands outside of Wilderness Areas. This would allow the agency to undertake up to 50,000 acres per year under this NEPA decision. Typically, the agency completes NEPA for prescribed fire projects combined with other vegetation management actions, or as stand-alone analyses. This new decision would satisfy the requirements of NEPA as long as each prescribed fire project followed the conservation measures identified in the decision.

            Tiering to Existing Environmental Analyses

Tiering is something that we hear about, but don’t have many examples of in practice. We think this a place the agency should explore to increase efficiency, and think it would also improve the integration of projects across the landscape and the evaluation of their environmental impact. We are expecting to see guidance about tiering in the Forest Service’s upcoming revision to their rules for implementing NEPA. Recently, California has taken steps to allow for tiering of environmental decisions requiring analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to existing NEPA analyses and decisions. This tiering approach or “CEQA-NEPA equivalency” is directed toward prescribed fire, thinning, or fuel reduction projects undertaken on federal lands to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire that have been reviewed under NEPA. In practice, this means that those seeking funds from a state agency to support projects on federal lands, like national forests, would not also have to do CEQA for these state-funded projects. Additional CEQA on a project that had already completed NEPA could cost upwards of $30,000, so this measure could result in significant cost savings. This NEPA-CEQA equivalency provision expires in 2023.     

            Seeking Change that Delivers Environmental Protection

As we look ahead to reviewing the Forest Service’s proposal to revise their NEPA regulations, we are focused on two things: the delivery of well-supported decisions and preserving the public’s ability to review and comment on actions prior to the agency making a decision. Stay tuned for updates in future newsletters on the direction the Forest Service is heading.

  Advancing Acceptance of Emissions Tradeoffs

We've got to get on the side of nature. We can't just fight it--and we do that in many ways. It will be expensive … But it can be done, with science, with research, with collaboration and with a lot of good will.”
Governor Jerry Brown, at the scene of the Woolsey Fire, November 2018

Camp Fire Smoke Image by NASA

Image above: Satellite image of smoke from Camp Fire, November 15, 2018. Image by NASA.

The month of November 2018 proved—perhaps better than ever before—just how deeply California’s fire-adapted vegetation and air quality are connected. During this time, some of the most populated areas of California consistently ranked as having the worst air quality on Earth due to a collection of large wildfires, including the destructive Camp Fire in Butte County. This followed a similarly serious period of poor air quality during August 2018, when the Carr, Ferguson, and Mendocino Complex Fires combined to blanket much of the state with dangerously high levels of particulate matter. Concerns over public health during these extreme wildfire smoke events has prompted an evolving effort by scientists, land managers, environmental groups, and policy makers to explore whether policy tools like the Clean Air Act can more flexibly allow for restoration of ecological fire to appropriate settings across the state.

Without question, the Clean Air Act has been critical for improving public health in California. A quick glance at a photo of the pre-1970 Los Angeles skyline  should remind us of the enormous progress  that we’ve made towards cleaning up our air, both in California and nationally. However, in the 1970s when the statute and its regulations were being written, the field of fire ecology as a formal discipline was the purview of a handful of pioneering scientists. Land managers rarely considered natural fire regimes and the affect of land management decisions on future air quality. Thus, the regulatory scheme established under the Clean Air Act unintentionally created political conditions that can discourage forest restoration activities like prescribed burning that provide public health benefits over the long term.

Los Angeles air quality, 1-6-1948 UCLA A

Image above: Los Angeles, January 6, 1948. Credit: UCLA Library Special Collections.

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQs) for the six common criteria pollutants: Carbon Monoxide (CO), Lead (Pb), Particulate Matter (PM), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2, and Sulphur Dioxide (S02). The EPA then requires states to create State Implementation Plans (SIPs) that set standards and thresholds for how each state will achieve NAAQs. In California, air quality is regulated through the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which oversees 35 local air pollution districts that enforce regulations to attain NAAQs in their area. Wildland fire smoke contains a mix of pollutants—most notably coarse (PM10) and fine (PM2.5) particulate matter—that are associated with respiratory problems and cardiovascular disease.

Air regulators generally treat wildland fires as “exceptional events,” which are excluded from exceedances of NAAQs. However, if land managers seek to light a fire intentionally (prescribed fire) or allow a natural fire to burn for ecological benefit, then they must get a burn permit from the local air district, and can be penalized if smoke emissions exceed air quality standards. This can create a barrier and a disincentive for land managers to use prescribed or managed fire as a tool to restore forest ecosystems and reduce fuels. In the Sierra Nevada, air quality regulations can be particularly tricky due to the already-poor air quality in the adjacent Central Valley, which consistently ranks as having the worst air quality in the country.

Much like precipitation, fire is a critical ecological process that has shaped California’s vegetation for thousands of years. Scientists estimate that Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forests experienced fire approximately every eight to 20 years. (These figures are based on averages, so some areas experienced fire more or less frequently). Historical observations confirm that the skies were regularly smoky in the summer time in California. Following more than a century of fire suppression throughout the Western U.S., there is now a growing consensus for the need to expand fire use to manage vegetation and fuels in drier North American forest types, and that relatively frequent low-to-moderate-severity fire reduces the potential for uncharacteristically large areas of stand-replacing fire and the smoke emissions that result. 

Recently, uncharacteristic wildfires and their smoke emissions have risen to hazardous levels in multiple events across the state at increasing frequency, intensity and duration. In response, a growing body of research is exploring the concept of emissions tradeoffs: whether allowing fire to play its appropriate role in maintaining resilience in California’s forests and woodlands may produce better outcomes for public health over the long term. In other words, shall we learn to accept small but frequent exposure to smoke from prescribed and Wildland Fire Use, or accept unplanned and potentially massive amounts of smoke from mega fires?

Air quality scientists are engaging today in  the conversation around forest and fire ecology in California through the Fire MOU Partnership. At the time of this writing, three air pollution control districts have joined the Fire MOU, with CARB participating regularly in conversations around increasing the pace and scale  of fire restoration. By improving coordination between air quality regulators and land managers, we hope to create a setting where decisions around fire restoration are based on the best long-term outcome for both forests and public health.

More information on the Fire MOU Partnership
More information and recent research on emissions tradeoffs

New Executive Order Promotes Misguided Forest Management

In late December, the Trump administration issued an Executive Order (E.O.) on “Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk,” possibly in response to the Camp Fire and other destructive fires of November 2018. The EO contains a list of policies and directives that could threaten the ecological integrity of our nation’s forests by increasing logging and doing away with protective designations. Ironically the EO, which demands that federal land managers accomplish more fuel reduction activities, was issued just one day before the longest government shutdown in history. During the shutdown, these same workers were needlessly furloughed for over a month, delaying their ability to care for our federal lands.

The EO begins by declaring a federal policy to “protect people, communities, and watersheds, and to promote healthy and resilient forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands by actively managing them through partnerships with States, tribes, communities, non-profit organizations, and the private sector." On its face, this language isn’t problematic and actually complements SFL's positive experience with collaborative forest management. However, the order then quickly moves on to blaming modern wildfires on our bedrock environmental laws.

First, the EO states that active management activities that reduce wildfire risk are unnecessarily delayed “due to challenges associated with regulatory analysis and current consultation requirements," which we interpret as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Next, the EO states that “land designations and policies can reduce emergency responder access to Federal land and restrict management practices that can promote wildfire-resistant landscapes.” While not explicitly stated, this implies that key land protection tools, such as the Wilderness Act and Roadless Area Conservation Rule, contribute to destructive modern wildfires.

These broad policy statements are followed by a series of goals aimed at reducing fuel loads on federal public lands. These include raising the Forest Service’s annual timber target to 3.8 billion board feet (BBF) for 2019 (19 percent higher than 2018 target, and 31 percent higher than 2017 target), and directing the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to identify salvage logging projects on lands burned during the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons. These goals should both concern Sierra conservationists, because (1) forest “treatments” aimed at increasing timber yield often make forests less resilient to fire by removing the larger fire-resilient trees, and (2) both timber and salvage logging projects can decrease  resiliency if they aren’t followed up with thoughtful prescribed burning, or if they are re-planted to business-as-usual tree farm density.  To make matters worse, the EO also calls for streamlining forest management projects by limiting public comment periods, increasing the use of categorical exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and minimizing Endangered Species Act consultation time.

Finally, the EO directs the federal land management agencies to complete a wildfire strategy to help inform local fire management decisions within the next two years. The study will identify federal lands with the highest probability of catastrophic wildfires, as well as areas where a wildfire would likely threaten people or structures. Of particular concern to conservationists, the EO directs federal agencies to “review land designations and policies that may limit active forest management and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires” while creating the wildfire strategy. The implication here that protected areas contribute to wildfire risk isn’t backed up by data, and ignores the fact that large undeveloped landscapes like wilderness areas are often places where natural fires can burn safely without threatening life or property. 

While the EO does include some positive language regarding collaboration with local partners, tribes, and state governments, we are very concerned to see protective designations and core environmental laws repeatedly blamed for destructive wildfires. We hope that in implementing the EO, the federal land management agencies actually consider the science around logging and wildfire risk. Sound ecologically-based forest management can occur on our public lands without eliminating environmental review and protected areas. We will continue working with federal land managers to ensure that continues to happen, using the best available science.

News Bytes from the Front

Ishi Wilderness/Beaver Creek Pinery Fire Project

Restoring fire and protecting roadless areas are two of the deepest-rooted parts of SFL’s conservation platform. This spring, we’ll be combining these two goals in an innovative effort to restore fire to an old-growth ponderosa pine/black oak forest in the Beaver Creek Pinery in the Lassen National Forest’s Ishi Wilderness. If completed this will be one of the first prescribed fires ever lit in a designated wilderness area on a National Forest in the Sierra Nevada.

Beaver Creek Pinery Becky Estes

Image above: Beaver Creek Pinery image from Becky Estes, US Forest Service

Beaver Creek Pinery sits atop a flat volcanic mesa above Deer Creek at around 2,800 feet above sea level. Unlike many low elevation forests on the west side of the Sierra, this area was never logged and experienced several low to moderate-severity fires throughout the twentieth century. Due to its relatively intact fire regime, the Beaver Creek Pinery is frequently cited as a reference site for what low elevation pine-dominated forests may have looked like prior to fire suppression.  

Now, twenty-four years after the last fire burned in the Pinery, a strategic prescribed fire may help keep the area within its historical range of variability, allowing the Forest Service to allow natural fires to burn in the area in the future. The Pinery’s location within a designated Wilderness area also provides an opportunity for an important pilot project to help demonstrate how ecologically-appropriate management actions can occur in a wilderness setting.

Throughout the spring, SFL will be convening a group of conservation organizations, forest scientists, and land managers to explore whether and how to restore fire to the Ishi Wilderness. This is an  example of the type of collaborative processes that are emerging with the development of the Fire MOU Partnership.

For more information on the project area and the research team currently studying the Beaver Creek pinery, and a virtual reality tour of this region of the Ishi Wilderness,  click here.

Read the research on fire and forest structure in Beaver Creek Pinery:

Pawlikowski, Natalie C.; Coppoletta, Michelle; Knapp, Eric; Taylor, Alan H. 2019. Spatial dynamics of tree group and gap structure in an old-growth ponderosa pine-California black oak forest burned by repeated wildfires. Forest Ecology and Management. 434: 289-302. 

Taylor, Alan. 2010. Fire disturbance and forest structure in an old‐growth Pinus ponderosa forest, southern Cascades, USA. J. Veg Science  21(3):561-572.


Prescribed Fire on Private Lands Workshop
May 17th- May 18th, 2019 Blodgett Research Forest
Georgetown, CA

Blodgett Research Forest is again offering this hugely popular two day workshop designed for landowners and managers looking to gain skills in prescribed fire planning and implementation. This is an opportunity to see first hand lands actively managed with prescribed fire.

Registration information will be available by mid-March 2019 here.
Download the flyer: 2019 Blodgett Prescribed Fire Workshop


Have a few minutes? Don't miss these video shorts and links.

Restoration in a Fire Forest: The Benefits of Burning created by the Northwest Fire Science Consortium and the Joint Fire Science Program.

Misconceptions and Benefits of Fire. This video was created by the US Forest Service and features fire ecologist Matt Jolly, ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Fire's Impact on Spotted Owls & Black-backed Woodpeckers This video short was also created by the Forest Service and features FS biologists Angela White and John Keane.

Your Home Can Survive a Wildfire featuring fire science researcher Jack Cohen. What are the "little things" that can cause your home to ignite?

The California Native Plant Society recently created a website story map presentation on the importance of fire for California's fire-adapted native plants. Thank you CNPS and intern Fiona O'Keeffe.


Science in Brief

Three New Studies Find that Dense Forest Habitat was More Common than Previously Believed   

Much of what is known about pre-European forest structure in the Sierra Nevada is based on historical photographs, localized site-specific historical datasets, and isolated reference sites. From this information, many have concluded that our mixed conifer forests were primarily open and park-like, with only a small number of very large trees on each acre. However, open park-like forests do not support some of the region’s most iconic at-risk wildlife species, including marten, fisher, goshawk, and spotted owl. These species rely on large amounts of structurally complex forests dominated by higher densities of larger trees. The dichotomy between the timber-rich habitat of dense forest-dependent species, and logging designed to create more open and park-like forests has driven controversy and conflict in the Sierra Nevada for decades.

There are rarely true dichotomies in ecology, the truth is almost always nuanced. So it should not be surprising that three recent studies on historical forest structure in the Sierra Nevada found that areas with higher densities of larger trees was more common than previously thought.

Lydersen and Collins (2018) compared aerial photographs of unlogged areas of the Plumas National Forest taken in 1941 to imagery of the same areas taken in 2005. The results found that the amount of dense forest increased from 30% to 43% of the study area, moderately dense forest declined from 42% to 32%, and there was little difference between sparse and low forest cover over the 64 year period. Although there was a surprisingly small difference in the total amounts of each forest cover class across the landscape, the spatial pattern changed dramatically, with ten times larger patches of dense forest cover and more dense forest occurring on southwestern slopes in 2005.

Easterday et al. (2018) determined how forest structure had changed by ownership type across the state of California by comparing a large vegetation dataset (18,000 plots) collected between 1928 and 1940 to a contemporary dataset collected from 2001 to 2010. Across all ownership types there was a significant decline in trees greater than 24 inches in diameter and a significant increase in smaller diameter trees, with private timberlands experiencing the greatest decline in trees more than 24 inches in diameter (-83%). The study also found that contemporary basal area, a measurement of forest density, was similar to historical conditions or had actually declined over the study period across most ownership types. For example, basal area on private timber lands averaged 245 ft²/acre prior to 1940 and is now around 158 ft²/acre.

Stephens et al. (2019) compared timber survey data collected on the Eldorado National Forest in 1923 and in 1936 to recent survey data. The study found that precipitation, average annual water deficit, and snow pack were the most important variables influencing tree density. On sites that had higher precipitation, lower snowpack, and lower water deficit there was an average of 100 trees/acre. Higher densities of trees more than 24 inches in diameter were associated with sites that had low June water deficit, and as with Easterday et al. (2018), the study found an overall deficit of trees of that size across the study area. Finally, on rain-dominated, north-facing areas, with less than 12% slope and with less water deficit, there was a whopping 361 ft²/acre of basal area. To put this into perspective, average spotted owl nesting habitat in the central and northern Sierra Nevada has about 250 ft²/acre of basal area (see Verner et al. 1992), and most thinning projects log trees greater than 24 inches in diameter and reduce basal area to less than 180 ft²/acre on even the most productive sites. Many foresters would consider this high level of basal area to not be a condition that existed naturally on the landscape.

Images below: a) and b) Sudworth 1899 photos from Stephens et al. 2018, p. 4.

Forest photo 2 from Sudworth 1899

So what do these studies mean for old forest species management and forest restoration? Managers should recognize that the historical landscape was not primarily open and park-like, and that patches of higher densities of larger trees—and therefore habitat for spotted owl, fisher, marten, and goshawk—was common and well-distributed. Management should focus on the reduction of surface and ladder fuels in locations where denser forests naturally occurred. Lastly, there is rarely a restoration justification to log trees that are greater than 24 inches in  diameter.

Easterday, K., P. McIntyre, and M. Kelly.  2018.  Land ownership and 20th century changes to forest structure in California.  Forest Ecology and Management 422:137-146.

Lydersen, J.M., and B.M. Collins.  2018.  Change in vegetation patterns over a large forested landscape based on historical and contemporary aerial photography.  Ecosystems

Stephens, S.L., J.T. Stevens, B.M. Collins, R.A. York., and J.M. Lydersen.  2018.  Historical and modern landscape forest structure in fir (Abies)-dominated mixed conifer forests in the northern Sierra Nevada, USA.  Fire Ecology


Spotlight on Species: Mycotrophic Plants

Today we shine our spotlight on a guild of species in the forest collectively called mycotrophs (myco=fungus; troph=feeding). These are plants that have evolved to obtain essential nourishment from fungi at some stage of their life history. The mycotrophic association occurs in a spectrum between two extremes ranging from partial dependency to full parasitism of the fungus by plants. Such plants are called mycoheterotrophs (hetero=different; troph=feeding), or epiparasites.

As if this isn’t complicated enough, plant-fungi associations usually involve multiple plant and fungal partners, although there appears to be significantly more specificity within the parasitic, mycoheterotrophic members of the guild. This complexity is depicted in figure 1, below. 

Plant-fungi interactions graphicFigure 1, left.  Conceptual models of plant-fungal interactions in ectomycorrhizal systems. A. A “textbook” model involves a single plant and a single fungus that exchange fixed carbon (black arrows) for mineral nutrients (gray arrows). The cost/benefit relationship is indicated by the length of the arrow. B. A more realistic model shows two plants connected by multiple fungi with differences in cost/benefit relationship between each plant/fungal combinations. Some specialist fungi (sp. 1 and sp. 5) have restricted host association patterns. C. An epiparasitic model shows a non-photosynthetic plant that specializes on one fungal species and received both carbon and nutrients from it.

(From Bruns, T.D., M.I. Bidartondo, and D. Lee Taylor. 2002. Host specificity in ectomycorrhizal communities:  What do the exceptions tell us? Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 42, Issue 2, 1 April 2002, Pages 352–359.)  

Most plants are autotrophic—they make their own food through photosynthesis, and they have green leaves and stems. In the case of autotrophic plants engaged in mycorrhizal symbiosis there is a mutual benefit for both the plant and the fungus. Mycorrhizal fungi attach their hyphae to the roots of the autotrophic host plant and an exchange of nutrients occurs—the host plant provides carbohydrate to the mushroom, and the mushroom provides nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen, and water to the plant. The mycorrhizal fungus network also helps to protect the plant roots from disease and other stressful events. 

In the forests of California, it has been known for more than half a century that conifers grown in tree nurseries fail to thrive unless they are first inoculated with the fungus mycorrhizal species that they evolved with in the natural forest. This is now a routine protocol in tree nurseries and in native plant nurseries. Over 90 percent of the world’s plants are now known to have mycorrhizal associations.

Some plants are only mycoheterotrophic in their early life stages, requiring a fungus intermediate during germination and early growth to supply the carbohydrate obtained from a third-party autotrophic host. Once established, they grow green parts and can photosynthesize on their own.  It is estimated that at least 10 percent of the plant kingdom depends upon mycoheterotrophy for the initial establishment of seeds or spores.

Obligate mycoheterotrophs are plants that are completely reliant upon fungi to supply their nutritional needs for energy rich carbon molecules throughout their life cycle. They have lost the ability to photosynthesize and may be pale or white in coloration, with no green parts. They are most commonly found in dense forest with little sunlight and are associated with old forest species. They evolved the ability to fool fungi into accepting them as a third party in a mycorrhizal symbiosis with a green autotrophic plant. Perhaps, in the evolutionary past, their relationship was established prior to the plant’s loss of the ability to photosynthesize. Globally, there are approximately 400 fully mycoheterotrophic angiosperms. In over 90 percent of the cases, the specific fungal host is not known.

Two plant families with numerous representatives of mycoheterotrophy in California are the Heath (Ericaceae) and Orchid (Orchidaceae) families.

Snow Plant Abby LaPointeThe Heath family is best known by the many species of manzanita found here. It also includes a number of full and partial mycoheterotrophs. These include species in the genera Allotropa, Monotropa, Pityopus, Pyrola, Pleuricospora, Pterospora, and Sarcodes.

Image left: Sarcodes sanguinea, © Abby Lawless

Sarcodes sanguinea or snow plant, is one such mycoheterotrophic plant in the Heath family found from late spring to mid-summer, and is limited in range to the montane regions of the California Floristic Province. It is found in mature, moist, shaded, coniferous, or mixed forests from 1,000 to 3,100 meters. It appears to be highly specific to Rhizopogon ellenae.   

Plants that can be grouped as mycoheterotrophs were previously called saprophytes, but the term is no longer applicable. Saprophytes are species that obtain their nourishment through metabolizing decaying organic matter. Most soil-living mushrooms are saprophytes, while mycorrhizal mushrooms are able to obtain plant sugars/carbon from their hosts in addition.

Sugar stick, Allotropa virgata,  is another mycoheterotroph in the Heath family. It is not encountered as regularly as snow plant. It’s called sugar stick because of the striking red stripes on its shiny white stem. Sugar stick is associated with fungi from within a narrow clade in the genus Tricholoma and is also associated with mature, undisturbed, shaded forests. 

Allotropa virgata Keir Morse

Image left: Allotropa virgata © Keir Morse (Creative Commons).


Visitors to the forests of the SIerra Nevada are likely to frequently encounter another member of the Heath family, Pterospora andromedea, commonly known as pinedrops. Pinedrops is associated with fungi in the genus Rhizopogon and has a widespread distribution. Old forest components will always be found in association with this species although it is less sensitive to disturbance than some of the other species shown here. Rhizopogon fungi do not fruit above ground. The tuber-like fruits are buried in the soil, but are relished by a variety of small mammals and are an important link in the forest food web.   



Pterospora andromedea Barry Breckling

Image below: Pterospora andromedea © Barry Breckling (Creative Commons).

Worldwide, however, the Orchid family has more mycoheterotrophic species than any other plant family. The tiny, dust-like orchid seeds don’t have a lot of energy stored to help them get established, and their location in forests with reduced light likely set the stage for their evolutionary diversion to parasitism.

One such orchid in the Sierra Nevada that you may be lucky enough to see is Cephalanthera austiniae, or phantom orchid. It’s the only member of its genus in North America, and is considered an endangered species in Canada (British Columbia). Its range extends from California to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho to British Columbia where it is restricted to the extreme southwest corner.

In California it is found rarely in the forests of the Sierra Nevada north through the Cascades, and on the coast from the SF bay area to Oregon. It’s naturally rare in the landscape and is more likely to be found in undisturbed old growth, mature and occasionally older (50–60 years) second-growth coniferous and mixed forests with deep shade and duff. It requires a large intact underground mycorrhizal network. It’s host fungi are limited narrowly to the family Thelophoracae, the two genera Tomentella and Thelephora, which are found fruiting on rotten wood, and occur nearly exclusively in intact, mature forests. The fungi are sensitive to microhabitat features and habitat alteration such as soil compaction. They are among the dominant or subdominant ectomycorrhizal species in mature forest stands although their spores have been found to withstand extreme fire conditions. They remain viable and able to colonize newly germinating pine seeds post-fire. 

Cephalanthera austiniae Earl Nance

Image above: Cephalanthera austiniae, phantom orchid. Image © Earl Nance (Creative Commons). 

Coralroot is another orchid from within this guild, also associated with old-growth forest habitats. There are three species found in the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada: spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), striped coralroot (C. striata), and northern coralroot (C. trifida). While the plants share very similar habitats and appearance, each has its own fungal associates. In the case of spotted coralroot, the associated fungi are within the Russula genus; for C. striata and C. trifida, the genus Tomentella.  

Spotted coralroot Vivian Parker Image left: Corallorhiza maculata © Vivian Parker.

The diversity we see within these symbiotic mutualisms are amazing and awe inspiring in their complexity. Scientists are unraveling their mysteries everyday, and the more we learn, the more we realise how incredibly interconnected everything is. This is nowhere more evident than in the old-growth ecosystems of the conifer forests of California. Much still remains to be learned, such as the role of biodiversity in building forest resiliency to such extreme events as the mega fires that are an increasing threat. When you see these rare waifs in your forest travels, you may want to pause and think about the life that stretches far and wide beneath your feet in the vast fungal network. What other secrets may they hold?



Learn more:

Merckx, V. 2013. Mycoheterotrophy: An Introduction. Ch. 1 in: Mycoheterotrophy: The biology of plants living on fungi. 10.10007/978-1-4614-5209-6_1.



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