News headline: “California Sudden Oak Death Reaches Catastrophic Levels”

29 10 2016

Yesterday I read a news report with the headline “California Sudden Oak Death reaches catastrophic levels“.

Yesterday I also read a news report “Standing Rock: militarized police from 5 states escalate violence . . .

Now it may seem obscure to most, but these two issues are intimately related. Let me explain how.

The first report states that California is experiencing a crisis in tree mortality with over 66 million dead trees, all attributed to a single disease (Sudden Oak Death) and a single insect pest (Pine Bark Beetle). The report features statements from two experts, a pathologist and an entomologist. Neither scientist mentions a single word about possible solutions.

And to make matters worse, regardless of which way the weather trends, they say that the death of the trees will be exacerbated. More drought will fuel Pine Bark Beetles, and wet weather will favor the spread of Sudden Oak Death. All appears hopeless in any direction.

Now I have no problem highlighting the serious forest health issues we are having in California. Trees are dying and it is affecting us all. The problem I have is that this issue is not reducible to two species of organisms. Even if we could find a cure for Sudden Oak Death and Pine Bark Beetles, the trees would still be dying. There are dozens of other diseases and insect pests that would fill their niches.

When one recognizes that the problems affecting our forests are not pathological or entomological, but are ecological and ethnographical in nature, then solutions become self-evident. California forests that were tended with fire by native people for thousands of years are now declining due to over-competition and soil acidification. Diseases and pests that are normally controlled by fire are now flourishing.

As the Standing Rock protest illustrates, we have lost our connections to the people and practices that gave us such magnificent lands and forests. Honoring our native people by tending to their legacies is one way of supporting all that they live and stand for.

This website is offered as testimony to the promise of traditional values and knowledge in forest health and restoration. Contained here are many hundreds of photos documenting the recovery of sick and diseased trees using solutions based on practices and materials used by native people for thousands of years.

In other news from yesterday – a sick oak that has been treated with traditional practices is making a steady comeback . . .



Carmel Valley heritage oak

21 10 2016

Every so often I get asked to provide some care for a single tree, usually a large heritage oak that dominates a particular property. Following a motto of “one tree at a time”, I never hesitate to help. So last year a Sudden Oak Life colleague, Shannon Boyle, and I had the honor of helping a massive, Indian-era coast live oak in Carmel Valley, CA. This ancient oak has clear signs of being pollarded and tended by the native people who lived in this valley hundreds of years ago. We applied fire mimicry methods to the trunk and the soils around the oak. One year later the canopy is showing a noticeable response in density, greenness, and size.

Deep gratitude to our ancestors for giving us these creatures. What better way to honor our Native American fore bearers than to extend the life and health of their legacies!


More Carmel oaks respond to fire mimicry

13 09 2016



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Carmel oaks respond to fire mimicry

13 09 2016


Two years ago a property owner in Carmel, CA approached me about helping improve the health of her sick oak trees. When I inspected her oaks I found them to be severely diseased and the canopies very thin. I told her that I wasn’t sure I could save her diseased oaks, but that I felt confident I could help her other oaks. She agreed to have all her oaks treated with fire mimicry.

Two years later, the diseased oaks (first three sets of photos) are recovering nicely and the remaining oaks on both properties are showing improved canopy health. The photos below show the results of all the oaks I’ve treated on her property over the past two years. The photos show a nice response in some oaks, others showing a limited response. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results in just two years.


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Shell midden and tree health hypothesis confirmed in Pacific Northwest forests

11 09 2016


Indeed, it’s becoming clear that native people of North America knew how to grow big trees! In 2006 I published a peer-reviewed chapter titled “Ecological evidence of large-scale silviculture by California Indians” in the book Unlearning the Language of Conquest (Four Arrows, ed.). In that chapter I proposed the hypothesis that “the many types of refuse mounds and middens, including shell middens, bone middens, and rock middens originate not from the gradual accumulation of the waste products of daily living, but rather from the intentional stockpiling of gathered or recycled lime-rich materials for use as mineral fertilizers.” A careful review of the literature at the time indicated to me that this hypothesis was novel to modern science, though not at all novel to traditional ecological knowledge. Furthermore, I provided evidence for the fertilization effect of midden materials on trees that I collected from a giant sequoia grove in central California and from a grove of western hemlock and Sitka spruce trees in southeastern Alaska, which I attributed to intentional tending by native people.

Now, ten years later, comes a study published in Nature Communications detailing the positive effects of shell middens on the growth and health of western redcedar trees in coastal British Columbia. The paper, “Intertidal resource use over millennia enhances forest productivity” (by A.J. Trant et al. 2016. Nature Communications 7:12491) makes several key points that are relevant to my original hypothesis. These include:

“Pockets of enhanced forest productivity are associated with increased phosphorous availability resulting from higher soil pH from the slow leaching of calcium from shell middens along with the nutrient amendments of past fires.”

“Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) trees growing on the middens were found to be taller, have higher wood calcium, greater radial growth and exhibit less top die-back.”

“Coastal British Columbia is the first known example of long-term intertidal resource use enhancing forest productivity and we expect this pattern to occur at archaeological sites along coastlines globally.”

This last point I take some exception to, as Trant et al. fail to recognize that examples of the same phenomenon were reported ten years earlier in my peer-reviewed publication noted above. I might have given them a pass for unintentionally overlooking my work, except that when I do a google search on “shell middens and tree health” my 2006 publication shows up on the first page of results. Perhaps the authors were careless in their searches, or viewed the evidence I reported as somewhat scant, which I agree it was. But any peer-reviewed hypothesis with supportive evidence, scant or not, deserves to be cited and recognized as taking precedent to any later work.

I’m not asking for any personal recognition here, rather I’m hoping to point out that in the ten years since I first published the above findings I have used midden materials (crushed shells and rocks) in the treatment of thousands of oaks and other trees, with good to excellent results (see the many previous posts on fire mimicry). This, to me, is the real evidence supporting the shell midden hypothesis, and more importantly, demonstrates the immense ecological wisdom of the native peoples of the world who discovered this relationship millennia before modern science. Hopefully the authors of the recent paper will take the next step, as I did, and use their findings to make a difference in the health of trees and forests in British Columbia!



Variable one-year responses of birch, apple, and pine trees to fire mimicry

28 07 2016


Shown here are several birch, apple, and pine trees that were treated last year with fire mimicry. Telling from the photos it appears that the birch trees have response moderately, and the apple trees have responded significantly! The pine trees have yet to show much response. This seems to be typical of pines, which can take several years before showing visible responses (see  here and here).


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Pine, oak, and ironwood trees in Big Sur responding nicely after a decade of fire mimicry

20 07 2016

What is fire mimicry?

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