The importance of forests in our lives cannot be overstated. They provide us with clean water and air, thriving wildlife habitats, consumable products, recreational opportunities, and scenic beauty. There is evidence that time spent in forests can also reduce stress. In Marin County we live surrounded by forests and enjoy the many benefits they afford. With these benefits comes our shared responsibility to maintain and preserve our forests for future generations. Concern for our heritage compels us to become forest stewards.
Exactly what can be classified as a forest is unclear, but all definitions focus on trees and the ecosystems they support. The canopies provided by groups of mature trees shelter vegetative undergrowth that in turn offers protection for many smaller plants, animals, insects, and microscopic soil dwellers. Biodiversity is the sign of a healthy forest and it all depends on tree cover.
The plentiful and diverse forests in Marin are in national, state, and local protected areas as well as in urban spaces and on private land. Forests are categorized based on the predominant tree cover. There are hardwood forests featuring oaks, madrones, and bay trees, evergreen forests with redwoods, firs, and pines, and many mixed forests of conifers and hardwoods. In addition to the federally protected forests such as those in Muir Woods and Point Reyes, there are woodland state parks including Mount Tamalpais, Samuel P. Taylor, and China Camp. A number of preserved forest areas are part of the Marin Municipal Water District Watershed. The 18,400 acres of Marin County parks and preserves are also abundant with forests.
What may be surprising is the prevalence of urban forests in Marin and the important role they play in the benefits we appreciate. Urban forests are the stands of trees in town parks and along city streets and greenbelts. That grove of tall redwood trees on the neighborhood corner can be considered an urban forest. Urban forests reduce pollution, store carbon, control storm water, reduce noise, and increase property values. They mitigate the effects of “heat islands” produced by commercial development. The goal of California’s Urban and Community Forestry Program is to create and maintain sustainable urban forests throughout the state.
The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has developed a series of publications on Forest Stewardship designed to assist private owners of forestland to manage their property ecologically. The framework provided can assist all of us to better care for our forests whether public or private. Although the loss of forests due to timber harvesting has long been a concern, wildfires and population growth are now having a greater impact. The ecological disturbances resulting from fires and expanded development lead to habitat loss, increased susceptibility to invasive pests, and alterations in the forest plant composition. One example is the overtaking of traditional oak woodlands by the faster growing Douglas firs.
As forest caretakers, we need to act both individually and collectively. When we spend time in a forest we should remember to “leave no trace”, neither taking anything nor leaving anything behind. By staying on the maintained trails, we minimize disturbance to fragile plants and living creatures. Because many of us live in areas of urban/wild land interface, how we care for our own property can impact the health of the nearby forest. Fire-smart landscaping, prompt removal of diseased trees, minimal use of pesticides and herbicides, and cultivation of non-invasive plants all help to protect forests. We can plant trees to add to the urban tree cover.
We can also take our stewardship to another level and become involved with one of the many groups working to restore and preserve our natural forestlands. Research and volunteer information can be found on the UC Cooperative Extension website, ucanr.edu, and on other websites such as the Marin Municipal District Watershed, marinwater.org, and One Tam, onetam.org.