The unknown natural treasure that is quietly disappearing due to increased fire frequencies, indifference, and outright hostility
Old-growth manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca), over 33 feet high with a trunk 6 foot, 8 inches thick. Pete Veilleux of East Bay Wilds can be seen in the canopy exploring the beauty of this ancient friend on Cedar Mountain, south of San Francisco. Photo taken by Paul Furman.
Guatay Mountain, San Diego County. A dense carpet of 8-foot-tall old-growth manzanita and scrub oak chaparral with islands of mulit-stemmed oaks punching up through the canopy. Is this rare plant community type in need of burning as some suggest? Hardly.
Marriage of an old-growth legacy manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) and an Engelmann oak that has lasted for more than a century. No fire needed here!
A Matter of Perspective
Is old-growth chaparral really something that "needs" to burn in order to remain healthy? Is chaparral older than 50 years really the "trash" some have claimed? The pejorative reference to chaparral as "brush" is really more related to outdated cattleman rhetoric than anything applicable to the need of natural, open space for a growing population.
Here are some of the typical quotes stating or implying that old-growth chaparral is in need of removal or is in some way undesirable:
"Chaparral stands older than 60 years often are decadent..."
"Eventually they (chaparral plants) get too big for their britches. The older they get, the more they look like hell in summer."
"Chamise-chaparral stands in southern California older than 60 years often are senile."
Chaparral "turns into a rather trashy ecosystem when it's 50 years old."
All of these are value judgments and are not supported by scientific evidence nor by informed observations of old-growth chaparral stands. Here’s what some who would prefer the public not develop a fondness for older stands of chaparral say about using the term "old-growth chaparral."
"This is a corruption of 'old-growth' which was coined in reference to long-lived forests whose structure and composition was maintained by wildfire before suppression. Old-growth is meaningless in crown-fire ecosystems like chaparral because old chaparral is naturally stand replaced by fire; just say “old chaparral.”
Apparently the dislike of chaparral runs deep for some.
A beautiful old-growth manzanita that was killed in the 2007 Witch Fire in San Diego County. This specimen was more than a century old. Legacy specimens like this were once common in California. But now with higher fire frequencies caused by human activity, these beautiful individuals are becoming increasingly rare.
Old-growth chaparral on the Holy Jim Trail in the Cleveland National (Chaparral) Forest. Near this location was where the last California grizzly bear was shot in Southern California - 1908.
The beautiful auburn colors of fall shown by this old-growth stand of chamise chaparral are certainly not being produced by a "decadent" patch of dying vegetation (fall in the chaparral actually occurs during the first few weeks of "summer"). The reddish-brown hues are from the fading flower clusters on the top of of the shrubs. In the background you can see mountains that were burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire.
There are a number of individuals who appear to have difficulty enjoying the beauty and dynamic nature of the chaparral...especially old-growth chaparral.
They frequently use pejorative descriptions of shrubland ecosystems in newspaper editorials, casual conversations and even during professional wildfire conferences. Managed forests appear to be their favored environments and they see chaparral as a threat. They refer to shrubs and old-growth chaparral as "trash," or "brush" (emphasized with deep, guttural sounds) in need of immediate elimination. Rather than recognizing chaparral as a viable ecosystem, they think of it as infesting areas they would like to see as forests or grasslands. Some appear to have vested interests in sending forth chipping machines to grind up large tracts of backcountry wilderness to provide fuel for power generators (yes, this is a serious proposal) while others are just honestly ignorant. For example, in failing to understand the vital role the chaparral shrub Ceanothus plays in returning nitrogen to the soil after a fire, a San Diego County land planner has advocated grinding up these shrubs in post-fire environments in order to make space to plant trees.
Whatever the cause, allowing brushphobia to influence public policy has very real and serious implications. It justifies damaging one of California's most valuable natural resources and the state's most characteristic ecosystem.
Suggested treatment: Leave the office, take a walk into the chaparral with a few children...they have the uncanny knack for helping adults rediscover their natural (and often buried) appreciation for nature. Viewing a few of Pete Veilleux's photos of manzanita might help too.
A word about the word "brush"
Words have the power to create images that do not reflect reality. They can convey hidden meanings that are intended to demean or belittle what they are supposedly describing. "Brush" is one such word. By using the word "brush" in context with native shrubland ecosystems or fire risk reduction, we are delivering the wrong message, a message that needs to be corrected.
Shrubland ecosystems are valuable resources, not "brush." Fire risk is not just about "brush" but about the entire fire environment.
"Brush" is a pejorative slang term from the 1800's, a period in which a large percentage of residents in the West lived or worked on farms and ranches. They saw native vegetation as "weeds" in need of removal so cattle could graze and trees could be cut. Our view of the natural world has changed significantly since those days. As we have begun to see National Forests as preserves for recreation rather than lumber yards, the reference to these protected wildlands as being filled with brush is no longer relevant. Shrublands not only provide us places to enjoy nature, but they also create important habitat for a multitude of native species that we have now come to appreciate.
In context with fire risk, it is important to remember the obvious: fires burn fuel. Fuel needs to be seen as anything that burns: houses, fences, wood stacks, and vegetation. At the present moment the primary focus is not on fuel, but on "brush," which translates to mean native plant communities, not Mexican fan palms, not acacia, or other highly flammable plants homeowners may have purchased at the nursery. By focusing on "brush," the complete fire risk equation is ignored. This is why people are so often confused when their homes burn down despite the fact that they have "cleared the brush." What hasn’t been properly communicated is that it's the fuel, not the "brush" that needs to be addressed. Our current language emphasizing native vegetation leads homeowners near wildland areas to ignore other fire risks around their homes (wooden roofing, improperly designed attic vents, yard furniture) because wildfire is unfortunately seen as only as a wildland vegetation problem.
So how we choose words communicates a lot. This is the reason most of us no longer find demeaning ethnic slurs acceptable and have changed our language to reflect greater equality. How we see the world is defined by what we call it. Equality doesn't start with words, but it takes a lot longer to obtain it if the words that reflect inequality and misunderstanding continue to be used.
The word "brush" should no longer be part of our vocabulary because it communicates the wrong message. It demonizes native shrublands and takes the focus of fire risk reduction away from fuel and directs it toward nature. It is time we begin thinking about adapting to the natural environment instead of pretending we can force it to adapt to us. Accurately describing nature for what it really is would be an excellent way to start.
Groups of trees are called forests. Wide expanses of grass are called grasslands. Plant communities composed of shrubs should be called by their proper name as well. Chaparral, coastal sage, and the sagebrush steppe are shrublands, not “brush."
Ancient chamise. These old-growth chamise shrubs on Catalina Island are centuries old. Take a look at the size of the trunks, especially the two on the left.