Restoration Science at Work in Headwaters Forest Reserve

Along California’s fog-shrouded north coast, the majestic Headwaters Forest Reserve is in reality two vastly different forests. Its caretaker, the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System, is striving to merge them into one.

At its heart is one of the world’s last stands of ancient redwoods, some more than 1,500 years old. Their branches reach to dizzying heights, providing haven for northern spotted owls and intrepid marbled murrelets, tiny birds who forage at sea and nest in the redwood limbs. Ferns carpet a shaded forest floor unmarked by roads. Elk River and Salmon Creek spring forth, nourishing the beginning of life for salmon and steelhead trout. Bears, foxes, and mountain lions inhabit this primeval world.

Surrounding this 3,000-acre grove are more than 4,000 acres of harvested forests, where jagged stumps, miles of sediment-producing roads and rudimentary stream crossings provide evidence of a century of logging. There are remnants of a railroad and sawmill town, and as of late, amenities for several thousand visitors who come here each year.

For a decade, the BLM and its managing partner, the California Department of Fish and Game, have focused efforts on restoring the logged lands, nudging the Headwaters Forest Reserve toward an ecological condition more closely resembling the untouched groves at its heart.

“While we can’t completely erase the marks of previous logging in the second growth forest, we are making steady progress toward restoring conditions,” says Chris Heppe, who manages the Reserve for the BLM’s Arcata Field Office. “We are conserving and studying the land, fish, wildlife and forests, and providing compatible recreation opportunities." 

Heppe discussed monitoring and management of the Reserve in Monitoring the Road to Recovery in Headwaters Forest Reserve, during A Decade of Discovery, a Science Symposium in celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, May 24 – 28 in Albuquerque, New Mexico in partnership with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

“In the decade since Headwaters became public, we have planted nearly 50,000 redwood seedlings along re-contoured road corridors,” Heppe continues. “We have removed 17 miles of the 50 miles of road we inherited, and improved 20 more miles to reduce sediment flowing into the streams. We have hauled thousands of dump truck loads, about 800,000 cubic yards of material and debris, out of old stream crossings, and we have treated 400 acres of invasive weeds that threaten to overtake native plants.”

Post-Treatment Erosion of Excavated Stream Crossings in Headwaters Forest Reserve is a poster session at the Science Symposium that looked at potential erosion impacts of road removal in the Reserve, particularly from stream crossing excavations. Specialists closely monitor the response of the forest, streams and animals to ensure that conditions are improving. If they are not, restoration methods can be changed quickly. This adaptive management approach is a crucial component of Headwaters forest management.

The ancient forests of the reserve not only provide shelter for myriad wildlife species, they have been home to generations of various peoples over the past millennia, each of which used the forest in different ways. The Science symposium’s presentation, Cultural Resources of the Headwaters Forest Reserve: Archaeological Traces of the Life and Times of Humans in the Old Growth Redwood Forest, presented results of archaeological field investigations and archival research of past human use of the Headwaters Forest. This information assists BLM in promoting public appreciation of both the natural and cultural resources of the forest.

“With restoration projects and the support of many partners, we are preserving a last remnant of ancient forest and the people who have called it home, learning from it, and providing the public a chance to experience it,” says Heppe. “It’s challenging and rewarding work that will pay dividends far into the future.”

To learn more about Headwaters Forest Reserve, please click here.

To read more features and learn more about A Decade of Discovery Science Symposium, please click here.

The BLM is focusing on restoring Headwaters Forest Reserve.
A View of Headwaters Forest Reserve
The forest, streams and wildlife are closely monitored at Headwaters Forest Reserve.
Looking through the trees at Headwaters Forest Reserve
Treatments help keep invasive weeds out of native plant communities on the forest floor.
The forest floor at Headwaters Forest Reserve