Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation - Abstract

Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849. G.E. Gruell. 2001. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana. 238 pp.

ABSTRACT - From the introduction to the text by George Gruell: "Our purpose here is to educate our instincts, discovering what is healthier for plant, animal, and human inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada, and for the ecosystem as a whole. To understand the current state of these forests, we must delve into the history of the landscape. Historical ecology studies the composition, structure, and disturbance patterns of presettlement forests and woodlands. It can help us evaluate how we got where we are now and determine where we want to go in the future.

This book addresses three major questions. First, what did the forests and woodlands of the Sierra Nevada look like, and what did they consist of, before and during the early stages of European-American settlement? A look at early conditions will give us a near-natural baseline. Most historical documents--both written and photographic--dates from the mid- to late-nineteenth century Euroamerucan settlement period. We will look at some of the ways earlier peoples influenced the landscape, but none caused such drastic changes as the early Euroamericans.

Second, how has the vegetation changed since Euroamericans arrived in the region? The matched photographs, historical and recent; analyses made on the ground at photo sites; early narratives of travelers, foresters, and residents in the region; and scientific research all document a remarkable transformation from the near-natural baseline.

Third, which human activities and natural events have influenced vegetation and landscape change and which have not? We will see how nineteenth-century human disturbance initiated a new relationship with the regions natural processes that persists today. Any attempt to return to an approximation of presettlement conditions will involve altering some human activities; the managers of our forests need to know which ones."

view of hills covered by patches of trees and brush
Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks in about 1900 (plate 73a & 73b from Gruell 2001)

LEFT - "View south-southeast from Little Blue Dome toward the middle fork of the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park, Tulare County. The Great Western Divide that separates the Kern and Kaweah River drainages forms the skyline. Jeffrey pine, sugar pine, white fir, and red fir grow in patches, while shrubfields occupy extensive opening. The primary shrubs in this locality are manzanita, huckleberry oak, mountain white-thorn, and cream brush (George Smith photo)."

RIGHT - "Conifers have increased exponentially throughout the basin. Dense stands of trees have displaced the shrubfields, while younger trees have filled gaps between the older trees. Changes in tree cover are less pronounced in the distant cirques, where the thin rocky soil limits tree growth."

Nate Stephenson photo

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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