Removing sediment from watersheds in restoration projects allows for burgeoning biodiversity. Graphic | Kelly Bessem

Restoring the Largest Old Growth Forest in the World

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By Kelly Bessem

Portions of the Prairie Creek Watershed, one hour north of Arcata, are still being restored 50 years after being clearcut. Proposed restoration plans by the National Park Service (NPS) will make this region into the largest remaining old growth redwood forest in the world. This will be done by connecting 14,000 acres of old growth redwood patches. This designation is currently held by the 10,000 acre Rockefeller forest in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Map showing future Prairie Creek Watershed restoration plans that will connect old growth redwood forest. Map | National Park System

The Berry Glen cut area that’s next in line is will see an estimated 45,000 cubic yards of total mud and gravel removed from the stream channel. That’s equal to approximately 18,750 average US cars. All of this sediment washed down from the hillsides there post clearcutting in 1964.

Berry Glen played a pivotal role in the original formation of a Redwood National and State Park. According to NPS, this startling clear cut in full view from Highway 101 spurred enough criticism from travelers to warrant the finalization of protections there.

Removing mud and gravel that chokes stream channels, such as Berry Glen, allows the ecosystem to breathe new life. Thinning the even-age stands of second growth so that light can reach the forest floor is also part of the restoration process. Keith Benson, an NPS biologist of the Orick, California area, explained that freeing watersheds in this way allows restoration to cascade through the whole ecosystem of an area.

“The food chain cascades out from small stream creatures,” Benson said. “Restoration resets what the area has evolved to in the past, complex redwood forests. Then species composition can restore itself.”

Benson likened a restored redwood forest to a Costco warehouse for species in the region, versus a uniform second-growth forest to a 7-Eleven convenience store.

The basics of the ecology behind redwood forest restoration can be understood with a simple equation:

↑ Forest Connectivity + ↑ Multi-Layer Old Growth Canopy = ↑ Habitat + ↑ Food Supply = ↑ Higher Populations + ↑ Diversity

Forest connectivity provides protection for prey while simultaneously providing more hunting abundance for predators. It also allows for easier gene-sharing among species as traveling between areas becomes safer. Increased gene variety creates more resilient species as better traits surface among diverse populations. Having Multi-layer old growth canopy instead of one uniform layer for trees lets in sunlight and increases a forest’s 3D space. This increases the availability of Habitat and Food Supply, resulting in Higher Populations and Diversity since both predators and prey have what they need in the ecosystem to thrive.

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