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STATE MAKES BIG PUSH FOR TINY TREES : TOURISTS THREATEN PYGMY FOREST.

Byline: Karyn Hunt Associated Press

An effort to preserve a unique biological phenomenon on the Mendocino Coast is about to begin with the restoration of one of two so-called Pygmy Forests - groves of naturally occurring bonsai trees.

Work is slated to begin in September on a $135,000, three-year, state-funded effort to protect a 5,000-acre stand of Mendocino cypress, Bolander and Bishop pines - none of which grow to more than 10 feet tall.

The dwarf species are threatened by man-made roads that have upset the ancient drainage patterns that created them, the trampling of tourists' feet and garbage dumped over the years by uncaring locals.

Plans call for a 2,000-foot-long boardwalk through the forest at Jughandle State Reserve to prevent careless feet from harming the delicate ecology and for a general cleanup of accumulated piles of garbage.

In addition, crews will break down berms around fire roads, logging roads and a historic county road. That will prevent them from causing erosion and upsetting the drainage patterns that stunt the plants' growth.

Finally, biologists hope to conduct controlled burns to restore the species. Fire is critical to the perpetuation of the Pygmy cypress because the cones need extremely high temperatures to open and spill their seeds.

Located 150 miles north of San Francisco, the Pygmy Forest is the result of a geological process dating back to the Pleistocene Era. Over 500,000 years, the Pacific Ocean receded with the Ice Age, then advanced with its melting, creating five terraces, each marking a span of about 100,000 years.

The flatness of the terraces and a hard, claylike layer of soil underneath caused drainage to back up during centuries of wet coastal winters. The standing water leeched many of the nutrients out of the soil before it evaporated in the summer. The plants were forced to grow up malnourished, their growth was stunted and they became dwarf species.

A pine tree that would normally reach 100 feet tall, for example, grows to about 8 feet after 100 years. A 50-year-old cypress may be less than 4 feet high and an inch in diameter, compared with a normal 60 feet.

Even the huckleberry bushes and mistletoe feeding off the trees are smaller than usual.

But the building of roads caused erosion that stirred up the soil and caused nutrients to flow once again. The trees began to grow to normal heights, and the unique ecosystem was threatened.

``The Pygmy Forest is a scientifically important spot because it has one of the most unique soils in the world,'' said Teresa Sholars, 43, a professor at nearby College of the Redwoods who is helping with the project.

``We'd like to stop the degradation going on,'' she added.

The reforestation follows a long and often contentious effort to preserve the forest that started in the 1950s and continues to this day. The battle included lobbying efforts that won it a National Natural Landmark designation, lawsuits to stop the building of motels and homes and years of fund-raising to acquire parcels for public ownership.

Over the last few decades, the overall acreage of Pygmy trees has decreased

from 4,000 at 26 separate locations to 1,050. Development, landscaping, contaminated water and septic system failures have destroyed the rest.

With the help of several environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the forest's protectors succeeded in creating two protected areas at Jughandle State Reserve and Van Damme State Park.

Even now, they're not two of the more popular destinations in the area, at about 71,000 visitors per year, compared with 2 million for the Mendocino Coast in general.

The forest's biggest supporters are scientists who recognize the area's unique biological significance. They travel from across the world to study the soil and the plant ecology.

Some locals are attached to it, though. One recent afternoon, Valerie Dawe, 17, a senior at Mendocino High School, walked there with 6-year-old Audry Abell, whom she was baby-sitting.

Audrey likes the forest because she's taller than the trees there, one of the few places she can make that claim.

``It's really weird to see the small trees, then just over the horizon, you see the regular forest,'' Dawe said. ``I guess it's mainly tourists who come here, though. It's probably underappreciated by the locals.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 4, 1996
Words:722
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