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The smallest national forest.


Our National Forest come in many sizes. They range from the vast 17-million-acre Tongass in Alaska down to smaller tracts containing only a few thousand acres. Hidden in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California is our smallest National Forest. Weighing in at a mere 379 acres, the Calaveras Big Tree National Forest might be called a micro-mini-forest.

Located near Beaver Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Stanislaus River, the Calaveras was established to protect a magnificient stand of large, old-growth sugar pine unequaled in size and beauty. Sugar pine over eight feet in diameter and 200 feet tall are commonplace in the Calaveras National Forest, and one 40-acre section contains the heaviest volumes of sugar pine known to the U.S. Forest Service.

This rare and beautiful forest is such an outstanding scenic attraction that for years conservationists advocated its acquisition. In 1945 the Pickering Lumber Corporation, owners of the forest, began to lay plans to extend the company's logging railroad into the Beaver Creek drainage to harvest the sugar pine and other trees there. In order to save this unique forest for use by the public, the federal government acquired it from the lumber company, and the tract became known as the Calaveras Big Tree National Forest.

The Calaveras is an oddity. In addition to being the smallest in the system, it is the only National Forest within the boundaries of another National Forest. It is administered by the Calaveras Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest.

The Calaveras was established under legislation designed to acquire and protect the giant sequoia of the Sierra Nevada. The forest is actually named for the "bigtree" or giant sequoia, rather than for the large sugar pine.

Unlike other National Forests, this miniforest is not managed for multiple use. It is classified as a scenic area, the first such area in the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service, and as such it must be maintained in an undisturbed condition.

At present the Calaveras contains no hiking trails or camping facilities, but visitors are allowed to camp at the adjacent Calaveras Big Tree State Park, where they can see giant sequoia or step next door to view the large sugar pine. As time and money become available, the Forest Service will build foot trails in the National Forest and install directional and informational signs.

This midget of our National Forest system is part of the great mixed conifer forest of the Sierra Nevada. In addition to sugar pine, other trees include ponderosa pine, white fir, and incense-cedar. Walking among these mixed conifers is not difficult, despite the lack of trails. The woods are sunny and warm and have an openness that invites visitors to meander and explore at leisure, stopping at vantage points to admire the large trees. Although small in size, the Calaveras attracts those interested in a primeval mixed conifer forest as it existed prior to the railroad logging era.

Logging in this area began during the last years of the 19th century. In 1898 - while one brand of fortune seeker prospected for gold in the Klondike - others found it in the green gold of the Sierras.

Those early entrepreneurs began cutting in the foothills to the south where they built logging railroads and sawmills. By the beginning of the 20th century, they had extended the railroads higher into the Sierra Nevada to access the valuable sugar pine.

Although the loggers missed the 379 acres that were to become our smallest National Forest, an old logging railroad grade, now used as a truck road, runs along the Calavera's west and northwest boundary. The days of railroad logging are over, but visitors walking this old grade on a hot, still summer day can hear, if they use their imagination, the sound of a thundering steam locomotive coming down the hill pulling a trainload of giant sugar pine.

This lilliputian National Forest escaped the axe in the 1940s, and logging is now prohibited, but salvage of dead trees will be done if there is a disastrous fire or an uncontrollable insect epidemic. The official management plan cells for maintaining the forest in a near-natural condition, protecting the large mature trees, and promoting the reproduction of giant sequoia. Also mandated is the maintenance and improvement of recreational and scenic values.

Scattered throughout the forest are a few dead giant sugar pine. These old patriarchs, killed by insects, disease, or lightning, have completed the cycle of birth, old age, and death. Some are gray snags with dead bark fallen in a pile at the base. Others still have their bark, but the green crowns of needles that were covered with snow during many a Sierra winter are long gone. Younger trees will replace the fallen giants, and the forest will renew itself in a endless cycle.

Some individual trees may die, but the forest of large sugar pine is in no imminent danger of disappearing. For a long time to come, visitors to the Calaveras Big Tree National Forest will continue to smell the pungent odor of bear clover and see - silhouetted against the blue Sierra sky - giant sugar pine, the largest and most majestic pine in the world.



During the past 30 years the U.S. Forest Service, the state of California, and interested citizen groups have advocated the transfer of the Calaveras to state ownership. The Calaveras Big Tree National Forest is located adjacent to South Grove, part of the Calaveras Big Tree State Park, which also contains many large sugar pine. Therefore, many believe it is logical to integrate the national and state lands.

At present, the Forest Service would like to have the state assume management responsibilities if the legislative authority includes transferring the Calaveras to the state via a land-for-land exchange. Legislation sponsored by Representative Richard Lehman (D-CA) is intended to bolster preservation of the big trees by consolidating forest management of the entire Calaveras area under the state park system.

Last fall, the Bush Administration gave conditional support if the federal government is reimbursed through an exchange of land of equal value. The Lehman bill does not require the state to give up anything in exchange, but Mary McDonald of the Californian Resources Agency says that the state backs the bill and would not oppose a land swap.

The future ownership of our smallest National Forest may change, but its management will stay the same. The goal will remain the protection of this rare and beautiful forest.

Marshall Murray is a professional forester who resides in Centralia, Washington.
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Title Annotation:Calaveras Big Tree National Forest, California
Author:Murray, Marshall D.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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