Helping Our Peninsula's Environment


Monterey Pine Forest Ecosystems Do Not Need Fire to Survive - They Are Damaged by Fire

(c) Copyright 2001-2003 David Dilworth

Abundant evidence of massive, adequate and widespread natural regeneration in Monterey pine "fog" forests shows they do not need fire for sustainable ecological health. The extreme rarity of lightning in their native region underlines this.

A forest ecosystem is not merely trees and a few plants. A Monterey pine forest ecosystem is a carefully balanced community of animals, plants and microorganisms - all of which are killed by fire.


The Pebble Beach Company intends to burn all their native Monterey Pine forests if their 16 subdivisions and a golf course is approved.

Because the Pebble Beach Company project will destroy more than a square mile of the highest quality core remaining native Monterey pine forest if their golf course and house program is built, a falsely named "Ecological Management Plan" is proposed as mitigation. Allegedly for its health that Plan has as primary goals - logging ("Gap-Phasing") and "controlled" burning of all the native forest remaining after construction.

The April 1997 issue of the California Native Plants Society's (CNPS) Journal Fremontia was devoted to illuminating the threat to Monterey Pine from Pine Pitch Canker (Faber). In those articles we find -

* Cylinder, of Jones and Stokes, citing G&L for fire frequency, in writing a Conservation Plan for Monterey Pine Forests for California's Department of Fish and Game arguing "Monterey Pine is best managed by fire. Periodic controlled fire is recommended as the primary tool to improve ecosystem health..."

California Department of Fish and Game's Hillyard asserts the "best" action to improve forest health is the "reintroduction of fire into the Monterey pine forest, though it must be done "with much care..."

Dubsky, forester for Pebble Beach Company, which owns the largest remaining native Monterey Pine forests, argued "From a pine pitch canker standpoint, fire could be very beneficial by encouraging regeneration, ..."

Tom Gordon et al. also recommend burning to "enhance the prospects for regeneration" in the context of diminishing the impact of pine pitch canker.

While it should be noted that state Park ecologist Tom Moss and CDF forest pathologist Dave Adams' comments were neutral on "prescribed-burning, that Fremontia issue failed to include a single word of question on a fundamental fact - Did natural fire play a significant role in the natural Monterey Pine forest ecosystem?

Perhaps that is because CNPS itself seems to urge burning Monterey pine forest. In their otherwise laudable petition to list Monterey pine as a Threatened species, and citing G&L, CNPS wrote, "The long term viability of this species in California depends on ... management designed to perpetuate natural forest processes, such as fire."

In 2000 California's Department of Forestry and California Department of Fish and Game approved a prescribed burn in Monterey County's Pebble Beach Indian Village Monterey pine forest. It was publicly admitted as a failure.

Contrary to the speculation of these "experts" the scientific facts are -

* Native Monterey pine forest fire-free regeneration is at least ten times greater than needed for the forest's health and a magnitude greater than that caused by the 1987 forest fire.

* The incidence and extent of natural lightning fires in fog-dwelling native Monterey pine forests is extremely low - essentially zero whether compared 

worldwide -

(Thunderstorm Frequency)

countrywide -

(Lightning flash Frequency)

or statewide:

(101,000 California Fires in 1970's)

Consistent with this is Burton L. Gordon's book (Monterey Bay Area- A Natural History) stating "Having searched written records covering some 125 years (and consulted local park rangers and city fire departments), the writer concludes that it is impossible to extrapolate a credible natural burn cycle of less than 500 years for the coastal half of the Monterey Bay area-and for the inland half, less than 300 years." It is remarkable that prescribed burning advocates willfully ignore Greenlee & Langenheim's citation to B. Gordon.

* There are no records, no even one, of any natural fire in native Monterey pine forest ecosystm.

* Even if lightning fires occur, they would rarely, if ever, consume the entire Monterey Pine forest.

* Even if lightning fires ever consumed an entire Monterey Pine forest it is extremely improbable that would occur within the lifespan of every tree.

* There is little if any suppression of natural fires in native Monterey pine forests, because even if there were any records of lightning caused fires, the incidence and extent of natural lightning fires is so extremely low.

* Burning a Monterey pine forest partially infected with Pitch Canker has many potentially significant environmental impacts. These include killing wildlife and their habitat and cover, spreading the Pitch Canker infection widely through forest, decreasing the number and extent of Monterey pines by favoring Bishop pines, increasing insect attack on surrounding forest and spreading invasive species.

It is highly misleading and probably harmful to use Greenlee & Langenheim's 1980 or 1990 reports to refer to fire in Monterey pine ecosystems. Neither report mentions Monterey Pine, Monterey Pine Forest, or even fire in the general area of the largest (between 7,000 and 12,000 acres) remaining native Monterey Pine forest on the Monterey Peninsula. Neither asserts a natural lightning fire frequency estimate for native Monterey Pine forest or the Monterey Peninsula area.

Any objective work by burning advocates must recognize, disclose and account for the G&L reports' limits and other vital facts including Keeley's analysis and Burton Gordon's research which point out there may be little, if any, significant natural lightning influence on Monterey Pine as a species or as an ecosystem. Contrary to this burning advocates, including CNPS, fail to disclose any of these limits, cautions or contradictory evidence.

Prescribed burning advocates must use dramatically greater restraint than has been exhibited. They must clearly identify opinion, speculation, and extrapolation. 

When substantial evidence of adequate natural regeneration exists and there is no credible direct evidence for natural lightning fires burning entire forests with a frequency less than the tree's lifespan, it is simply unsupportable to advocate burning the low elevation, coastal Monterey Pine fog forests.

Even if one completely discards most of the preceding evidence conclusions, any one of them independently should cause an objective researcher to reconsider the entire concept of advocating burning a Monterey pine forest. When combined the conclusions are powerful evidence which cannot be easily dismissed that the ecological health of the Monterey pine forest and its tree species needs no human "help" to hold its feet to the fire.


When there is no problem - no solution is needed.


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This Page Last Updated May 29, 2006