Impact of Humans on Forest Spans Thousands of Years

Fires and humans shape redwood forests.
Fires and humans shape redwood forests.

Imagine being the first person to set foot inside the redwood forest. I can picture this visitor pushing through lush ferns as they gazed up at the towering trees. This brave explorer would have no trails to follow as they stepped through the quiet woods hoping to avoid bears. I would love to travel back in time to see the redwood forest before humans arrived!

The BBC reports that scientists now have evidence that humans migrated to North America from Asia in multiple waves starting 15,000 years ago. The first wave of humans traveled slowly down the west coast of North America. I’m struck by how much has probably changed in the redwood forest since people first arrived.

We often think about the impact logging has had on the redwood forest over the past 150 years, but people tended these places for thousands of years before European settlement. These indigenous people used fires to manage the redwood forest. Frequent burning changed the abundance of trees, shrubs and small flowering plants; helped recycle nutrients; and created gaps where young trees could start growing. Today, caretakers suppress fires, changing the composition of the redwood forest yet again by allowing dense underbrush to grow.

How will future generations shape the redwood forest?

About the author

Emily Burns, the League’s former Director of Science, led the research program that includes the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. She holds a PhD in Integrative Biology on the impacts of fog on coast redwood forest flora from the University of California, Berkeley.

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