Some imagine the coast redwood forests of Northern California as a remnant of paleo-history, seemingly sheltered from the modern age by the pale shadow of the redwood curtain. Sadly, the wild and iconic vision of a vast and vibrant forest is far more fantasy than present-day reality.
Once spanning some two million acres across Northern California’s rugged and scenic coastline, our coastal redwoods have been reduced to small, isolated, and disjunct remnant fragments. Today, it is estimated that only 120,000 acres, or five percent, of the original old-growth coast redwood forest remains. The other 95 percent of the land bears a scant resemblance to the forest that once was.
The story of the Humboldt marten is like that of the redwoods. The marten was trapped extensively for its pelts in the early years of European-American exploration and settlement in the redwoods. With the advent of aggressive logging of the vast majority of the old-growth, upon which the Humboldt marten depends, it was once thought that this small, cat-size member of the weasel family had been lost forever, extinct due to a loss of habitat and over-trapping.
But in 1996, this highly allusive creature was accidentally captured on a wildlife survey camera in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park. Contemporary monitoring and research suggests that the Humboldt marten, like the old-growth coast redwood forest, has been extirpated from 95 percent of its original range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now estimates that less than 100 total individuals persist in the wild today in only two very small, extremely isolated populations in California.
Because redwoods are degraded, the Humboldt marten is in jeopardy. The remaining old-growth redwoods largely exist in parks and conservation easements, of which more than half are comprised of previously-logged stands of second and third-growth forest and not old-growth. Because of this, the remaining old-growth is in patches and pockets amongst young, homogenous and sterile even-aged stands. The Humboldt marten relies on mature forests—big trees, downed wood, standing snags.
Logging and forest conversion not only reduce the range and available habitat for the Humboldt marten, but also facilitates expansion of two of the marten’s primary predators, the Pacific fisher and the bobcat, into the marten’s range.
To recover, the Humboldt marten requires the restoration and reconnection of our coastal redwood forests. At first glance, it may seem that the solutions to accomplish restoration and connectivity in the coast redwood forest are as stealthy and allusive as the Humboldt marten. So little old-growth remains and vast tracts of our redwood forestlands are now privately-owned and managed for industrial timber production. Here, the Humboldt marten may unwittingly be the devisor of its own rescue plan, and thereby the rescuer of our old-growth coast redwood ecosystems as well.
One of the key remaining small, but highly isolated populations of the Humboldt marten is quietly hanging on along the interface between the coast redwood forest and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. Here, lands are owned and managed by the Redwood National and State Parks system, the Yurok Tribe, Six Rivers National Forest, and Green Diamond Resource Company. The martens, largely isolated on Six Rivers National Forest, need to reach the redwood parks by the coast. To do so, they must cross large swaths of young forests on both private and public land. To establish a permanent connectivity corridor between these blocks of mature forests will require a change in management—the setting aside of older forest stands and the development of future large, old trees—a change that the marten can help facilitate.
Since 2010, EPIC has advocated to protect and recover the Humboldt marten, and by extension, to create an impetus for landscape-level restoration and connectivity in the coast redwoods. EPIC’s 2010 petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Humboldt marten as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act spurred the creation of the Humboldt Marten Conservation Group, a working group comprised of agency, land owners, and scientists. This group is now working to draft a long-term conservation and recovery plan for the marten, a vital underpinning that involves landscape level forest habitat restoration and reconnection to help marten populations stabilize, facilitate greater movement and dispersal, and eventually help facilitate recovery.
In 2015, EPIC also petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the Humboldt marten as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act—in hopes of marshalling the resources and direct involvement of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and create greater opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and more avenues for available funding through state-generated processes. The old quip that humans “can’t see the forest for the trees,” at times, serves as a sobering truism as we revisit the history and implications of past intensive logging of our old-growth trees in the coast redwoods. Fortunately, if we look closely enough, there yet remains, hiding quietly and patiently in the deep, dark shadows, the most unlikely of creatures that can serve as the impetus for us to restore, rebuild, and reconnect.