University of California

Forest Stewardship


Long Barn, CA – In the 1850s, Jenny Matkin’s great-grandfather, Henry Browne, homesteaded the bottomland in what was to become a 3,800-acre family ranch near the Mono road, a supply route that crossed the Sierra from California to the silver mines in Nevada.

“Everything ran on hay in those days,” says Matkin. Hay meadows were the fueling stops for the main transportation – mules, horses and oxen. Browne set up the first sawmill in the valley and logged with oxen.

Thirty years later, expanding railroads and growing towns ignited a timber boom. With some partners, Browne built the Empire Mill. Settlers and investors filed land patents to acquire land and sold the timber to mill. Over 20 years, they logged out most of the trees. The timber company moved on and Browne remained behind, acquiring the cut-over land.

“It was like the early days of whaling,” says Matkin. “Sustainable resource management was not even a concept. The resource was considered unlimited, so they cut everything they could get to the mill. They did leave seed trees, and figured that nature would take care of it.”

Through the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s, many pioneer families lost their high-country ranches, which provided income only in the summer. Most of her grandfather and father’s generation left Browne’s Meadows to find jobs, but managed to hang on to the property.

“But people were not blind to the fact that the land was becoming reforested,” Matkin says. “My generation started coming back.”

Today, Browne’s Meadows looks almost as it did when Henry Browne first settled it. Fat trunks of pine, cedar and fir reach straight and high into the clear blue air. Wildlife still meanders along the edges of the meadows, four pearls strung along the length of the valley.

The land is divided into eight parcels owned by the great-grandchildren of Henry Browne. Jenny Matkin manages four parcels, including the piece owned by her own family – her husband and two children. Her cousin manages three others. One parcel is set aside as an unofficial nature reserve. It is heavily forest and has no roads.

“We don’t depend on the land to support us anymore,” says Matkin, who’s a ski instructor in the winter and manages the family land in the summer. Her husband, the major breadwinner, is deputy director of the Stanislaus County Planning Department. “The turn-around on a tree is a long, long time. We don’t want to be pressed into selling into a bad market. It’s not a good idea for the health of the forest.”

Managing the forest supplements her family’s income, but mostly brings in enough money to manage the property, says Matkin. Conifer forests cover 20 million of California’s 100 million acres. About 300,000 owners like Matkin manage one-quarter of the forests – 5 million acres. In forestry circles, they’re called NIPFs – non-industrial private forest landowners.

Forestry advisors at University of California Cooperative Extension focus on providing non-industrial landowners with information on forest stewardship. They are the main clientele for the advisors’ education programs. This gives the NIPF community access to technical expertise so that they can meet their different objectives.

“Our program has gradually changed,” says Richard Harris, a forestry specialist for University of California Extension (UCCE), “from forest management in the traditional sense to emphasizing ecology, multiple uses, environmental constraints, regulations, commercial forestry, silviculture, ecology, identifying plants, wildlife, watershed and stream issues, and roads and access.”

Matkin began attending forest stewardship workshops organized by UCCE in the 1990s. The workshops, mostly one- or two-day meetings, address topics such as restoration forestry, management of riparian areas, reducing forest fuel loads, working with licensed foresters, and navigating the plethora of state and federal rules and regulations. UCCE also provides NIPFs with information about cost-sharing programs, road design and maintenance.

At the workshops, Matkin learned how to restore a riparian area that was destroyed in floods that occurred in the late 1990s. And she’s changed how she manages livestock around the river – the North Fork of the Tuolumne River – that runs through her property. “Instead of having a whole bunch of cows running up and down the river,” she says, providing an example, “we’re going to have fewer and move them around and build some cross fences,” that keep the cows from eroding the river banks.

The federal Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA), which is administered by the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has funded a number of forest stewardship workshops over the years. The federal Forest Stewardship Program, which is administered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also provided funding to develop a landowner curriculum used in the UCCE workshops. The course provides comprehensive information about the physical, biological, legal and economic characteristics of NIPF forests, and provides valuable insights on how to manage these forests in a sustainable manner.

A recent two-day workshop in Tuolumne Country funded by RREA was based on the content of the landowner course. Participants spent half the time in the classroom and half the time in instruction in the field. One of the field visits was to Matkin’s property.

About a third of those who attend the workshops are interested in commercial harvesting, says Harris. “The vast majority are interested in other topics – how to attract more birds to the property, how to keep the forest from burning up. The thrust is more protective.”

Harris finds that participants include those who are overly conservative and don’t want to cut a tree. “They’re confronted with insects, disease and fire hazard,” he says.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are overly zealous. “For the sake of fire protection, they clear out everything and turn the forest into a park-like setting,” he says. “But this also reduces the ecological diversity of the ecosystem.”

Harris and other foresters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service give participants rules of thumb to strike a balance on their property, to show them that they can have continuous forest cover and reduce the fuel hazard at the same time.

“Like in any profession, you need to have ongoing education,” says Matkin. “You can’t just sit there and say, ‘Well my great-grandpa did it like this, so I’m going to do it like this.’ Because there might be a better way, and you wouldn’t even know it. Or there might be a less harmful way, and you wouldn’t even know it.”

Matkin’s objective is to create a healthy forest that is “harvestable in a sustained yield way,” she says. Nature used to take care of managing healthy forests with fire. “But now, it’s kind of an unmanageable thing, to let those fires burn,” she says. “People live everywhere and people want to use the resource, too, rather than have it all go up in smoke. With the absence of fire in our ecology, we have to work the land to get that accomplished.”

Her overall plan is to encourage the growth of well-spaced large trees with replacement trees of various ages. Matkin and her family thin small trees by hand and use a small tree mower that nips off young trees at the ground. For commercial harvesting, she works with a registered professional forester to choose the trees to harvest and develop a timber harvest plan, which is required by law in California. Once the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection approves her plan, she hires loggers who fell the trees and pile the limbs and treetops into slash piles, which she burns.

Matkin points out a 20-acre area that has just produced 300,000 board feet of timber. The logs were trucked to a mill and cut into construction lumber – siding, boards, beams, studs. Only a small open space where the loggers deposited the slash piles reveal that this stand had been harvested. It’s still thick with large, medium and small trees.

“We don’t always log every commercial tree,” says Matkin. “We kind of peck away at it. We’re working with nature to shape the land to be productive and beautiful at the same time. And safe – fire-safe.”

Landowners like Matkin, who actively and carefully manage their forests, are a small percentage of the total number, and the state needs to reach many more to preserve its forests. Not only do the forests harbor thousands of species of plants and animals, but the watersheds supply water for 80 percent of Californians. Harris estimates that the state’s forestry advisers reach only 1,000 landowners a year through workshops. “It’s really a drop in the bucket,” he says. “Consequently, we are also working on educational tools that don’t depend on direct contact. This includes Web-based information from the landowner curriculum. For example, RREA has recently funded us to prepare a Web-based assessment process for landowners to evalute and plan improvements to their road systems.” RREA has also funded several workshop on the specific topic of rural road management.

At the western end of the large meadow on which Matkin and her husband built their home, the river narrows. Large flat rocks that flank the waters are dented with holes once used to grind acorns and cook food. “There must have been some pretty big camps here,” says Matkin, referring to the native Californians who migrated through the valley. “I wish I could be a time machine and see what this valley was like when they were here. They probably lived here ten or twelve thousand years ago.”

“The native Americans have this thing about seven generations,” she says. “Make plans for seven generations. I’m fourth generation. My daughter’s fifth. I don’t feel like we’ve been here all that long. It’s kind of a fluke of history and economics that we get to be the ones that are here. And it’s a place of honor to be and I’m trying to do a good job. And I hope that because I love the place and I love the job, I hope that it stays for many generations.”

-- Jane Ellen Stevens
April 2005

Webmaster Email: mmcaruso@ucanr.edu