Posted on

The old orchard gets a makeover

Goals of clearing project include cultural resource preservation and wildfire hazard mitigation
The old orchard gets a makeover
Restoration of the old orchard in Jack London State Historic Park involved mechanized removal of thickets of underbrush, serving to both enhance the health of orchard trees and mitigate wildfire danger.Photo by Paul Goguen


By Tracy Salcedo

For those familiar with the Old Orchard in Jack London State Historic Park, the visual impact of recent rehabilitation work on the landscape may come as a shock.

The thickets of coyote bush, chamise, madrone, scrub oak, and poison oak that once barricaded the old pear, apple, and plum trees of the orchard are gone. The masticated remains lie at the feet of the designated survivors — the fruit trees themselves, scattered single oaks, and islands of oak and bay. The setting is now parklike, not wild.

The transformation is part of a plan to stabilize and restore the orchard that has been in the works for nearly two decades, according to Matt Leffert, executive director of Jack London Park Partners (JLPP), which manages the state historic park in collaboration with California State Parks. Similar clearing has been completed by volunteer hand crews over the last 10 to 15 years; the fruits of that labor are evident in the grassy, open section of the orchard bordering Camp Via, an outpost of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). An added benefit: The clearing helps mitigate wildfire potential on the flank of Sonoma Mountain above Glen Ellen, said Justin Benguerel, battalion chief at CALFIRE’s Glen Ellen station. “In simplest terms,” Benguerel explained, “a fire is easier to fight and extinguish in flat, rolling terrain and light fuel types like annual grasses rather than heavy brush or forest areas.”

History of the orchard and its rehabilitation

The restoration plans date back to 2006, when about 600 acres of former SDC land, including the orchard, were transferred to the state historic park. Officially recognized as a historic feature by both the state and national park services — a 300-page-plus behemoth of a binder contains documentation of its historic significance as well as an environmental review of its rehabilitation — the orchard is “an excellent example of a pre-WWII orchard, important to the story of the local history, and [important to] the history of California developmental centers in general,” said Eric Metz, director of operations with JLPP, in email correspondence.

“The story of the SDC’s orchard is also tied to the story of Jack London himself, as it was planted during the time he lived on Sonoma Mountain and may have influenced his own farm,” Metz wrote.

The genesis of the SDC’s orchards, which historically encompassed about 110 acres, dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, which is also about the time London took up residence on the neighboring Beauty Ranch. Established in 1891 as the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children, the institution was built to shelter persons with developmental, physical, and intellectual disabilities. The setting was chosen purposefully for its seclusion, far from hubs of industry, which meant the home needed to be self-sustaining and necessitated cultivation of the orchards, as well as establishement of a farm, dairy, laundry, and more on the country property.

The Eldridge orchard, according to Metz, was an almost immediate success. A letter from the superintendent of the Sonoma home dating back to 1908 notes the first fruits from the new trees were harvested in such quantity that they were financially beneficial. By the 1950s, records document the production of more than 40,000 gallons of canned fruit — enough peaches and plums that the abundance was shared with other state hospitals.

The people who lived at what became known as Sonoma State Hospital were employed in all aspects of the institution’s operations, including working the orchard, but were not compensated. The passage of the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act in 1969, which codified rights for people living with developmental disabilities, meant the end of free labor at state hospitals, and the orchard began its long decline. By the 1980s, it was essentially abandoned. And by the time of transfer to the state historic park, the original trees — those that survived — were in sorry shape, Metz said.

When JLPP took over management of the park in 2015, it also took on the rehabilitation efforts started in 2006. In addition to the clearing, the nonprofit has overseen replanting of diseased or dead trees, which involves finding historically accurate root stock as well as using scions (or grafts) from surviving trees.

The idea, said Metz, is that people visiting the historic park seven generations down the line will be able to recognize the old orchard; that it will, as closely as possible, resemble what was on the site for the better part of the twentieth century.

Clearing the underbrush

JLPP worked with experts from the state parks, including environmental scientist Cyndy Shafer, State Parks Bay Area district natural resource program manager Noah Stewart, cultural resource program manager and archeologist Kate Green, as well as Benguerel, to oversee the brush mastication. The acreage of the project, combining both the area cleared in February and the work done in previous years by hand to total about 30 acres, is scaled so that JLPP can maintain it for the long term. The remaining orchard acreage will not be cleared.

CALFIRE provided and operated the brush masticator, which did in a week what would have taken volunteer hand crews years, observed Jim Hinchman, ranch foreman with JLPP. The masticator, mounted on tracks, essentially pushed down the dense brush and then shredded it. While most of the mulch is small and will decompose, the larger pieces are being collected by volunteers and will be removed.

Habitat destruction or habitat creation?

There’s no denying that in the short term, whatever plant and animal species called the thickets home prior to the arrival of the brush masticator have evacuated the area.

That said, the recent clearing was timed so that it was complete before nesting birds, particularly hummingbirds, begin their breeding season, Metz explained. Experts performed a preemptive bird survey prior to the work and ensured the clearing was completed by the start of what the state recognizes as bird nesting season, from March 1 to Sept. 15. The state’s environmental scientists, Leffert said, were “diligent in their work.”

Still, for dedicated protectors of habitat and wildlands like Sonoma’s Teri Shore, the sight of the orchard rehabilitation project raises questions. Shore and other wildland advocates recognize that whatever shelter birds or other creatures created in the thickets is now gone. In correspondence, Shore noted that the “massive clearing of all the underbrush [seems] heavy-handed” given its location in a park. “While I totally respect the Jack London Partners and the fact that they consulted with experts, the experts don’t agree 100 percent on the forest thinning approach [to wildfire mitigation], particularly in the forest away from homes and structures,” Shore said.

Both Metz and Leffert acknowledge the immediate impact on existing habitat of clearing with a brush masticator.

“What I can say is that the areas cleared and the scope of the project were carefully considered by experts,” Metz said, noting the native trees left within the clearing as habitat. “I would also say that the restored orchard is in itself habitat, and we regularly see areas that have been restored utilized by local wildlife of all types.”

Metz also pointed out that the mulcher didn’t dig into the soil, so creatures residing or sheltering underground were not disturbed, and that the orchard project affects a very small percentage of the 1,500-acre park, most of which is wildland.

As far as park users are concerned, Metz observed that, during the week the masticator was employed, more than 100 people passed through the area. About half of folk didn’t seem to notice the work done, and the other half were mostly positive after the purpose of the clearing was explained, Metz said.

The marriage of restoration and wildfire mitigation

The just-completed work also helps create “a significant fire fuel reduction zone” on Sonoma Mountain, according to Metz and Benguerel. The newly treated acreage, coupled with the work done previously by volunteer hand crews and other work completed on the SDC property to reduce fuels along Orchard Road and Redhill Road, will be protective of both the cultural resource — the orchard trees themselves — and the surrounding wildlands. The clearing will, potentially, prevent a wildfire from making a leap into the crowns of trees in adjacent areas.

“The specific benefits CALFIRE saw were a reduction in highly flammable fuels, mainly chamise,” Benguerel explained. “Additionally, the gentle rolling terrain and grass fuel type, along with the added benefit of the reduced fuel loading, makes a fire attack easier in the future. The gentle terrain and existing roads are easily accessible by firefighters, vehicles, and machinery in the event of a fire starting in the immediate area (offensive attack) or coming from a different direction (defensive attack). The heavier fuel types are no longer adjacent to the road but are now much farther away, toward the forested areas.”

Questions about the project should be directed to Metz at (707) 481-6579 or [email protected]