Inside the Timber Harvest at Soquel Demonstration State Forest

July 1, 2024
We joined the CAL FIRE crew for the day to see what goes into sustainable timber operations in our local working forest.

Over sixty thousand visitors journey to Soquel Demonstration State Forest (SDSF) each year to enjoy some of the most popular hiking and mountain biking trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But there’s so much more to the forest than just trails–and our crew joined CAL FIRE last week to take a peek at the forestry work that goes into keeping the forest healthy and resilient.

SDSF is just one of fourteen Demonstration State Forests within CAL FIRE’s jurisdiction. Per CAL FIRE: “These forests represent the most common forest types in California and serve as a living laboratory for how to care for California’s timberlands. The forests produce multiple benefits: wood products and timber production, recreation, watershed protection and habitat restoration.” They also provide educational opportunities like this field day that we attended.

This summer, CAL FIRE is executing its eighth Timber Harvesting Plan (THP) in SDSF to produce lumber, improve forest health, and reduce fuel loads ahead of wildfire season. This work will continue through mid-October, so the forest is closed to all public use on weekdays but is open on July 4, Labor Day (9/2), and weekends. CAL FIRE aims to harvest an average of about 1,000,000 board feet from SDSF each year, with revenue from harvests funding the management of the State Forests.

What may seem simple–removing a few trees from the forest–is a very delicate blend of science, paperwork, skilled labor, and collaboration. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, each with a specific role in executing the THP and boosting the health of SDSF’s environment. And the work starts years before any saws come into play…

CAL FIRE foresters began working on the massive 700-page THP for this year’s harvest over two years ago. Once the plan is completed and approved by a panel of registered professional foresters and resource management professionals, it goes out to bid to the highest buyer.

Big Creek Lumber was willing to pay the most for the timber this time around, so they are the “purchaser” for this THP. They are responsible for removing all trees identified (mostly redwoods) for harvest, loading them onto trucks, and milling them into lumber at their facility in Davenport. Big Creek hired Santa Cruz Timber to do the actual harvesting due to the high level of skill needed in the forest. It takes an expert feller to get the work done safely.

At the same time, Community Tree Service is carrying out something called a Forest Health Contract in SDSF. This is grant-funded work that sweeps the forest after the timber harvesting operations to clean up and treat the area to reduce fuel over the THP acreage. Because of the decadent hardwood within this Timber Harvest Plan, CAL FIRE decided to go above and beyond with the Forest Health Contract to ensure a high level of cleanup. Community Tree Service has enormous chippers and expert staff required for the big job. They are reorganizing the fuel, turning a lot of it into chips, and broadcasting them across the landscape to reduce the risk of untamed wildfire in the area.

While all of this work is happening, researchers are also conducting studies to gain a deeper understanding of forest management and its long-term effects. Cal Poly SLO Professor Richard Cobb discussed his work in SDSF and the impacts of timber harvest and ecosystem treatments. His research looks at the long-term effects of techniques like prescribed burns, timber harvests, and forest health treatments and potential connections to disease spread (like Sudden Oak Death).

Walking away from a day in the forest, one thing is clear. No one person can protect the forest alone. We need a strong base of experts to work together and not only conduct the hard work to preventatively treat forests, but also to study and inform future treatments. The passion from the CAL FIRE staff, timber harvesters, forestry researchers, and forest health contractors was the best part of the day. It was a joy to see each expert in their element as they contributed to the health of such a beloved public open space.

So, while the trails are fantastic out in SDSF, this most recent trip was a good reminder of all that goes into creating a healthy and safe public forest. It’s easy to remain insulated in what matters to us as trail users, but important to remember the bigger picture outside of our last Strava segment. There are hundreds of folks working behind the scenes to keep SDSF safe and open for us all to enjoy–the foresters, timber harvesters, fellers, treatment professionals, and highly skilled laborers all deserve our praise. Their hard work allows us to build, maintain, and play on trails in SDSF.

Thank you to CAL FIRE and Cal Poly Swanton Pacific Ranch for the informative day in the woods.


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