During your next visit to Gomde California, you may notice that parts of our forest feel breezy and more open, that the oak and madrone trees have room to stretch their branches, and that the undergrowth in our campgrounds has largely been cleared away. You may also wonder why so many Douglas fir trees have been removed, or why there are scientists and engineers with equipment around Cedar Creek. We are currently engaged in a far-reaching environmental project and are happy to share the following information about our efforts to support and restore the balance of our exquisite ecological system.
In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, lumber companies clear-cut forests in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, leaving swathes of barren land and disrupting a millennia-spanning ecological balance. Following this clear-cutting, both indigenous and non-indigenous species of plants grew back in an environment of unhealthy competition, racing for sunlight, space, and nutrients. Douglas fir out-competed beneficial oak and madrone, the forests became choked with small trees and shrubs destined to die, and the region is now burdened with an overgrowth of short-lived pine.
This excess of conifers negatively effects our watershed—these trees are like sponges, soaking up rainfall that would otherwise flow downward and feed our precious Eel River. Furthermore, the suppression of natural fire cycles across California has contributed to an overgrowth of low-lying shrubbery, creating hazardous fuel conditions for even more intense fires. In short, previous clear-cutting and other factors in our region have resulted in forests that are suffocated and out of balance.
What Are We Doing to Help?
At Gomde California, we’re laying the groundwork for a Dharma institution that will last for centuries; this institutional objective also requires a far-reaching ecological vision.
Over the past few years, we have met with foresters, arborists, ecologists, scientists, and sustainability experts. For example, the Institute of Sustainable Forestry (ISF) visited Gomde California last spring, generously offering a wealth of knowledge, resources, and connections to support our forestry efforts. The ISF identified trees for removal, showed us how to look at the wider system of Gomde’s natural environment, and provided further perspective on the formation of a long-term sustainability vision.
We’ve begun by focusing on the overgrowth of Douglas fir that are siphoning resources from other important native species, such as madrone and oak, which provide our wildlife with superior calories and nutrition through their berries and nuts. We are removing many fir trees and retaining the timber for use in other projects; Douglas fir is a lumber that can be used for building, even while it’s green, and we will have plenty of it.
Lee Klinger, of Sudden Oak Life has also generously given his time and offered detailed information on fire mimicry practices. Lee also identified two ancient madrone at Gomde California, both dating between 250–300 years old, that were originally pollard by Indigenous peoples. The branches of these madrone were pruned to run low and parallel to the earth, making it easier to harvest their berries. Indigenous peoples also hollowed out the trunks of these madrone using fire, creating natural silos to store the berries within the trees themselves. You may recall one of these special trees from the small statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that has remained for years in the hollow of its trunk.
Last month we removed several large Douglas fir that were shading out these ancient madrone. In this and other ways, we’re learning how to nurture these ancient madrone back to a state of health.
The native tree species on our land co-adapted with the natural fire cycle of the regions. To better understand the importance of fire in maintaining ecological balance, and to learn about controlled burning, the Gomde residential team has volunteered on local prescribed burns with the Humboldt County Public Burn Association. We are exploring how to introduce fire to the land in a controlled way, with the guidance of experts, so that we can help protect Gomde and restore the vibrancy of our flora. Controlled burning is the most effective way to fire-safe land in a high-risk area, and there are many experts in the region whom we can call upon to guide this process.
Cedar Creek and the Eel River confluence is not only a spiritually potent place for our community, but an ecologically vital event—as identified by several environmental groups in Mendocino and Humboldt. For a number of years, Gomde California has collaborated with local research teams, such as the Eel River Recovery Project, granting scientists access to the confluence of these two rivers. Research teams from UC Berkeley and Cal Poly Humboldt have come to study fish populations, algae growth, and other environmental phenomena. After years of collaboration with CalTrout a project to remove the Cedar Creek dam will finally take place this summer. Upon completion, the steelhead and salmon populations will once again be able to travel up the cold, clear waters of Cedar Creek to spawn.
Of course, the heart of Gomde California is the study and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. We strive to embrace all our activity through the unified view of mahakaruna (great compassion) and shunyata (emptiness). The motivation guiding each of Gomde’s projects is to benefit every single sentient being connected with us—from the insects in the earth, to the fish in our rivers, to the many Sangha members who come to Gomde to practice the Dharma. Working with our forests in this way and preparing the land for the continued development of our Dharma seat in the United States has become an exercise in compassion for the many beings on our land. It is also proving to be a remarkable teaching on interdependence—the appearance of the true nature, emptiness, in our shared world. We thank our community for their support in this endeavor, and we pray that this ecological dimension of Gomde California’s activity will yield outer and inner benefits for decades to come.