The cover of a 1976 booklet from the US Forest Service.
Despite dedicated efforts by many in the conservation and scientific communities to help the public, government agencies, and political leaders understand that the West’s native shrublands provide important watershed, biodiversity, and cultural values, tragic misunderstandings persist. These ecosystems are frequently considered not only worthless, but an “evil menace” due to their inherent flammability.
Hence, many advocate that shrublands should be systematically reduced or eliminated through mechanical clearance or prescribed burning. Dense stands of chaparral are falsely seen as “unnatural” and in need of mitigation. Old-growth stands of manzanita and chamise that have not burned for decades are viewed only as dangerous concentrations of fuel rather than the increasingly rare plant communities they represent. Changing such perspectives has been incredibly difficult and frustrating for those who understand the importance of conserving native plant communities and the benefits that come from such preservation.
An example of the "chaparral as evil" paradigm appears to have played a role in Cuyamaca State Park, San Diego County. After the 2003 Cedar Fire, nearly all of the park was burned. The natural, post-fire successional process includes an arrary of chaparral shrubs, particularly ceanothus. Ceanothus is a plays a critical role in post fire recovery because it is a nitrogen-fixer, meaning it adds the important nutrient back into the soil. Unfortunately, some see the plant as an "invader" in need of removal because they want the forest back immediately. In a misguided effort to facilitate that demand, large areas of ceanothus have been clearcut and pine tree saplings planted. Please see our Loss in Cuyamaca page for additional details.
Dr. Robert Muller, from the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, discusses one aspect of why it is so important for the public to see chaparral as a vital part of California's natural heritage in his article below.
"Three significant fires in 16 months. If anything, the Gap, the Zaca, and the Tea Fires have retaught us a lesson already learned: Wildfire is a reality for
Santa Barbara. The serious injuries and loss of homes in the Tea Fire have made us all more sensitive to fire’s devastating impacts, but in order to have a true understanding of the threat, we need a better understanding of the ecosystem in which we live..."