Thursday, April 16, 1998
In the competitive world of tree-hugging, the Monterey Pine is often overlooked, a plain-Jane extra in an environmental theater of majestic redwoods and stately cypress. This slight is certainly undeserved when one considers the magnificence of the pine forests at Pebble Beach and Jacks Peak, and the diverse ecosystems living therein. But still it happens.
But lack of sylvan sex appeal is, at this point, the least of the pine''s problems. After thousands of years of peaceful existence on the Monterey Peninsula, the once-ubiquitous Monterey Pine--an early settler in this area--finds itself in a desperate fight for its very survival. Here in the late 20th century, the one-two punch of development and disease threatens to destroy the last natural stands of a species which once blanketed many coastal areas of Monterey County. Though efforts to save the tree and its habitat are underway, locally the future of the Monterey Pine is, at best, uncertain.
"A very small proportion of Monterey Pines are in permanent reserve and much is subject to development," says Linda Smith of Monterey Pine Forest Watch, an organization which seeks to preserve the pine and its habitat. "Now we have pitch canker [disease] that will take 85 percent of the species. It could be catastrophic."
Currently the Monterey Pine >(Pinus radiata) grows naturally in only a handful of places, three being along the Central Coast: A¤o Nuevo in Santa Cruz County; here in Monterey, and in Cambria, south of Big Sur. There are also isolated stands growing on a couple of Mexican islands, where the species is thought to have originated.
"There are 13,000 acres of native pine forest here in the fog belt, a vestigial remnant of an ecosystem that used to live in California," says Smith.
The question of how to save this vestigial remnant places the Monterey Pine at the center of a local struggle between environmentalists and the Pebble Beach Company, which hopes to cut down thousands of pines in Del Monte Forest to build a golf course and numerous luxury homes. This cutting of the forest would take place while the trees themselves are under siege from pitch canker, a lethal fungus that has, since its local debut in 1986, attacked and destroyed Monterey Pines with brutal efficiency, killing between 85 and 95 percent of infected trees.
"We consider pitch canker to be a major threat," says Deborah Hillyard, plant ecologist for the Department of Fish and Game. "We were concerned about the forest before pitch canker became such an issue, but this has pushed it into the category of critical concern."
Environmentalists feel that the loss of habitat caused by the Pebble Beach Company''s development plan would make it even more difficult for Monterey Pines to rebound from the devastation of pitch canker.
"If the [Pebble Beach Company] program went ahead as planned, it would destroy over 500 acres of the most valuable parts of the habitat," says Smith. "If native soils are degraded and habitat is destroyed through subdividing, then there will be no place for this habitat in the future."
But as the Pebble Beach Company states--and a few environmentalists are willing to concede--the issue is complicated by other factors. The Monterey Pine, while under siege locally, is hardly dwindling as a species. Because of its rapid growth rate (three to five feet per year) and tall, straight trunk, it is grown on tree plantations worldwide.
"It is the most widely used plantation tree in the world," says Paul Dubsky, a biologist with the Pebble Beach Company. "It is planted in New Zealand, Chile, Australia, Spain and many other countries."
With the species growing abundantly, what''s the issue? The preservation of the habitat and the unique plant species which live in it, say environmentalists. The Monterey Pine may be plentiful in number but they only grow naturally here and in Mexico. While the tree can be replicated, the specific forest ecosystem cannot.
"These are the prime genetic resource," says Smith. "It is our great gift to the world."
Under the Pebble Beach plan, part of Del Monte Forest would be developed, while 690 acres of it would be put into permanent preserve, a protective status which currently does not exist for any of Del Monte Forest. Currently, the entire forest could in theory be razed for development, if pitch canker doesn''t do the job first.
"We are trying to implement a forest management plan that will in the future provide a healthy forest," says Rich Patterson, director of community affairs for the Pebble Beach Company.
Part of that plan is the development of a pitch canker-resistant strain of Monterey Pine. Currently, the Pebble Beach Company is working with UC Berkeley to grow seedlings from the 15 percent that are resistant to the disease.
"It is a survival of the fittest process," explains the Pebble Beach Company''s Nursery Manager Bud Lopez. "You find the trees with resistance and draw from them."
Additionally, the Pebble Beach Company will set aside land in preserve in the Jacks Peak area, another Monterey Pine stand. But critics say that is not enough.
"They need to set aside more land within Del Monte Forest," says Smith. "The habitat at Jacks Peak is so different, it is not comparable."
The Pebble Beach Company maintains that it is adequately providing for a future forest, but with pitch canker and the fact that many of the pines in Del Monte Forest are old and dying anyway, the forest will be in a period of transition, no matter what.
"Our biggest challenge is not dealing with disease, it is dealing with the community at large," says Lopez. "Fifty years from now there is going to be a huge, healthy forest here, but most people don''t want to wait that long."
As the local politics of environment and development swirl about the Monterey Pine, the often-overlooked tree itself stands tall, though facing a turbulent short-term future.
Says Hillyard, "At this time, we don''t think that all the trees will die out. But there are definitely going to be some major repercussions to the species. There are going to be a lot of dead pine trees in the next 10 years." cw