Brock Dolman (E33)

Brock is a co-founder of Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Northern California, one of the first permaculture education centers in North America. In this conversation, Brock displays a tiny fraction of his savant-level knowledge of ecology, water, soil, trees, and how to engage in a healing relationship to our environment. His unorthodox insights, especially relevant in a time of forest fires and extreme weather events, embed scientific reasoning within an eco-spiritual aesthetic.

Note: Find out more about Brock and the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center.


  1. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. I didn’t vote for him and don’t care for him, but Trump was broadly correct about correct forest management in California. “forest management” was not a code word for “giving permission to evil timber barons to ravage the forest”. Even his raking the forest comment could have been from a poorly understood briefing on forestry management.
    First my qualifications to speak with some intelligence on the topic. I have a secondary credential in biology and life science. Over the past five years I have gone to a multi-day event in California called Forestry Challenge with teams of high school students in which the teams come up with solutions to forestry management situations. Situations like managing a prescribed fire on a specific 80 acre site, maximizing Giant Sequoia regeneration, determining if there is sufficient timber in an area for a selective harvest, managing an endangered rare ecosystem. We also have been shown models of correct forest management, how to use forestry tools, tree identification. These events take place in the coast redwoods zone and the lovely mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada – sugar pine, ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, incense cedar, white fir, douglas fir. Giant sequoias are rarely found in limited areas.
    The events are led by foresters from state and national forests and private industry. I have been impressed by their sensitivity to the natural world and grounded wisdom. My best conversation was with a young forester employed by a leading lumbering company whose view towards the natural world you would honor and appreciate.
    In 1994 I moved to the portion of the Central Valley that is directly below the heartland of the giant sequoia – the General Sherman and General Grant trees. I traveled into the two national parks and was horrified by all the crowded small trees and thought it was a prelude to a fire holocaust. I have spoken with park rangers who wish they could remove the white firs growing up into the Giant Sequoias as the firs could be ladders letting fires up into the crowns of the sequoias.
    Before their tragic displacement and disempowerment the local native americans would regularly set fires as they left the mountains to winter in the valley. I have read that the fires in premodern California were frequent enough that the typical forest would have a burn through around every fifteen years – millions of acres yearly. Early explorers remarked frequently on the smoky air – something I have experienced over the past 20 years. I have come out in the morning and found ashes on my car!
    Of course widespread fire as a management method is impractical now and here is the method foresters recommend now to manage the mixed conifer forest. First thinning out the small crowded trees. One reason the past drought was so hard on the forests east of me – I lived close to the worst hit areas – was there were literally three times or more the number of trees appropriate in an area. Which meant much less water per tree. The trees fight the afflicting beetle by pushing them out with sap, little water per tree, little sap.
    So men go in, chain saw the smaller trees, cut them up, pile (rake?) them into smallish piles and then burn them when the weather is right. I was told there is a new technology coming from Europe where those otherwise not usable trees can be transformed into a wood based structural material. One other possible use would be sending the wood to bio-gen power plants another idea kicked around was making bio-char to enrich the soil in the great agricultural valley below the mountains. Bio-gen plants are now scarce and the bio-char approach is in the idealistic concept stage. Another approach I’ve seen is mastication where the extra growth is chipped and spread (raking?) I don’t know enough to gauge the respective merits of these approaches.
    The next management method after the initial thinning is using prescribed burns as the wild fire danger is much less. Selective harvesting happens every 25 years or so.
    I worked with students on determining the practicality of a selective harvest on a thousand acre property owned by the Seventh Day Adventist church – Leoni Meadows. It’s a model of correct forest management and has a lovely forest centered around a large mountain meadow with a pond and flock of wild geese. It was this year’s site for Forestry Challenge. It was a fascinating process. Regulations demand a certain tree cover expressed in basal area per acre be left to provide adequate wild life cover and habitat for a species of owl.
    The teams did 35 sample sites of a tenth of an acre plot. First you census, ID and measure the diameter of all trees above a certain size. You determine the total basal area and see if there is enough to do a harvest. If so you then select trees based upon various criteria, measure their height and calculate board feet available. Incense Cedar is preferred as it has the best price and easily regrows from seedling and tends to dominate. The sample plot I worked in had enough basal area to allow harvest and I could tell what would be left would leave an intact forest.
    Leoni Meadows was at the end of the road at around 5000 feet. Driving in I passed by miles of overgrown forest and suddenly I encountered a balanced openness as I arrived.
    The initial clearing of overcrowded trees is not a short term money making enterprise at this time. Neither are prescribed burns – which require close management and workers. It needs to be a subsidized process seen as having long term benefits.
    “hands off nature” has caused the near extinction of vital keystone species – loggers, truck drivers and mill workers. The foresters tell me there is a severe shortage of mills and skilled workers. The local herd memories of learning and modeling from fathers, uncles, older brother, neighbors was broken in the 80’s and 90’s. According to the foresters there is a revival of logging guided by good principles , but it is hampered by this scarcity.
    Part of my Forestry Challenge experience was seeing these keystone species in action, much like watching a pack of wolves taking down an elk or a lion a zebra. I watched a skilled logger aged in his upper fifties artfully felling a huge dead pine in a precise direction so it wouldn’t fall on buildings on one side and the watching audience on the other side. We watched another expert using heavy equipment carefully and adroitly pack large logs into a truck.
    The human mountain ecosystem because of the near extinction of these well paid keystone species has been degraded and needs to be restored. But preservation of these species hold no charm for some idealistic elitists. They drive gas guzzling pickups, own guns, hunt, maybe even vote the wrong way. Belatedly the educational establishment in California is beginning to see the value of blue collar jobs instead of a relentless all must go to college track.
    Enough said. I hope this message from outside the liberal bubble has some value and added insight.

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