William Russell

William Russell

Department of Enviromental Studies


Environmental restoration; forest ecology:fire ecology; sustainable forestry; wilderness prservartion; native plant conservation; environmental education.


Current Research Activities

My research focuses on anthropogenic and natural ecological disturbances in forest systems in California. While I have conducted research in a variety of ecological systems, including mixed conifer forests, oak woodlands, mixed evergreen forests, and riparian woodlands, my research has become increasing focused on the coast redwood forest over the past few years. Historically the primary sources of disturbance in coast redwood forests are fire and timber harvest, leading to two my main lines of inquiry: 1) Examination of the ecological effects of fire, including both wildfire and prescribed fire, on the composition and resilience of coast redwood and associated species. 2) Analysis of the Impacts of timber harvest, including “restorative” mechanical thinning on coast redwood forest ecosystems, with specific focus on sensitive herbaceous understory species. A more nuanced understanding of these disturbances is essential, as landscapes level management decisions are being made for both public and private lands with little data on the impacts of that management on forests communities, and the ecosystem as a whole.


Research Connections to Current Events

The two primary lines of inquiry described above, effects of fire and timber harvest on coast redwood forests, have direct and immediate applications to current forest management issues. While fire is natural to the coast redwood forest ecosystem, wildfire was relatively rare prior to human settlement in and around the redwood biome. Indigenous burning practiced were first introduced to the region approximately 10,000 years ago, resulting broadly managed fire-resistant landscape. The suppression of fire coupled with industrial timber harvesting that accompanied the colonization of California by the Spanish and Anglo-Americans resulted in fuel build-ups and forest stand structures that were much less resistant to fire, and less resilient following fire. Global climate change has exasperated this situation by reducing fuel average moisture and increasing the likelihood of lightning fires. These changes to the fire regime of the coast redwood forest are evident in the increasing frequency of large high intensity wildfires, such as the CZU fire that occurred in the summer of 2020. Continued timber harvesting is contraindicated under these conditions. Not only has historic timber harvest drastically altered natural environments and resulted in a massive reduction of our natural carbon storage budget, but current timber industry lobbying is opening up previous preserved forests to logging in National Parks and other protected areas under the guise of fuel management and fire protection and safety. Through my research I work to shed light on the impacts of various forest management strategies, and expose the myths related to forest thinning for fire safety and restoration.


Personal Connections to Research

A love of natural landscapes and a desire to protect them was introduced to me at an early age by my family, but an understanding of the impact that I could make as a university professor was instilled in most by the late SJSU professor Lester Rowntree who was my master’s thesis advisor in the 1990s. His ability to combine a rigorous scientific method with a qualitative understanding of social systems, helped me to understand how to communicate my work to the community.


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