M261 Sierran Steppe--Mixed Forest--Coniferous Forest--Alpine Meadow Province

California and southern Oregon, 68,300 mi2 (176,900 km2)

Land-surface form.--This province covers the southernmost portion of the Cascade Mountains, the northern Coast Range, the Klamath Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada. Most of the area is covered with steeply sloping to precipitous mountains crossed by many valleys with steep gradients. The long west slope of the Sierra Nevada rises gradually from 2,000 ft (600 m) to more than 14,000 ft (4,300 m); the east slope drops abruptly to the floor of the Great Basin, about 4,000 ft (1,200 m). Much of this region has been glaciated.

Lateral moraines of Green Creek, 10 mi south of Bridgeport, California. View is westward up the east front of the Sierra Nevada. Lateral moraines of Green Creek, 10 mi south of Bridgeport, California. View is westward up the east front of the Sierra Nevada. (Photo: John S. Shelton.)

Climate.--Temperatures average 35 to 52F (2 to 11C), but fall with rising elevation. The base of the west slope receives only about 10 to 15 in (250 to 380 mm) of rainfall per year and has a long, unbroken dry summer season. At higher elevations, the dry summer season shortens and precipitation rises to as much as 70 in (1,790 mm), with a larger portion falling as snow. Prevailing west winds influence climatic conditions for the whole region. East slopes are much drier than west slopes (see Appendix 2, climate diagram for Tahoe, California). Winter precipitation makes up 80 to 85 percent of the total; at high elevations, it is mostly snow. The greatest total precipitation reported is on slopes between 3,000 and 7,000 ft (900 and 2,100 m), which support the luxuriant mixed conifer forests of the montane zone. The subalpine zone coincides with the altitude of greatest snowfall, where precipitation is 40 to 50 in (1,020 to 1,280 mm) per year.

Vegetation.--Vegetation zones are exceptionally well marked. The lower slopes and foothills, from about 1,500 to 4,000 ft (460 to 1,200 m), are covered by coniferous and shrub associations. On higher slopes, digger pine and blue oak dominate, forming typical open or woodland stands. Most of the low hills are covered by close-growing evergreen scrub, or chaparral, in which buckbrush and manzanita predominate. Several oaks are common associates.

The montane zone lies between about 2,000 and 6,000 ft (600 and 1,800 m) in the Cascades, 4,000 and 7,000 ft (1,200 and 2,100 m) in the Central Sierras, and 5,000 and 8,000 ft (1,500 and 2,400 m) or more in the south. The most important trees are ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, Douglas-fir, sugar pine, white fir, red fir, and incense cedar; but several other conifers are also present. The giant sequoia (big tree) is one of the most spectacular species, but it grows only in a few groves on the western slope. Dense chaparral communities of manzanita, buckbrush, and buckthorn may appear after fire, sometimes persisting for years. Within the Sierran rain shadow, on the dry eastern slopes, Jeffrey pine replaces ponderosa pine. At lower elevations, pine forests are replaced by sagebrush-pinyon forest, part of the Intermountain Desert Province.

The subalpine zone begins at from 6,500 ft to 9,500 ft (1,980 m to 2,900 m), depending on latitude and exposure, and extends upslope about 1,000 ft (300 m). Mountain hemlock, California red fir, lodgepole pine, western white pine, and whitebark pine are important. Conditions are severe, and timberline varies from about 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in the north to 10,000 ft (3,000 m) in the south. Lodgepole pine is said to have climax characteristics near the upper limits of this zone.

The alpine zone covers the treeless areas above timberline.

Soils.--Ultisols are extensive on mountain slopes where air is humid; dry Alfisols predominate at lower elevations. Entisols occupy the narrow floodplains and alluvial fans of the valleys.

Characteristic open oak woodland of the Sierran foothills, Sequoia National Forest, California. Characteristic open oak woodland of the Sierran foothills, Sequoia National Forest, California.

Fauna.--Common large mammals include mule deer, mountain lion, coyote, and black bear. Smaller mammals include golden-mantled squirrel, bushytail wood rat, flying squirrel, red fox, fisher, yellow-haired porcupine, long-eared chipmunk, and Trowbridge's shrew.

Common birds are mountain quail, Cassin's finch, Hammond's flycatcher, Lincoln's sparrow, Audubon's warbler, pine siskin, Oregon junco, blue goose, Williamson's sapsucker, and mountain chickadee. Birds of prey include the western screech-owl, Cooper's hawk, northern pygmy-owl, and great gray owl.

The California mountain kingsnake also lives here.

The bark beetles Ips emarginatus and I. integer infest ponderosa and lodgepole pine.