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An Honest Conversation: California Must Reevaluate Forest Management Practices

Posted by John Greene on January 29, 2018

America’s highly fractious political divide has come to influence nearly every conceivable discussion under the sun. Even topics that everyone generally agrees upon—such as addressing the catastrophic wildfires that affected the Western US and Canada last summer—are not safe from controversy, and the discussion inevitably devolves into finger pointing.

Side A shouts: “It’s all due to global warming and climate change. These fires are now larger and more severe because the unstable climate has enabled pests and diseases to proliferate in the forests.”

Side B shouts: “It's all due to mismanagement of the forests. Fire suppression efforts, overregulation and bans on log harvesting have resulted in a dangerous buildup of dead and decaying timber."

As is the case with most highly-contentious debates, there is likely some truth in both of these statements. However, only one of them contains information that can be addressed and managed (in the near term) via US policy. While climate change may indeed be a global danger, there simply are no realistic, national solutions on the horizon and even if there were, measurable results would be decades away.

The next best option, then, is to investigate and gather data supported by Side B, and formulate actionable strategies to mitigate fire risk and the potential for catastrophic wildfires in the future. Is such a strategy a silver bullet? Absolutely not. But it is best course of action based on where we are and what we know at this moment in time.


NYT Prints Side B

While any workable solution to the wildfire problem will be complex, it is nevertheless encouraging when pillars of American society lead by example and foster a genuine interest in frank discussion. Such is the case in a recently-published, brief New York Times article titled “California Today: 100 Million Dead Trees Prompt Fears of Giant Wildfires,” which makes an honest assessment of the issue.

Journalist Thomas Fuller writes that there are currently more than 100 million dead trees in California that have been damaged by drought and insects, which “could produce wildfires on a scale and of an intensity that California has never seen.” (Recently-updated figures from Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service put the number closer to 129 million trees on roughly 9 million acres.) In some areas of the state, over 90 percent of the trees are dead.


Cal_Trees.jpgBeetle-killed trees in the Sierra Nevada region of California. SOURCE: Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio


Fuller cites a recent study published in the journal BioScience that details the dangerous conditions within the state. So dangerous, in fact, that scientists involved with the study cannot even calculate the damage that future fires might cause because the prospects exceed what their current fire behavior modeling can simulate. “It’s something that is going to be much more severe. You could have higher amounts of embers coming into home areas, starting more fires,” said Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at Berkeley and the lead author of the study.

Fuller then discusses some of the implications that are generally uncomfortable for Side A to address, namely active forest management practices. He cites information from Mark A. Finney, an expert in fire behavior for the U.S. Forest Service (and an author of the study) noting that “… California forests are much more vulnerable now because, paradoxically, they have been better protected. In their natural state, forests were regularly thinned by fire but the billions of dollars that the state spends aggressively fighting wildfires and restrictions on logging have allowed forests to accumulate an overload of vegetation.”

“We had forests that were very resilient to weather variations and insect disturbances in the past — maintained by frequent fire on the order of every year, or every few years at the most,” Finney added. But by putting out fires, “we’ve changed completely the fire component of these ecosystems.”

Fuller closes by briefly explaining how millions of dead trees—ripe to be consumed by wildfire—could affect other natural resources within California. “One of the most striking concerns is the damage the fires might do to watersheds. Intense, hot-burning fires could disrupt forests’ ability to channel water into the Sierra reservoirs that provide cities like San Francisco with drinking water. That’s a scenario that could nudge the state into rethinking its forest management [emphasis added].”

Debates about the health and management of our natural resources are debates worth having. While we remain strong advocates for sustainably-managed forests and the communities and industries that they serve, we understand that the message of working forests is oftentimes lost in translation and/or misrepresented. Kudos to Thomas Fuller and the New York Times for rejecting dogma in favor of honest conversation, which we hope will lead to practical solutions for the state of California. We can all agree that policies designed to limit the loss of life, property and natural resources are policies worth pursuing.

Future Implications Timber Supply and Demand Trends

Topics: forest management, wildfires