Californians love the Sierra forests too much. We’ve been loving our trees to death for a century, and changing course will require everyone to think differently about forest management. An independent government oversight committee has produced a plan and a needed slap of reality.
The scars of last year’s fires are still raw, especially in this part of the state. But we can’t let that stop us from re-examining a century of policies that has left 129 million dead trees in the Sierra and wildlands susceptible to major fires, especially after years of drought, warm weather and insect infestations have provided ample fuel.
Humans also helped prep forests for fire. Because we love our forests, we’ve protected them. When there’s been a fire, firefighters contained it and put it out.
It turns out that wasn’t always the best thing we could do. Decades of fire suppression allowed forest density to increase dangerously. A century ago, forests in the Sierra Nevada had 50 to 80 trees per acre. Today, there are some places with 300 to 400, according to UC Berkeley’s Center for Forestry. Similar patterns are plain in many other forests across the state.
Those ancient, less-dense forests could tolerate periodic fires. In fact, lightning-sparked blazes were part of the natural forest life cycle. When trees are packed closely together, however, fires burn hotter and can spread more easily.
Those fires in today’s forests are bad in all sorts of ways. There are the obvious losses of wilderness, habitat, property and life. Less obvious are the effects on air and water. Smoke and biodegrading remnants release carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases into the air. Exposed soil, meanwhile, can end in landslides and erodes into reservoirs and waterways, costing millions to clean up.
The Little Hoover Commission, an independent government oversight body, spells all this out in its new report, “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada.” The researchers offer hope, too.
Local, state and federal land managers must collaborate on sustainable, long-term forest health. Indeed, federal buy-in will be especially important because the U.S. government owns more than half of the forestland in the state. Private stakeholders and forest owners also must be at the table.
Fire suppression needs to be better balanced with restoration. That will mean using controlled burns and letting some fires burn uncontrolled — literally fighting fire with fire. It also will require logging, something that environmentalists often reflexively oppose. It can’t be the sort of nearly unregulated cutting that congressional Republicans and the timber industry desire, but there’s opportunity for profit in public-private partnerships.
The Little Hoover Commission’s report urges modernizing the timber industry by investing in sawmills that can process smaller and dead trees and in energy programs that burn brush to generate power. Scientists can direct harvests to areas that will help the forest first and the profit margin second.
Underlying all this needs to be public awareness and education. Spending millions to restore forests could be a tough sell to taxpayers when the benefits to wilderness, waterways, wildlife and climate lie in the future. Moreover, the public simply needs to know what’s going on. People need to understand that fire isn’t inherently bad, a lesson that may take time to learn after last year’s disaster.