New Pilot Program Helps Landowners Thin Forests, Improve Forest Health

With California experiencing increasing temperatures, a historic number of wildfires and a fourth straight year of drought, danger is just one spark away.  Worse still, a century of misguided federal forest fire management practices have prioritized fire suppression, which in turn has decreased forest health and increased the chance of catastrophic wildfires.

Putting out every fire without thinning the forests or removing dead trees and vegetation causes fires to spread quickly and intensely. In order to reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfires, California desperately needs to remove this excess fuel; in fact, an estimated 550,000 acres are in need of treatment to increase forests’ resiliency to wildfires. Many landowners want to conduct thinning projects on their property to improve the health and resiliency of the forest, but regulatory requirements such as submitting a timber harvest plan (THP) before trees are removed on private land can cost up to $40,000 and prevent landowners from recouping the costs of the project. As a result, the number of private forestland acres thinned has dwindled to only 800 acres per year.index

Thankfully, California is making an effort to reverse the trend and help landowners conduct more forest management projects on their land and around their communities. Last year, the state Legislature passed AB 744, which expands the Forest Fire Prevention Exemption (FFPE) to increase the size of trees that can be harvested under the exemption. The FFPE, which was created after the massive 2003 wildfires that devastated more than 800,000 acres, allows landowners to thin their property under the supervision of a register forester without having to submit a costly THP. Under AB 744, landowners can harvest even more trees under the exemption, which not only allows more area to be cleared properly, but can also help defray the costs of the thinning project since no THP is required.

This three-year pilot represents an important opportunity to show the state Legislature that AB 744 is an effective way to increase the use of the FFPE and ultimately thin more acres of forestland. Although AB 744 was originally limited to a few inland counties – Modoc, Siskiyou and Trinity – AB 2142, which was passed the following year, increased the number of participating counties to include Mendocino, Humboldt, Sonoma and Del Norte.

Starting January 2015, landowners in designated counties can apply for the new FFPE. To apply, landowners must hire a registered forester to develop a forest thinning plan and complete an application form, which must be mailed to CAL FIRE for approval. For more information about how to take advantage of the pilot program, interested landowners can contact a local consulting forester or Calforests at info@calforests.org.