Seeing the Forest through the Trees: Thinning Can Safeguard Forests and Communities

Finally, California has taken note that our forests are in dire need of help.  With the death of more than 29 million trees and hundreds of thousands of acres burned by wildfire, Governor Jerry Brown took action in October by issuing an Emergency Proclamation and creating the Tree Mortality Task Force, which has begun to address the dangers of unhealthy forests.

As we work to find solutions across the political landscape, we must take a look at all the tools that foresters use to manage healthy forests and how they can help return California’s 34 million acres of forested lands to a condition that is healthy and more sustainable than what we see now.

What most people don’t understand is that the current state of California’s forests is not natural.  Historically, our forests had 50-70 trees per acre in the Sierra Nevada.  Early settlers commented that they could ride freely through the forests.  Now, we see more than 500-1,000 trees per acre.

This is documented in pictures taken from the same locations decades apart.  And what you can see is startling.

Yosemite Valley pic1

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Yosemite Valley pic2

What you see is a dense forest with little break in the canopy.  In 1866 you can see the forest floor.  In 1961 and then again in 1994, you see Yosemite Valley grew overly dense where you can no longer see the forest floor.  Density and canopy cover have significantly increased.

Today, we see a nearly year-round wildfire season that has progressively burned more acres and at higher intensity than ever before.

These overgrown forests provide lots of ladder fuel that prevent a fire from staying on the ground. Instead, they use the smaller trees and brush to jump to the top of the crown and spread throughout the canopy.

We can attribute some of it to climate change, drought and disease, but we can also blame it on decades of fire policy that sought to extinguish every fire, instead of strategically letting low intensity fires burn the excess forest fuel, as Native Americans once did.

And so we have some unintended consequences.  Policies that were meant to protect and enhance these precious resources are now serving to destroy them and, if we don’t act fast, we are at risk of losing them forever.

One of the tools that land managers utilize to maintain healthy forests is forest thinning.  A process whereby smaller trees are removed to improve the conditions for the larger, healthier trees – resulting in well-stocked, healthy forests filled with trees that are resilient to disturbance.

Thinning provides multiple benefits: 1) It reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire by removing excess fuel and brush on the ground; 2) Research shows that is can also increase the amount of groundwater supply by 3-6 percent; 3) Properly spaced trees allow for the increased growth of larger trees and less competition for natural resources; and, 4) Thinning trees for wildfire prevention and forest health can also provide a source of renewable energy through biomass.  It’s something that is supported by public and private land managers, agriculturalists, insurance companies, conservationists, Fire Safe Councils, rural communities and more.

The Legislature has sought to address the problem and passed AB 744 in 2013, which created a pilot program meant to streamline the Timber Harvest Plan process and allow for thinning for fire prevention. The pilot has shown some success with about 2,000 acres being treated.  However, there are limitations that have prevented its widespread use.  With the tree mortality expected to worsen for several more years and the sunset of the bill quickly approaching in 2017, we need another option that expands and extends AB 744 in order to fully implement the Governor’s Proclamation.

Given the current state of our forests, we support any and all methods that would increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in order to effectively safeguard our communities and increase their resiliency.

By increasing the ability of landowners to thin dense forest stands, we’ll be able to remove excess fuel and safeguard communities from wildfire, while improving the overall resilience of our forests.  Under the strict Forest Practice Rules, land managers still must comply with all environmental and wildlife protections.  Recent studies have shown that thinning a forest can still maintain 85-100% of a forest’s biodiversity.

The Governor’s Emergency Proclamation on Tree Mortality recognizes the immediate need to address widespread tree mortality and calls on several agencies to expedite the process of tree removal.  While we recognize the immediate threat, we must also work toward long-term solutions.

Calforests is working with its partners in support of the Governor’s call-to-action to quickly and efficiently thin our way to healthier, more resilient forests that continue to provide abundant wildlife habitat, plentiful watersheds, recreation and tourism opportunities, renewable energy and sustainable wood products.

–By David Bischel, President, Calforests