First, let’s get started!
A major problem / threat in the western United States and California in particular is the danger posed by the overgrown condition of our forests, public and private. We have seen a dramatic increase in frequency and size of wildland fire, accompanied with huge cost in lost lives, loss of property, air quality and more. This is accompanied by increased cost of firefighting, clean up and restoration. The latter of which is largely neglected and forgotten. Do we do nothing? Or do we go after the basic blocking and tackling involved in managing our forested lands, which we should have been doing, all along?
The recent Tree Mortality epidemic which largely centered in 10 Counties, but was pervasive elsewhere as well, finally got some attention at the State level in California. In my mind this was the most effective and coordinated government operation (outside of fighting WWII) that I personally have witnessed. The various agencies involved generally but not universally got together and went after a solution. The Counties played an essential and integral part of driving that solution and the resulting success. Governor Brown realized that the root cause of the Tree Mortality crisis was the overgrown state of our forests making them unhealthy. He issued a new proclamation in May 2018 effectively morphing the Tree Mortality Task Force (TMTF) into a Forest Health Task Force (FHTF). Governor Newsom has endorsed that effort and even expanded on it a little. This FHTF has been going on for more than a year. It frankly has accomplished little on the ground.
FHTF has no direction: No one has defined the problem, the magnitude of the problem and what the solution looks like. If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there. The FHTF is meandering about with little or no real results. Without a collective understanding the magnitude of the problem and the complexity of the solution, we should not expect a lot of results. Direction and leadership are essential.
Currently, there is no seat at the table for the Counties. Based on the success of the TMTF, it is very important that the priorities and the solutions be driven by Counties. They understand the local priorities and can help get the maximum benefit for the effort and resources being applied. Problem is that there is no vehicle or mechanism at this time for the Counties to participate other than “Public Comment”. Really! That is absurd. The Forested Counties, which are mostly Rural Counties, need to band together and make it happen. I suggest they do that under the RCRC banner.
Vision: Forests, both public and private should become age diverse, species diverse, ecologically resilient to disease / insects while at the same time maintaining large scale fire resilient landscapes, respecting the habitat of all the various species which depend upon the forest including the public.
These will be forest landscapes which look much like the “Demonstration Forest” near Pinecrest. Stem densities should end up being in the 80 to 100 stems per acre with some open areas spread throughout the forest.
Magnitude of the problem: There are something like 33 million acres of Forest land in California. About 18 million acres is USFS land. Some of this is designated as either “Wilderness” or “Wild and Scenic” lands and or rivers and adjacent land. All the National Parks are “Wilderness” by definition. These areas have fires too but are generally treated different in terms of firefighting rules, like retardant drops. At least for the time being, we don’t need to take these issues on as we are likely to be overwhelmed with the undesignated areas. Sooner or later, they do need to be discussed as we all know that fire does not respect boundaries of any kind.
So, if we look at only the National Forests, the problem is huge. Just post Rim Fire, I collected the following from CFA. Region 5 was growing and estimated 4200 mmbf of timber annually. The harvest was said to be 300 mmbf annually and the natural mortality was like 842 mmbf. Natural mortality was almost 3 times the harvest. In trying to verify the harvest numbers the Board of equalization timber tax records did not agree. They were less. Let’s simply use the numbers as given. The forest was growing in an enormous inventory largely unchecked and the only true expectation was more extreme fire and or some other disaster which turned out to be bark beetle epidemic following a severe drought. The unintended consequences of doing “virtually nothing” was mother nature was “clear cutting” our forests before our very eyes on a pace and scale that we simply could not have imagined beforehand.
So, how do we get out of this mess? I simply said that we need to grow our wood products infrastructure to the point where we are taking out more than the forest is growing in annually. Until we get to that point, the forest is continuing to add net inventory and we are losing the battle.
Case 1: This first idea was to simply add the equivalent of one sawmill (125 mmbf) per year every year, while maintaining everything we currently have. This is a huge task with lots of regulatory obstacles and probably unachievable without major social, cultural and regulatory changes. We have even lost a few more mills since Rim Fire six years ago. If we could grow our infrastructure on that plan, it would take 30 years to catch up with the growth and 60 years to get us back to where we are today. My reaction to that revelation was “UNACCEPTABLE!” WE have to move faster.
Case 2: Suppose we could add the equivalent of 300 mmbf wood product capacity annually (that number came from simply adding to the annual capacity by the amount of the claimed annual harvest – not rocket science). Twelve and a half years (12.5) to catch up with growth and 25 years to get us back to the current average forest equivalent density.
If those numbers are not sobering enough, let me remind you that the calculation only considered National Forest land. The problem is nearly twice that big if we include the rest of the forested land in California. National Forest land is about 55% of forests in California. We cannot let these staggering numbers deter us. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose, and it is urgent we get started now or even sooner.
So how do we get started:
- Counties need to have individual plans to manage their specific situations.
- Establish collective and individual visions of success and get everyone to buy into it, including their local collaboratives.
- Define the magnitude of the problem, globally and locally.
- What are our priorities – Collectively and locally? Public Safety must be one of them followed by Public infrastructure, schools, roads, communications, power, water. Etc.
- We need to include all the currently available resources, find ways to grow them where possible, and develop new ones. Focus where we already have infrastructure and work to renew and grow the existing technologies.
- Collectively we need to grow new forest product technologies and markets.
- Do not wait until we get it right because we will never get there. This is a classic case for adaptive management strategies.
- While we need to be sensitive to the various interests and values the forest supports, we need to recognize that these will compete, and compromises will need to be made. Doing “nothing” as we have done a lot of in the last 50 years or so should require NEPA / CEQA analysis as much as any management strategies.
- If we want to make our forests “Fire Resilient,” it will mean including a maintenance program because the weeds, brush, ground fuels and ladder fuels will all grow back quickly. The frequency will vary but probably on the order of 5 to 10 years max.
- Restoration has to be part of the plan, both replanting and meadow restoration while considering the local need for the diverse habitat of endemic species.
- Grazing is important to the balance. Most of our forests have been grazed by cattle for the last 150 years and there is a balance in the eco-system. Cows eat brush when it is young and tender before it becomes woody. They also will eat some of the invasive noxious weeds when they are very young, and we have a serious problem with these species. The brush and the noxious weeds come back quickly and left alone will largely dominate the landscape. Cattle grazing will help with recovery from a wildland fire.
- Prescribed fire where it makes sense and is low risk is an essential part of the solution.
- Sign a Master Stewardship Agreements (MSA) with your local national Forests, County by County and Forest by Forest. These give the Counties a role in management of the National Forest lands within in their own County. It also keeps any net revenue generated from Timber Sales on the forest to do additional work.
- Develop funding sources to get the program started.
- Engage your local collaboratives in the planning process.
- Caution about overreaching on single issues – balance will be important.
- Second guess what you are doing and be concerned for what is missing in your knowledge base but balance these concerns with the benefits and monitor the results. Then adjust when the data is clear.
- It is better to do something than do nothing.
- Collectively we can and should add to this list.
The problems of fire management are exacerbated by the excessive vegetation density, including ground fuels and ladder fuels, which we have not and are not currently managing well. What do we need to do about it?
Simple first priorities and actions:
- Protect our population centers first. We have hundreds of locations that are set up for devastation very similar to what we have seen. But let me remind you that this started with the Oakland Hills restart in 1991 followed by Laguna Hills in 1993 and you know about Napa, Sonoma, Paradise and more in recent years. We are slow learners. Public Safety has to be very high on our priority list.
- Use your fire safe councils and grant money to build fire breaks around these areas. Fire Safe Councils are largely volunteers and made up of retired professionals. They have limited capacity, but we need to fully utilize what we have and grow our capacity, if we can. At a minimum, we need to be recruiting just to maintain that capacity.
- Use your inmate crews when they are not fighting the big fires to do local fire prevention activities. Look at how to utilize the “off” season to keep these people working.
- Need to streamline the CEQA / NEPA processes – fix it or watch it burn. Suggest we try a concept I call the generic NEPA /CEQA. Some events have great commonality and we should be able to do a NEPA/ CEQA analysis to support “categorical exclusions” on some activities. We should not have to reinvent the wheel for every project. For instance, most of the fire restoration and recovery should not need new NEPA. We lose valuable time post fire analyzing some of the issues when we already know the answer. Meanwhile more environmental damage accumulates. The current draft changes to the NEPA regulations from the forest service are proposing this.
- As we pick up the pace, physical resources will become a problem so we will need to invest in more equipment. Experienced Contractors are likely to be in short supply. Engage them in developing our local plans. Look at funding sources for financing the equipment and training required to grow our capacity.
- Human Resources: Use your Community Colleges and WIBS in a statewide program to train the new and expanding work force we will need. Again, coordinate with the industry including the local loggers to make sure we start generating the right work force to get it done. Look at on the job training with our industrial team to make training more effective and quicker.
- Every County needs to sign a Master Stewardship Agreement with their National Forest (s) and start driving the solution into the larger public forest. Make them as long as the law allows – right now that is 20 years.
- Most Fires are human caused and start in the WUI. So, get CAL TRANS in coordination with our County Public Works staff to work on a plan with all of their interfaces including USFS, BLM, NPS and others, including private landowners, and Counties to make the WUI on State, Federal and local highways / roads fire resilient. I would recommend that we target for 100 yards wide shaded fire breaks on both sides of all our roads / highways as a priority and then look at expanding further into the forests. Each County should start with a goal of treating 100 miles of Roads every year 100 yards wide on both sides. That will be just under 7300 acres and will generate and enormous amount of merchantable timber to help pay for it. It will also generate a huge inventory of biomass. As we start reducing the fire starts, we should free up State and Federal money to sustain our prevention programs. WE will have to fight to keep the funds flowing into these programs.
- A major priority needs to be critical infrastructure: Schools, Communications, critical water facilities, power delivery systems, potential evacuation centers and areas of population concentrations.
- WE need to develop a broad reaching program to deal with biomass, from energy generation, pelletizing, Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), cellulostic nano-fibers and more. Some of these technologies currently do not exist in California and need to be promoted and developed. Grow our rural economies at the same time.
- Set some reasonable workable criteria and look at developing local policy / requirements for vegetation management on private lands including enforcing those criteria – defensible space.
- Local land use policies may be a contributor. For decades, there has a been a policy of generating and protecting “open space” especially in rural mountain counties. But there has not been corresponding vegetation management policy. It has been the thought that if you set aside “open space” in whatever form and protect it from management, you will preserve the environmental values and protect the wildlife habitat. This is largely some of the thinking behind: “Conservation Easements” as well. The rules become so overwhelming with cost and bureaucracy that to go out and simply clean up the brush and ground fuels becomes more painful than it is worth. These policies and rules promote the propagation of wildland fires. Fix them! If you insist on “Open Space”, then make it MANAGED “open space” with strong requirements to maintain it.
- We can easily expand on this list and should.
WE all have a stake in this issue, both in terms of responsibility to fix it but also in culpability in how we got into this mess in the first place.
The word I keep using and now I am starting to hear others use is URGENCY! Let’s stop talking about the problem and get something done on the ground. Do not expect the program to be perfect on the first try. It will be different in the various locations for all sorts of reasons. Adjust as we learn to the changing conditions.
We must utilize the Incident Command approach, which is so often used in emergencies, to instead go after this “management” problem. There are those that know how to do that, and we must use this system and not treat this as just another “plan”. This system is built to triage, focus, and get results quickly with the right resources.
We have an emergency! The world is watching. Even though the Camp Fire was last November, and we lost Paradise and many lives, many people do not have this issue on the front burner. It will happen again, and pressure will build / increase for Action NOW and near-term Results. Again, WE have an emergency – Act like it! Go to “General Quarters” on this one.
Challenges and Problems:
1. We must all do this and coordinate our activities, sharing lessons learned. We need a clearing house or mechanism to do this. I suggest we use RCRC as the coordinating organization by forming a real working group and using the RCRC facilities and communications network to make this happen.
2. Some counties have substantial existing physical wood products infrastructure, physical and human, and others do not. We must focus first where we have these means to do the work and grow the infrastructure everywhere to match the equilibrium situation. We cannot afford to lose any of our existing infrastructure. Support what we have and grow what we need.
3. All of the State agencies are not necessarily cooperating right now: CPUC, CARB, Cal EPA and others. They have not changed enough to own this problem in the broadest sense. Biomass energy is not considered renewable but needs to be. We need to bring every biomass power plant back online and if necessary, upgrade them to more efficient standards and fully meet the air quality standards. WE probably need more than we currently have. CARB and EPA must work with us to do the therapeutic under burns needed in our maintenance programs. WE will need more days for prescribed burns, or we will have more days where wildland fire does not have any rules.
4. The rules of engagement need to change. Some of the rules we have been using unduly and inappropriately restrict out ability to get the job done. WE need to write new rules for dealing with the emergency. Examples:
A. Cutting trees greater than 30 inches dbh. While we want to save and maybe grow (?) our inventory of old growth trees, we need to be careful that the end result does in fact become an age diverse, species diverse forest. If we never cut any big trees, the end will be only big trees – virtually a single age forest with little species diversity – and they will all reach end of life at roughly the same time. The concept of sustainability must be part of the end result. So, we need to build our plan on a longer term consistent with the life span of the dominate tree species in the immediate area. Optimizing the long-term plan is likely to be preferable over the short term.
B. Special Status Species: Owl PACS are currently up to 500 acres which are not touched. We lost something like 27 of these in the King Fire and 46 in the Rin Fire. They contributed heavily to our inability to successfully deal with the fire suppression. The real science says they only need 10 acres or less. Let’s use real science, not overreach and or public outcry to determine the proper answers to protecting the special status species. The idea here is to balance the effort so all of our species survive preferably thrive under the best collective conditions but not necessarily one at the expense of the others.
C. WE need to look at how we fight fire effectively. The rules are not the same for all of the agencies that fight fire. IN 2018, two unique things happened. In the Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County, the Park Superintendent ordered mechanical equipment (bulldozers) and authorized fire-retardant drops inside the national park to save Yosemite Valley from burning. This was unprecedented and technically against the rules for fighting fires in wilderness areas. About the same time in the Dardanelle Fire, Tuolumne County sent a County Strike team to do structure protection on National Forest Land in the area without asking permission. This was a successful effort, but it was late. WE had already lost the entire Dardanelle Resort. Agencies need to cooperate more and early when we have emergencies.
D. This is almost the same topic. The rules of engagement are different for the various firefighting organizations – CalFIRE, USFS, BLM, National Parks etc. They are also different for wilderness areas, wild and scenic areas, and more. The obvious is wildland fire respects no boundaries. During the fire season, the rule should be to stomp out every start no matter where it occurs. Resources are almost always in limited supply during fire season. If a fire gets away from us, there are no resources to contain it because they are elsewhere. Prescribed burns should not be opportunistic but be based on careful planning and preparation. WE have seen this problem many times before. We need to have consistent rules and fight this fight together.
E. Our loggers who are doing the Lion’s share of the vegetation management activities are typically working on yearly contracts. Why? Are they going to have jobs after this year? If we are going to be solving the bigger problem, they will have work for decades to come. So, let’s start looking at contracting for longer periods – 5 years or even 10 years. Then these organizations can make the investments necessary to grow their business and can get the financing as well.
F. WE are still operating at the State level under a grant system that is not suited to getting to pace and scale. Cal FIRE is running the program but others have their fingers in it as well. Too much Bureaucracy and overhead! They talk about a minimum of 800 to 1000 acres for pace and scale. WE should be thinking on the order of 10,000 or even 25,000 acres if we are going to get to the scale we need. And the pace has to be much greater as well. Until we are on a program where we are taking out more than the forest is growing, we are losing. And we can never forget that maintenance is essential to success. This grant process needs to be streamlined. WE waste energy and resources in the process that could be put to work getting the job done. Put the effort into serious project planning.
G. We collectively need to write the new rules of engagement consistent with winning this “war” and not necessarily just playing by the old rules. Start with a blank slate and get the teams including the scientists, industry, collaboratives and implementation people to tell us what they need to do the job in a timely and cost-effective manner. Start with a blank sheet.
5. WE will need to compete in the world markets for traditional wood products and develop new markets for the new products we will create.
6. Not everyone agrees with me. Vegetation management tends to be a seasonal effort. We need to find a way to maximize our efforts year around and not just the good weather months.
7. Again, this is a list that we can and should expand.
There are no losers in this effort. Winners include:
- Our forests are healthier continuing to renew our atmosphere with oxygen and removing CO2 and sequestering Carbon
- Air quality
- Costs because we will ultimately significantly reduce frequency and size of wildland Fires and save in our emergency response costs to extinguish them.
- Public safety for obvious reasons.
- Water Supply will be more plentiful if we do not have so many trees competing with each other and sucking up so much of the precipitation. With a thinner canopy we will get more snow on the ground and more water in our streams, creeks and rivers.
- Tourism and Recreation year around.
- Wildlife habitat will be better and safer for all the species in the forest.
- Rural economies will be stronger with better employment and opportunity.
- WE can all add to this list as well.
This was not intended to be an exhaustive and complete proposal of the problem and solutions. It is only intended to get us all thinking and to utilize this as a starting point for discussion to move forward. Move forward we must, and we must do it with a sense of urgency. I believe there is no greater issue facing California and the other Western States today that the condition of our unmanaged Forests