Wet winter fails to solve state’s forest problems
By Christine Souza
Timber operator and Tuolumne County Farm Bureau President Shaun Crook during the California Farm Bureau Leaders Conference in Sacramento.
U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Randy Moore during the California Farm Bureau Leaders Conference in Sacramento.
Despite the wet winter and far-above-average Sierra Nevada snowpack, California forests remain at risk from tree mortality, bark beetle infestations and overgrown landscapes, according to presentations at the 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference.
During the event, foresters and forest landowners discussed all those issues and communicated concerns directly to Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest regional forester, who participated as a guest speaker.
Shaun Crook, a timber operator and president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, emphasized to Moore the need for effective forest management and that it be included in the agency's updated forest plans, to reverse the damage happening in the national forests. The Forest Service is currently working on forest plans to serve as the land management framework for the Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra national forests, which are expected to serve as blueprints for other forests in the Sierra and across the country.
"As we go forward with the forest plan revisions and the (tree) mortality, we need to be more proactive with the green and timber sale program to start getting the forest back into that state that it was 100 years ago, before we can just let fire do its thing, or we're going to continue to have the catastrophic fires like the King Fire and the Rim Fire," said Crook, a contract logger and grazing permittee in the Stanislaus National Forest. "We need a guaranteed harvest level coming off of the national forest because without that, we won't get this private infrastructure back."
Crook told Moore that people in the timber business cannot approach a bank for a loan relying on forest land, when the forest "only puts up 15 million feet and it is growing 400 million feet."
"Without that, I don't see where we're going to be able to complete the circle and really manage California's forests so we can continue to derive that benefit of the timber and the clean water and the clean air and those recreational opportunities," Crook said. "That's what we hope to get as the forest plan revision process goes forward."
The Forest Service estimates more than 102 million trees in California have died due to drought and bark beetle since 2010, which puts the state's forests at serious risk of large, high-severity wildfires that threaten lives, communities, water resources, wildlife habitat and recreation.
"We're under a tremendous amount of pressure to treat those dead and dying trees," Moore said, "and you only have so much money, and there's a health and safety factor of not treating the dead and dying trees. While I agree with you that we need larger green sales, we don't have enough money to do all of it."
Moore reported that the Forest Service has felled about 280,000 trees, cleared 90 campgrounds, provided fuel breaks for 46 communities and addressed 100 miles of utility power line clearings within the last two years.
The proportion of the overall Forest Service budget devoted to fighting wildfires has grown from 14 percent to 53 percent during the past 15 years, he said—and in California, it has increased from 20 percent to 64 percent.
"We are struggling with how the agency has to deal with wildfire suppression, because it is having an undue impact on other program areas," Moore said. "We don't have the ability to treat all of those acres, because it is scattered over about 7 million acres. Although we are moving out of the drought, we still expect trees to die for another two to three years."
Moore said the Forest Service has "worked actively" with state and local governments to try to have power contracts renewed for biomass plants that convert wood waste into electricity. He noted that some policy specialists consider biomass to be old technology, and it is more costly than other renewable sources such as solar and wind. But he said biomass makes sense in reducing fuel load for fire suppression.
"We need people to really understand that it (biomass) should not be compared on a one-to-one ratio with natural gas or wind. When you look at the money it takes for fire suppression, it is cheaper to create biomass," Moore said.
David Van Lennep, a forester from Santa Cruz County and past-president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, asked Moore if the Forest Service has been able to show the connection between the benefits of harvesting timber in California and reducing emissions, producing power and ensuring water quality.
A challenge for the Forest Service, Moore said, is being given the "social license" to move forward, because "litigation seems to be the way to resolve issues."
But Moore said a relatively new approach by the Forest Service is to be more collaborative with members of the public, adding, "When communities stand up and act as interveners, that goes a long, long way at making things happen. If that community feels like it is important to them, they can become interveners and play a more significant role."
The day following Moore's appearance, members of the CFBF Forestry, Fish and Wildlife, and Public Lands Committee met to discuss policy solutions.
Looking at the future of forest management, Steve Brink, California Forestry Association vice president of public resources, told the committee the Forest Service is struggling with how to address the insect and disease epidemic in its final forest plan.
"The Forest Service hasn't increased (active management by) a single acre, so how are they going to select an alternative that will even do more than what they've been able to do? It's not going to happen," Brink said.
George "YG" Gentry, CFA vice president of regulatory affairs, told the committee the plans don't address the issue of overstocked and dense forests in the Sierra.
"I feel like all we are doing right now is removing material in highly sensitive areas," Gentry said, "and by the time that this material makes it anywhere, it's already deteriorated to the point where it's no longer useful."
By the time the tops of trees turn red, Brink said, private landowners only have four months to get the wood to a sawmill before it loses its lumber value.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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