Restoring California’s forests to scale back wildfire dangers will take time, billions of {dollars} and a broad dedication

Restoring California’s forests to reduce wildfire risks will take time, billions of dollars and a broad commitment

A mixed conifer forest in the central Sierra Nevada after restoration with undiluted forest in the background. Roger Bales, CC BY-ND

Roger Bales, University of California, Merced and Martha Conklin, University of California, Merced

With California grappling with its worst forest fire season in history, it is more evident than ever that land management practices in the state's forested mountains require significant changes.

Many of California's 33 million hectares of forests are exposed to widespread threats arising from previous management decisions. Today, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that of the 20 million acres it manages in California, 6-9 million acres will need to be restored.

Forest restoration basically means removing the less refractory smaller trees and returning to a forest with larger trees that are far apart. These stewardship projects require partnerships between the many interests that benefit from healthy forests to provide innovative funding for this major challenge.

Thinned and not thinned forest.Thinned and not thinned forest.Treated forest (left) and untreated forest (right), central Sierra Nevada. Note the spread of small trees and the higher density of stems on the right and the openings between the trees on the left. Martha Conklin, CC BY-ND

We are engineers working on many natural resource challenges, including forest management. We are encouraged to see California and other western states make efforts to use forest management to reduce the risk of a major forest fire.

There are major bottlenecks, however. These include scarce resources and limited engagement between forest managers and many local, regional and state agencies and organizations that play a role in managing forests.

However, some of these groups form local partnerships to work with land managers and develop innovative funding strategies. We see these partnerships as key to increasing the pace and scope of forest restoration.

Dry, overcrowded forests

Many coniferous forests in the western United States contain too many trees that are too tightly packed together. This crowd is the result of previous management practices that suppressed forest fires and prioritized the harvesting of wood. In recent years, global warming, the accumulation of deadwood on the forest floor, and the accumulation of small trees that act as "ladder fuels" and move fire from the forest floor to the canopy have resulted in hotter, larger forest fires.

In today's conditions, trees in California's forests face increasing competition for water. California's exceptionally warm 2011-2015 drought resulted in the death of over 100 million trees. As the forest's demand for water exceeded the amount available during the drought, water-stressed trees succumbed to insect infestation.

Funding is a significant barrier to the expansion of treatments. Almost half of the Forest Service's annual budget is spent on fighting forest fires, which is important for protecting communities and other built infrastructures. However, this means that the agency can only restore a fraction of the hectares that need to be treated each year.

Forest in mountain areas near houses.Forest in mountain areas near houses.Overcrowded forests, especially near communities like this one in the northern Sierra Nevada, are at high risk of high-severity forest fires. Martha Conklin, CC BY-ND

The benefits of restoration

Forest restoration offers many benefits in addition to reducing the risk of high severity forest fires. It reduces tree death and provides a basis for the conservation of carbon stored in trees and soil. Removing trees reduces forest water use and makes more water available for the remaining trees, for in-stream streams, as well as for food production and downstream urban areas.

Increased electricity flow also improves electricity generation from hydropower plants, offsets the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity, and contributes to government initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases.

Forest restoration will reduce the erosion that often occurs after forest fires, when rain loosens exposed soil, damages roads, power lines and ecosystems, and deposits sediment in reservoirs. And it improves the rural mountain economy by supporting local jobs. The French Meadows Forest Restoration Project is an innovative public-private partnership to improve the health of water catchment areas and restore the landscape's historic fire regime.

Mountain spring water forests are an integral part of California's water infrastructure. They store winter snow and rain and slowly release moisture into the rivers in the state's dry summers to irrigate them downstream and provide municipal supplies. For this reason, support for forest restoration is also gaining in importance for downstream water and hydropower providers.

Residents in the western United States had unhealthy air for weeks this summer from smoking from forest fires. Aside from curbing climate change, which is making forests more flammable, reducing fuel consumption is the best tool to reduce smoke emissions.

Like many others, we both find that dwelling in coniferous forests is a great source of renewal. We believe that many people who live in, visit, or wish to maintain healthy mountain forests would be willing to support public investments in forest restoration.

Finding ways to monetize the value of less obvious benefits like environmental health and biodiversity could help fuel that investment.

Expand partnerships

What's the best way to create more public-private partnerships to accelerate forest restoration? Two current projects in the American and Yuba catchment areas of the central Sierra Nevada offer lessons that can be built upon.

First, a dozen or more dedicated partners are required to plan, fund, and execute these projects. Under contracts known as stewardship agreements, the forest service – which owns the land – conducts the environmental review and monitors it. Project partners plan, manage and finance forest treatments.

Second, restoration can cost anywhere from $ 700 to $ 4,000 per morning, depending on the type of treatment used. These funds can come from government grants, foundation grants and loans, timber receipts, or contributions from local authorities. Local agencies can repay loans with revenues from water and hydropower.

Third, a large restoration project can span five to ten years and include water agencies, county governments, the forest service, nongovernmental organizations, state agencies, and the University of California.

To get a project right, you have to do a lot more than cut down trees. In our experience, there are three main components: accurate dates for planning restorative treatments; credible methods of projecting and reviewing the benefits these treatments will bring; and incentives to bring parties together for the duration of the project.

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Building public support

Current projects in California have relied heavily on government grants. Going forward, the state will need more sources of funding to meet the goal of an August 2020 shared stewardship agreement in which California and the Forest Service set a goal of treating 1 million acres per year for 10 years.

At as much as $ 1000 per acre, treating 1 million acres will cost $ 1 billion per year. This number does not include repeated treatments as forests regrow, which will be required in many areas to eventually restore a natural fire regime.

California is increasing the pace and scope of forest restoration, but needs to step up these efforts significantly. Governor Gavin Newsom's new executive order to use California's land to fight climate change, conserve biodiversity and increase climate resilience signals strong intent, but addressing this multi-billion dollar challenge requires more partners. We also see an important role for organizations working to educate and engage larger segments of the public through news, films, social media, and agency outreach.

A warming climate increases the risks for forests that are already stressed by forest fires, drought and pests. In order to preserve California's legendary mountain forests, it is necessary to recognize the diverse values ​​they offer and the many groups that benefit from them in finding and implementing solutions.

Roger Bales, Distinguished Professor of Engineering, University of California, Merced; and Martha Conklin, Professor of Engineering, University of California, Merced

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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