Norm Sauer: Tending our forests
Two articles by Christy Sherr of the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute argued high-intensity catastrophic fires in our forests provide “the most ecologically diverse and wildlife-rich” snag forest habitat.
Her argument was ridiculed by forester Robert Ingram as “extremist” for cherry picking and falsifying science to stop all commercial logging on federal lands.
Wildlife biologist Amanda Shufelberger having witnessed the nuclear waste of 10,000 acres of charred snags and incinerated birds and animals from the high-intensity Rim Fire, was appalled by Sherr’s misleading snag forest argument.
I am a resident of Nevada City living with the real threat of high-intensity catastrophic fire, originating especially from the Tahoe National Forest. I am an advocate for reducing or eliminating the threat of catastrophic fires.
Before white settlement of the Sierra Nevada, our forests were tended by lightning and Native Americans periodically setting ground fires that cleared underbrush but left mature trees largely intact.
Ground fires promoted healthy, well-spaced trees and improved soil and forage conditions for big game. Crown fires were occasional that burned entire stands of trees to the ground.
In the late 19th century, the newly created Forest Service instituted a strict policy of fire suppression. Today, timber harvest in public forests is practically non-existent. Rather than a healthy 50 to 100 trees per acre, the west slope now averages 300-plus trees per acre. This concentration of trees and underbrush amounts to 45 tons of dry fuel per acre, or a potential for catastrophic fire. Not surprisingly, the clear and present danger of high-intensity fires on public lands in California have increased significantly over the last 20 years.
“Preserving dynamic ecosystems in a static state is just not possible … (M)any of the things causing forests to decline is an environmental disconnect — people are removed, or disconnected, from the land that feeds and shelters them.” (Bonnicksen, Protecting Communities and Saving Forests, 2008, p.4)
After catastrophic wildfire, doing nothing to restore the forest can be as destructive as the fire itself. Rain can lead to massive erosion and mudslides and insufficient living trees remain to reseed the area, or shrubs and hardwoods sprout quickly choking out any emerging tree seedlings.
I believe restoration forestry that seeks to return our forests to historical forests is a real world solution for addressing the forest’s health. Trees of different ages or sizes, or small patches of trees, are harvested for diverse forest management and to allow therapeutic burns as were done historically.
Besides reducing the risk of catastrophic fire, trees in a restored healthy forest are more resistant to insect predation. Being thinned, trees create right-sized gaps in the canopy to allow snow to fall to the ground yet receive enough shade to be protected from melting too early, unlike closed canopies from too many trees where 15 to 60 percent of snow never reaches the ground and is lost to evaporation. Further, in restored forests faster growing large trees sequester carbon faster than smaller trees. Absent large wildfires, Sierra forests currently sequester enough carbon to offset the annual carbon dioxide emissions of almost 2.7 million passenger cars.
In March 2011, the Forest Service in Region 5 estimated restoration is sorely needed for a return to healthy forests in the Sierra. Management believes an environmental restoration program of unprecedented scale can alter the direction of current high-intensity wildfire trends. Even some environmental groups have joined the consensus that many federally managed forests are dangerously overgrown and action need be taken to remove excessive growth and turn the resulting wood and biomass into products with economic value.
Unfortunately, there are many impediments to restoration management of our public forests. Sufficient mills no longer exist to handle wood processing. Economic depression of forest communities makes rebuilding more difficult. Lengthy and complex planning processes such as NEPA, CEQA, and the ESA must be complied with before any action is taken. CARB impedes prescribed therapeutic burns while promoting the unintended consequence of enabling larger, more damaging fires. Adding insult to impediments, environmentalist lawsuits frustrate forest management at taxpayer expense.
If anything is to be done to correct the present snafu, strong policy and investment actions are needed at the federal and state levels. Saving our forests demands we tend our garden. Currently, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy at the request of our rural counties is spearheading efforts to engage interested parties to save our forests. With more Sherrs we have a long way to go to minimize the risk of catastrophic fires.
Norm Sauer, a retired attorney who lives in Nevada City, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinion is his own and does not represent the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board.
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