Other Voices: Managing our forests | TheUnion.com

Other Voices: Managing our forests

Tim Feller, Joanne Drummond and Steve Eubanks

Recent Other Voices column in The Union have discussed various aspects of the importance of managing our forests.

There is a growing recognition in society that long-term sustainability and protection of communities and forest resources such as clean water, clean air, recreation, beauty, wildlife habitat and wood products require some level of active management.

However, there is often less appreciation for the complex infrastructure needed to actively manage and enhance forest resources. This infrastructure includes the people who plan forest management projects and the workers who perform the demanding woods-related work.

Forest management requires a high level of expertise and usually incredibly expensive equipment, whether for mastication, harvesting or just hand-thinning. One more element is needed; mills and other processing facilities to convert raw wood into useable products.

All these elements of infrastructure are interconnected and dependent on one another, but perhaps most pivotal are the mills and processing facilities. Because of the market-related funding generated, processing facilities are the “engines” that provide the opportunity for other important forest management.

Of concern to many resource professionals is the current decline in forest management infrastructure in California. The trend has been ongoing for at least the last decade due mainly to the large reduction in overall forest management projects, particularly on public lands.

The decline of infrastructure is exemplified by the closure of many mills, both large and small. These closures have been followed by the loss of many woods-working companies.

Why should we be concerned about the decline or disappearance of forest management infrastructure? Basically, without infrastructure, there will be less ability, and in some cases, no ability, to complete critical forest management work.

Locally, that work is most often associated with projects focused on reducing the detrimental effects wildfires have on our forest resources and communities.

What happens if there is no infrastructure and no ability to perform forest management work? The most recent example comes from Southern California, where major forest mortality has occurred, and catastrophic wildfires in the local forests have burned through several communities.

Mills and other processing facilities disappeared almost entirely in Southern California more than a decade ago. When the current major forest mortality emerged a few years ago, there was no market for the dead trees and therefore, no way to economically process merchantable-sized dead trees.

As a result, the removal of dead trees in and around communities and along roads to reduce fire hazard became a very costly undertaking. Homeowners often paid $1,000 or more to remove each dead tree threatening their home or property.

Similarly unfortunate, many dead but merchantable trees are still being cut up, chipped or hauled to landfills rather than being turned into useful wood products. The huge cost involved in removing dead trees has dramatically increased the amount of time necessary to reduce fire hazard in the affected communities.

This has created an unnecessary economic burden that would not exist if a forest management infrastructure was available to provide funding to do critical forest resource management work.

It would seem simple to resolve the infrastructure loss in Southern California-or anywhere else it occurs. Can’t infrastructure just be rebuilt?

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Past experience in other parts of the state and country show that, once lost, infrastructure will not come back. There continues to be uncertainty about the long-term stability of wood supply in many parts of California due to controversy about cutting trees and increasing regulations.

There is also the cost of re-establishment; mills, costing tens of millions and forest harvesting equipment like log skidders, feller-bunchers or processing heads, costing several hundred thousand dollars each. There are few people-or banks-willing to accept the level of risk and investment necessary to start a forest management business.

California is blessed with abundant public and private forests-from widespread, majestic mountain forests to those found in our foothills communities on individual lots. Sustainably managing these forests for the values they provide is possible, but only if we maintain a viable forest management infrastructure to perform the necessary work.

There will continue to be debates about factors affecting this infrastructure like regulations, resource issues, and controversy about cutting trees.

However, while these debates continue, it is incumbent on all of us to remember the importance of our forest management infrastructure and one key fact: If infrastructure is lost, our forests and communities will lose the most valuable and cost effective mechanism to sustain and maintain forest health.

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