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When myths drive decisions about forests

One of the most enduring myths in the forest wars is the idea of the “pre-European forest”-a pristine, “old growth,” human fantasy of what supposedly greeted the pioneers in California. The idea has been used to leave tens of thousands of acres of wildfire-charred public forests to rot and erode rather than salvage, to shut down timber sales from California’s federal lands, to put many communities at severe risk of wildfire, and to hamstring the forestry industry at every turn.

A new book called “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests-A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849” (Mountain Press), published with help from The Forest Foundation, shows just how off-base this fantasy is. It carefully documents how pre-European Sierra Nevada forests looked very different from the myth of vast virgin stands of thickly forested giant trees.

The author of the book, wildlife biologist George Gruell, uses photographic evidence to prove that today’s over-dense, tree-choked forests are not at all like the more open forests that existed in the wake of the California Gold Rush. Gruell contrasts historical photos with others taken from precisely the same vantage points about a century later.



In almost every case, the comparisons show that forests today are much denser than they were prior to 1900. Meadows and mixed stands of multi-aged trees, with a park-like open-canopy look to the forests, were common in the past. Gruell also identifies many burnt tree stumps in the historical photos, indicating that many fires swept across the Sierra Nevada in pre-European times. This “periodic disturbance,” says Gruell, is a major part of every healthy forest’s continuous, natural cycle of growth, death and rebirth.

Naturally occurring, long-lasting, low-intensity fires thinned out stands that would otherwise become too tightly packed, regularly removed weak trees and those infested with insects or disease, and produced habitats that were healthy for fish, water and trees.




Unfortunately, the federal policy of fire suppression over the past 50 years has upset natural fire cycles. Simultaneously, the “pre-European forest” myth and its prescription for “hands-off” forest policies, have done enormous damage to California’s publicly-owned lands, where unhealthy federal forests are in a genuine crisis. Although there was a virtual halt of U.S. Forest Service timber sales during the 1990s, trees on public lands kept growing – adding more than 2 billion board feet of wood, equivalent to 150,000 single-family homes, each year. With no harvesting, tree stands are denser, choked with undesirable tree species that now thrive in heavily shaded glades, and covered with closed-in canopies. This has created conditions ripe for devastating “crown fires.” These wildfires typically burn much hotter, and it takes the forests 50 years or more to rejuvenate naturally – if they come back at all.

Total acres burned by wildfire each year in California’s Sierra Nevada have more than doubled from an average of about 300,000 in the 1980s, to nearly 800,000 by the late 1990s, according to U.S. Forest Service statistics. California, with more national forest land than any state except Alaska, now has millions of acres of timberland in “condition red” for fire. Immediate action is required, but the U.S. Forest Service is so paralyzed by policy gridlock and national environmental pressure that it “treated” less than 150,000 acres in 2001, 75 percent of its target. Worse, under the National Fire Plan its yearly goal more than doubles to 400,000 acres by 2004 with no clear financial or management plan to reach it.

There is a solution to this crisis that is based on proven science. Instead of trying to freeze natural cyclical processes, forests must be restored by the natural rhythm of “periodic disturbance.” Today most professional scientists agree that the best way to create a fire-protected forest with healthy wildlife and watersheds is not to leave it alone, but to actively “manage” it: selective logging and replanting on some sections; thinning weak and undesirable trees while brush-clearing the rest; improving and repairing wildlife and river habitat; protecting soil and streams from erosion with prompt salvage and reforestation; and doing prescribed burning wherever feasible.

Ironically, California’s private forest lands, managed for harvesting timber under the most stringent ecological regulations anywhere on earth, are a close approximation to the “pre-European forests” of the Sierra Nevada that greeted the pioneers. Aerial photography shows that in last year’s 16,000-acre Star fire, where the national forests abutted privately managed forest lands – which had been properly thinned and offered firebreaks for crews – the fire did not spread. As Gruell makes clear in his book, this is exactly how historical forests would also have responded when low-intensity fires reached previously burnt meadows and thinner stands.

Such is not the case on government-managed forests. To fix the problem, we must get over the “pre-European” fantasy and start seeing forestry – selective and salvage logging – as part of the answer to creating healthier forests. In the process we can reduce our reliance on overseas resources, renew our federal forests, create economic opportunity in rural communities, and produce the consumer products all Californians enjoy.

Donn Zea of Grass Valley president of the California Forest Products Commission . This article is adapted from a column that appeared in the March/April issue of TimberWest.


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