Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Infernos in the Garden


Fires are a natural part of forest ecosystems

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Santa Cruz County, CA
But our overgrown forests sometimes burn too hot and the seeds and soil get sterilized by the heat, preventing naturally diverse regeneration. This gives rise to choking brush fields and never-to-return trees -- unless something is done to manage the forests through selective thinning, replanting and other landscape-scale management techniques.

It's time to prune and trim the unnatural growth a century of fire suppression and anti-logging sentiment has allowed to occur throughout the West and in forested areas in the U.S. 

Rim Fire
Stanislaus National Forest
Tuolumne County Oct. 2013

The U.S. Forest notes on its Healthy Forest Initiatives web site: "A century ago a ponderosa pine forest may have had some 25 mature trees per acre and be easily traversed on horseback or by a horse-drawn wagon. Today the same forest may have more than 1.000 trees on the same acre, creating conditions that are much too thick for the passage of a hiker.

"These tightly packed trees are smaller, weaker, more disease prone and more susceptible to insect attack than their ancestors. Such forests form huge reservoirs of fuel awaiting ignition, and pose a particularly significant threat when drought is also a factor."

In addition to problems associated with over-stocking like wildfire, there's also damage to the watershed because fiercely competing trees suck rain and snow melt up before it has a chance to run off into streams. This harms habitat, threatens wildlife populations and makes water supplies short for the people who depend on it.

The LA Times reported 12/30/12 that a study commissioned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission estimates that damage from the Rim fire to the natural environment and to property values could total about $250 million to $1.8 billion.

The preliminary assessment released in November places dollar amounts on losses in "environmental benefits," carbon storage and the asset value of property near where the fire burned. Researchers from Earth Economics found losses in environmental benefits of $100 million to $736 million, in carbon storage of $102 million to $797 million, and in private property values of $49.7 million to $265 million. http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-rimfire-damage-20131230,0,63091.story#axzz2oyOkoMjQ

For more on the controversy about building better forests for the future, see last week's SF Chronicle story at: Debate over harvesting burned trees

Forgive my lecture. Public Forests are majesty and they belong to all of us. Not to the government or environmentalists or hunters and hikers, not to cities and states. They are ours and I hate to see them wounded by shortsightedness, misplaced sentimentality and suspect science.

Healthy forests are selectively harvested forests. They are forests that work in concert with the environment in which they exist. In 2014, may we act to restore the health of our forests in the Sierra and throughout the U.S.