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Managing Forests to Reduce Wildfire Risks

Mech Thinning Landscape2

California’s record-breaking fires have prompted a serious public discussion on how to reduce the risk of extreme wildfires. At the core of the debate is the role of vegetation management to reduce fuels. Some argue that California is not doing enough to manage its forests and that more trees must be removed. Others are concerned that this approach could result in a weakening of important environmental protections.

Both perspectives are grounded in real concerns. That said, Californians need to find common ground, because the state is in the grip of a crisis fueled by a warming climate, drought, and decades of management practices that have resulted in extensive areas of unhealthy, overly dense forests. Identifying overlapping objectives can help move stakeholders beyond conflict toward ecologically sound forest management. Here are a few observations that might help advance the conversation.

  • There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Devastating wildfires have occurred recently in oak woodlands, scrub and chaparral, and mixed-conifer forest. Fuel reduction tools like prescribed burning and mechanical thinning may reduce wildfire threats in some ecosystems but not others, depending in part on land use practices and the frequency of fire before and after people began changing the landscape. Improving public understanding about the applicability of each approach can help move the debate forward.
  • Where fuel reduction is a viable tool, we aren’t doing enough. It has been estimated that fuel reduction on US Forest Service (USFS) lands in the Sierra Nevada would need to increase two- to six-fold to meaningfully improve forest resilience. Cal Fire (the state’s fire protection and forest management department) and USFS have both pledged to dramatically increase the amount of fuel reduction over the next few years. First priority should be given to locations where all parties can agree on management actions.
  • Mechanical thinning and logging serve different purposes. Both approaches can reduce fire risk in the Sierra’s mixed-conifer forests, and both usually require heavy equipment, access roads, and expertise in forest dynamics. But they are different in intent and design. Mechanical thinning is a forest management tool for selectively reducing forest vegetation—including small trees, shrubs, and groundcover―that can fuel dangerous fires. It is designed to retain large fire-resistant trees and to create a mosaic of trees and openings as was once common. By contrast, most commercial logging operations are more like crop farming: they aim to harvest enough trees to maximize net returns while stewarding the land for future harvests. These approaches leave very different looking forests. The costs and benefits of each approach should be at the center of discussions about which to use where.
  • Expanding forest management doesn’t require dropping environmental protections. State and federal laws require evaluations of the impact of proposed forest management projects on air, water, and sensitive species. These projects can be accomplished under current rules, but it costs time and money. Dedicating additional federal resources to environmental compliance will enable an increase in the pace of management in national forests. Small private forest owners need help negotiating the permitting process.

California’s pioneering efforts to address climate change won’t solve the wildfire problems we face today. Forest management can have an immediate impact, and it can be implemented under existing environmental laws. Defining a common set of long-term objectives and working together to increase trust and transparency can help stakeholders and forest managers move past conflict to reconciliation on this critical issue.

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