In spring 2021, PPIC organized seven focus groups to explore how to pay for headwater forest management. We spoke with over 50 individuals, including family forest managers, federal forest managers, nonprofit stakeholders, local and state governments, tribal representatives, and the timber sector. This work was led by PPIC in collaboration with Van Butsic, Heidi Huber-Stearns, Erin Kelly, and Ryan Tompkins. This is the first post in a series of four.
Faced with the prospect of another devastating wildfire year, California policymakers are seeking ways to accelerate the pace and scale of forest management. Urgency is warranted, especially in the dry mixed-conifer forests that dominate many headwater regions of the state. Decades of fire suppression have left California’s forests too dense and prone to disease. Two exceptional droughts over the past decade have turned these forests into tinderboxes, primed for extreme wildfires. Forest management can mitigate wildfire risk; we just have to act fast and over much larger areas to reap the benefits.
Small-scale, non-industrial forest landowners (also known as family forest owners) and the US Forest Service own nearly three-quarters of headwater forests in California. Both face significant challenges to scaling up forest management on their own. Both are leveraging partnerships with local entities—resource conservation districts, fire safe councils, other non-profits, local governments, and tribes—to do this work. Local partnership entities can connect these landowners with other stakeholders that share similar management goals and help them access cost-share opportunities as well as technical and administrative support. Over one hundred of these entities are working on wildfire risk reduction and forest health across the state, and they will play a crucial role in the task ahead.
These local partners are running into obstacles to scaling up efforts, however. In our recent focus group discussions, many participants highlighted systemic funding and management challenges. The following approaches could strengthen their effectiveness:
- Increase fiscal certainty for local partners. These entities tend to rely on grants and donations to fund their work. Funding varies from year to year, which discourages organizations from making long-term investments in the additional staff and equipment needed to work at scale. Though state grant funding for forest management has significantly increased, most of it is distributed competitively to support individual management projects, not technical support. The Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program (RFFCP) is dedicated to building up the technical capabilities and personnel of local partners, but it is supported with one-time funding from the General Fund. Stable funding for this program could increase the organizational capacity of local partners and enable them to build up a pipeline of projects over the long term. Options include making a commitment to ongoing support from the General Fund or using a portion of funding earmarked for forests from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.
- Enhance technical and financial resources at the regional level. The RFFCP also demonstrates the value of centralizing some technical and financial resources at the regional level. For example, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy is using it to train resource conservation district staff to form and manage partnerships with landowners across a large region. The North Coast Regional Partnership is using it to conduct technical environmental analyses that landowners and local entities struggle to execute on their own. Regional approaches make technical resources more broadly accessible—mitigating a common roadblock to project implementation. Boosting regional funding and technical resources for the RFFCP could benefit many forest management efforts.
- Align resources through regional plans. As local entities seek to expand the reach of their partnership services, they need to avoid duplicating efforts and find common ground on management objectives. Long-term regional plans that encompass a broad array of landowners can help align local partners with each other, and make it easier to pool technical and financial resources. For example, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative plans to improve the health of 2.4 million acres of the central Sierra range. By encompassing a very large area and long timeframe, this plan clarifies management priorities. It also generates a program of work that increases certainty for local partners.
Local partnership entities play a valuable role in connecting local and federal landowners to local, state, and federal programs that provide resources for management. But they need stable, dedicated funding to realize their full potential. The legislature could boost these partnerships by creating a long-term funding mechanism for programs such as the RFFCP. Dedicating additional funding to regional approaches, including planning and technical support, will also help these entities scale up their vital work. These policy changes would build the on-the-ground capacity California urgently needs to improve the health of the state’s forests.