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Blog Post · September 8, 2021

Managing Family Forests Is Key to Managing Wildfire

photo - Trees and Mist in Stanislaus National Forest

In spring 2021, PPIC organized seven focus groups to explore how to pay for headwater forest management. One group focused on family forests, and included representatives of NGOs, public agencies, and cooperative extension specialists who serve these forest owners. This work was done in collaboration with Van Butsic, Heidi Huber-Stearns, Erin Kelly, and Ryan Tompkins. This is the fourth post in a series of four.

Californians broadly agree that wildfire is near the top of the state’s environmental challenges—and the current wildfire season is underscoring just how urgently we need to improve our forest management to prevent extreme wildfires. But some forests are easier to manage than others. In the Sierra-Cascade region, many of the mixed-conifer forests belong to family operations, which typically struggle to carry out robust forest management. This gap in management is putting communities at risk. To date, there’s been relatively little information about family forests. Our latest research helps shed light on where these forests are located, what challenges they face, and which policy moves could help family forest managers bring their forests back to health.

The current situation

Family forests make up roughly a quarter of the privately managed mixed-conifer headwater forests of the Sierra-Cascade range. These forests are small private holdings owned by families, individuals, trusts, estates, and family partnerships. Because they face some of the most pervasive hurdles to management, they have seen the largest increase in living tree biomass—a measure of tree density—across ownership types in the last 20 years. This increase in biomass makes them highly susceptible to extreme wildfire. In the Upper Cosumnes watershed—where the Caldor Fire currently rages—nearly 20% of headwater forests are family-managed.

Several unique characteristics, compared to the rest of California’s headwater forest land, make these forests particularly difficult to manage:

  • Their small size can make management difficult. Our research shows that half of family forests are less than 1.6 acres in size, and the overall average is roughly 15 acres. Their size creates unique barriers for accelerating forest management efforts like mechanical thinning and prescribed burning.
  • Managing the land is expensive. Because of their small size, regular treatment of family forests is often economically unfeasible, requiring higher per-acre costs than on larger tracts of land. Participants in our focus group on family forests highlighted two additional major economic barriers: the high cost of environmental permitting for management activities and the lack of wood products markets to offset management costs.
  • They are clustered together—and located near development. Family forests tend to be located near other family forest owners and rural communities. Their proximity to development both increases their risk of ignition and poses a thorny management problem: the owners are reluctant to use controlled burns and mechanical thinning in populated areas, but this very lack of management increases the likelihood of extreme wildfire where people live. However, clustering also creates an opportunity to join forces with other landowners to share costs and permits.
  • They are concentrated in the dry Central Sierra. Family forests are distributed throughout California, but our analysis shows most are located in the Central Sierra . The Upper Calaveras, Upper Bear, and Upper Chowchilla–Upper Fresno watersheds have the highest proportion of headwater forests managed by family forest owners. These regions also tend to be lower in elevation and therefore drier, increasing fire risk even more.

figure - Family Forests Are Concentrated in the Central Sierras

What more can be done to bolster family forest management?

Given the challenges facing family forest owners, and what we know about their scale and distribution, it is essential to target policies to support management on these lands.

To begin with, family forest owners need more financial support to overcome the economic barriers to regularly treating their properties. The state hopes that assistance programs like the California Forest Improvement Program (CFIP), Forest Stewardship Program, and Wildfire Resilience Program will address these challenges, but limits in funding create competition among small landowners, rather than fostering regional stewardship. Since last year, the state has appropriated more than $1.3 billion of new funds for forest management. Ten million of this was allocated to CFIP for small forests through early action, with potential for more as program allocations are fleshed out.

Beyond funding, other efforts will also be needed to address the challenges facing family forest managers. To improve the process of getting environmental approvals, the state will need to invest in regional capacity-building organizations and streamline regional environmental permitting. And to help create revenue streams from wood products, the state will need to incentivize investments in wood product infrastructure—especially in parts of the Sierra-Cascades where family forest owners are clustered. Improving management on family forest land will be an essential part of building the resilience of California’s headwater forests in an era of climate change—and we’ve got some resources to start making headway.

To see the full data set, PPIC Headwater Forest Distribution and Ownership, please click here.


climate change Drought forest management Forests and Fires headwater forest health Water Supply Water, Land & Air wildfires