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Report · April 2020

The Benefits of Headwater Forest Management

Henry McCann, Van Butsic, Yufang Jin, Scott Stephens, John Battles, Ricardo Cisneros, Susie Kocher, and Matthew D. Potts

Supported with funding from the US Department of Agriculture and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation

Forests in California are increasingly vulnerable to major wildfires and droughts that threaten the benefits they provide. Improving the health of headwater forests in the Sierra, in particular-where most of the state’s surface water supplies originate-will provide an array of social, economic, and environmental benefits across multiple sectors and geographies. Research by forest ecologists and wildfire behavior experts finds that the best way to realize these benefits is to reestablish and maintain lower densities of trees, which will help make these forests more resilient to fire, drought, and pests.

Healthier forests can support rural communities, reduce air quality impacts from wildfires, securely store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect water quality from post-fire erosion, and increase water supply. The broad base of beneficiaries of headwater forest management includes rural communities in the headwater region, regions that are vulnerable to smoke impacts from major wildfires, and major urban areas and agricultural regions that receive water and hydropower from headwater forests.

Improving forest health will require a substantial lift from an array of private and public entities-along with new policies and sources of funding to facilitate complex, collaborative management. Clarifying the benefits and beneficiaries of forest management is a critical step in motivating long-term stewardship, and will inform efforts to craft financial tools, policies, and other governance solutions needed to make this heavy lift. By assessing what is known about the benefits of forest management, this report provides crucial information for ongoing policy discussions on long-term stewardship of California’s headwater forests.

This report is based on an extensive review of the scientific literature. The details of that literature review-including references-are in the accompanying Technical Appendix: Review of the Scientific Literature.


Drought Forests and Fires Paying for Water Water, Land & Air