- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
California needs to increase the pace and scale of efforts to improve the health of its headwater forests — the source of two-thirds of the state's surface water supply. Management techniques including prescribed fire, managed wildfire and mechanical thinning can help rebuild resilience in these forests and prepare them for a challenging future.
These are among the key findings of a report released today by the PPIC Water Policy Center.
Decades of fire suppression have increased the density of trees and other fuels in headwater forests to uncharacteristically high levels and resulted in massive tree die-offs and large, severe wildfires. Improving forest health will require reducing the density of small trees and fuels on a massive scale.
This will require changes in the regulation, administration, and management of forests. Many of the recommended reforms in forest management can take place at low or no cost. But implementing them will require vision, determined leadership by state and federal officials, and the backing of an informed public.
“Actions to arrest the decline in forest health will take place far from urban centers,” said Van Butsic, a coauthor of the report and a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. “But all Californians will benefit through continued supplies of high-quality water, natural environments, forest products and recreational landscapes.”
Changing the way forestry work is funded — and in some cases securing new funding — will also be needed to help expedite forest improvements. The authors suggest reforms that will enable the private sector and government agencies to use existing tools and funding opportunities more effectively and collaborate more easily on larger-scale management projects. One key recommendation is to find opportunities to combine revenue-generating timber harvesting with other management work to help offset the costs of efforts to improve forest health.
“Making forest health a top land management priority for public and private lands would be a critical first step in reversing the degraded condition of the state's headwater forests,” said report coauthor Henry McCann, a research associate with the PPIC Water Policy Center.
The report, Improving the Health of California's Headwater Forests, was supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to Butsic and McCann, the coauthors are Jeffrey Mount and Brian Gray, both senior fellows at the PPIC Water Policy Center; Jodi Axelson, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley; Yufang Jin, an assistant professor in the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources at UC Davis; Scott Stephens, professor of fire science and co-director of the Center for Forestry and Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley; and William Stewart, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and co-director of the Center for Forestry and Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the UC Berkeley.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) is a division of the University with scientists based on three UC campuses and in UC Cooperative Extension offices serving all California counties. UC ANR conducts research and shares research-based information with the public about wildfire, agricultural production, environmental stewardship, water policy, youth development and nutrition.
UC ANR Cooperative Extension weed specialist at UC Riverside
Management of invasive plants that introduce or alter fire regimes
UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley
Land change science including fire and land use planning
Mike De Lasaux
UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor for Plumas and Sierra counties
Wildfire fuel reduction on small forest parcels, forestry and watershed management
UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor for Los Angeles and Ventura counties
Plant arrangement, building design and maintenance to reduce fire risk, invasive weeds and pests contributing to fire risk
UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resource monitoring specialist
Geographic information science, mapping forests
UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor in the Central Sierra
Fire adapted communities, fire hazard mitigation in forests, post fire restoration
“Living with Fire in the Tahoe Basin” website, http://www.livingwithfire.info/tahoe/
UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor
Desert species, invasive plants and fire
Professor of earth sciences, UC ANR Agricultural Experiment Station, UC Riverside
Fire ecology of Southern California, Baja California, and temperate Mexico; exotic plant invasions, climate change.
UC ANR Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. He is located in Santa Barbara County.
Wildland fire, fire modeling, fire effects, shrubland ecosystems and spatial patterns of fire disturbance, climate change adaptation
Associate professor of Forest Ecology, UC ANR ecologist
UC Cooperative Extension Area fire advisor - Northern California
Fire ecology and management
Plant pathology professor, UC ANR pathologist
Fire and infectious disease
UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor
Public participation in resource management
Environmental science professor at UC Davis and UC ANR ecologist
Forest plot mapping
UC ANR Cooperative Extension area natural resources wildlife specialist for Southern California
Conservation of wildlife, wildlife management at the urban-wildland interface, and response of plants and animal species to fire
Professor of fire science and co-director Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley, UC ANR fire scientist
Fire ecology, fire behavior, wildfire, fuels treatments, forest mortality, fire policy
UC ANR Cooperative Extension forestry specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and co-director Center for Fire Research and Outreach
Economics of fire prevention and fire suppression programs
UC ANR Cooperative Extension forest advisor in Humboldt and Del Norte counties and member of the Northern California Fire Science Consortium hub
Home and landscape design considerations for wildfire, prescribed fire, forest health and prescribed fire, wildfire and fuels in redwood, Douglas-fir and tanoak forests, fire education
- Contact: Jeannette Warnert, (559) 240-9850, email@example.com
The findings suggest many models of wildfire predictions do not accurately account for anthropogenic factors and may therefore be misleading when identifying the main causes/drivers of wildfires. The newest model proportionately accounts for climate change and human behavioral threats and allows experts to more accurately predict how much land is at risk of burning in California through 2050, which is estimated at more than 7 million acres in the next 25 years.
Climate change affects the severity of the fire season and the amount and type of vegetation on the land, which are major variables in predicting wildfires. However, humans contribute another set of factors that influence wildfires, including where structures are built, and the frequency and location of ignitions from a variety of sources—everything from cigarettes on the highway, to electrical poles that get blown down in Santa Ana winds. As a result of the near-saturation of the landscape, humans are currently responsible for igniting more than 90 percent of the wildfires in California.
“Individuals don't have much control over how climate change will effect wildfires in the future. However, we do have the ability to influence the other half of the equation, those variables that control our impact on the landscape,” said Michal Mann, assistant professor of geography at George Washington University and lead author of the study. “We can reduce our risks by disincentivizing housing development in fire-prone areas, better managing public land, and rethinking the effectiveness of our current firefighting approach.”
The researchers found that by omitting the human influence on California wildfires, they were overstating the influence of climate change. The authors recommend considering climate change and human variables at the same time for future models.
“There is widespread agreement about the importance of climate on wildfire at relatively broad scales. At more local scales, however, you can get the story quite wrong if you don't include human development patterns,” said co-author Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension fire ecology specialist whose lab is at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is an important finding about how we model climate change effects, and it also confirms that getting a handle on where and how we build our communities is essential to limiting future losses.”
Between 1999 and 2011, California reported an average of $160 million in annual wildfire-related damages, with nearly 13,000 homes and other structures destroyed in so-called state responsibility areas - fire jurisdictions maintained by California, according to Mann. During this same period, California and the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $5 billion on wildfire suppression.
In a model from 2014 that examined California wildfires' destruction over the last 60 years, Dr. Mann estimated that fire damage will more than triple by mid-century, increasing to nearly half a billion dollars annually. “This information is critical to policymakers, planners, and fire managers, to determine wildfire risks,” he said.
The paper, “Incorporating Anthropogenic Influences into Fire Probability Models: Effects of Human Activity and Climate Change on Fire Activity in California,” published Thursday in PLOS ONE.
Press release written by Emily Grebenstein, George Washington University, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-994-3087
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
“There is currently a great need for forest restoration and fire hazard reduction treatments to be implemented at large spatial scales in the Sierra Nevada,” the scientists wrote. “The next one to three decades are a critical period: after this time it may be very difficult to influence the character of Sierra Nevada forests, especially old forest characteristics.”
The scientists' recommendation is in the final report of a unique, 10-year experiment in collaboration: the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP). A 1,000-page final report on the project was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service at the end of 2015. In it, scientists reached 31 points of consensus about managing California forests to reduce wildfire hazards and protect wildlife and human communities.
“SNAMP was founded on a desire to work collaboratively to protect the forests of the Sierra Nevada,” said John Battles, professor of forest ecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and SNAMP principal investigator. “The challenges are multifaceted with a huge diversity of perspective among the public, among managers, and among scientists. SNAMP tried to bring all these interests and talents together to safeguard a vital resource and a natural wonder."
SNAMP was created to help develop a collaborative management and monitoring plan consistent with the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, signed by regional forester Jack Blackwell on Jan. 21, 2004. The amendment called for the use of fuel reduction treatments – such as prescribed burning, mechanical chopping of underbrush, and harvesting certain trees – in strategically placed areas to slow down potential wildfires and improve forest health.
Because of disagreements over forest treatments in the past, which often led to lawsuits that languished in court for years, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Natural Resources Agency decided to take a new approach in 2005. They asked the University of California to provide unbiased scientific assessments of the impacts of the proposed treatments. UC was also charged with engaging the public concerned about repercussions of the forest treatments on wildlife habitat and water quality.
The scientific efforts and the forest treatments were all conducted in an open and transparent process. To ensure the greatest number of stakeholders were taking part, SNAMP included a public participation team of social scientists and UC Cooperative Extension outreach professionals to conduct and study the collaboration process.
Susan Kocher, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension forestry advisor in the Central Sierra, was a member the project since 2008 and served as the leader of the public participation team during the final two years, succeeding Kimberly Rodrigues, a UC forestry scientist who is now the director of the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County. Kocher said having outreach and public participation included as a funded part of a science project is unusual.
“We were able to make great strides in getting everybody on the same page,” Kocher said. “That's what our data shows, too.”
A large volume of new scientific information was generated by the science team, and was published in 46 journal articles. The science spread fast and far, according to citation analysis conducted by the public participation team.
“We found that the average time it took for a SNAMP publication to be cited in another journal was about seven months,” Kocher said. “Citations to our articles came from all over the United States and around the globe.”
In addition, SNAMP science-based information was immediately useful to forest managers, according to a 14-page response to the SNAMP final report by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and the California Natural Resources Agency. For example, an excerpt of the response submitted by California Fish and Wildlife noted that “SNAMP proved successful at modifying treatment methodology to meet the ever-changing reality of forest management.”
“The results were able to prove useful for managers past and future regarding how management can be implemented, in the face of wildfires while still retaining important owl nesting/roosting and foraging habitat features in and near owl activity features,” the document said.
SNAMP – funded with $15 million in grants mainly from the U.S. Forest Service, with support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, California Natural Resources Agency and University of California – ran from 2007 to 2015. The project ended with the submission of the final report that contains details about the study areas, the treatment processes and reports from each of the six science teams. The science teams and their final reports are:
- Fire and forest ecosystem health
- Spatial - The study of forest canopy and understory with remote sensing technology called lidar, which uses reflected light for analysis.
- Wildlife: California spotted owl – A bird that is dependent on high-canopy forests.
- Wildlife: Pacific fisher – A weasel-like nocturnal animal that roams a wide area and nests in the hollows of old-growth trees.
- Water quality and quality
- Public participation
A key chapter in the publication is titled Integrated Management Recommendations. In it, the 31 points of consensus are outlined.
“The integration in this project is also unique,” Kocher said. “Scientists tend to work in their own focus areas, but we can learn a lot from each other's research projects.”
Working together, the scientists looked at all the research outcomes. The first 18 recommendations in the chapter are the direct result of scientific research conducted in SNAMP projects; the remainder of the recommendations are based on other scientific work and research.
Each of the recommendations is linked to a management goal. Some goals may conflict with achieving one or more of the other management goals. This approach to organizing the recommendations was taken to demonstrate that, while many of the management recommendations do not clash, a few may. For example, suggesting treatments across a landscape in a way that minimizes the negative effects on wildlife might reduce the efficiency of treatments aimed at reducing wildfire behavior and impacts.
The next steps are for the U.S. Forest Service to consider and adapt the SNAMP results and recommendations to continue to restore and protect the natural resources at risk in the Sierra.
“My hope is the SNAMP will be seen as a promising first try to apply adaptive management in the Sierra Nevada,” Battles said. “We gained important new insights about the ecology of these forests and we learned how to conduct applied research in an inclusive manner that engages not only scientists from multiple disciplines but also managers and the public."
- Author: Ann Brody Guy