- Author: Zac Unger
- Posted by: Susie Kocher
Tintype photography by Michael Shindler
“You have to keep listening to your participants. These kinds of networks . . . can be fragile, but they can also be really strong if nurtured correctly.”
Maggi Kelly with her Trimble GeoXT GPS receiver, which collects data about her location in the forest.
The summer of 2002 was a bad fire season in the United States. Twice as many acres burned than in 2001, and more total acres were destroyed than in all but one of the previous 40 years. The McNally Fire in Sequoia National Forest was only the second largest fire in California that year, and it alone cost more than $50 million to extinguish. It was against this smoky backdrop that George W. Bush launched the Healthy Forests Initiative, a wide-ranging plan to reduce the severity of western wildfires.
In California, the plan coalesced around the concept of Strategically Placed Landscape Treatments, colorfully shortened to SPLATs. Mark Finney, PhD '91, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), a researcher at the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana, proposed that instead of thinning entire old growth forests, land managers could “treat” a fraction of the land with tree thinning and prescribed burns. These treated plots would slow a fire's rate of spread, acting like speed bumps along a road. It was an interesting but untested idea, and by 2004 the plan ran into bureaucratic roadblocks. Because while the federal government owns the national forests, the old-growth dwelling wildlife—fishers, goshawks, spotted owls—can fall under state or federal management, depending on the species. Closer to the action, the local communities of Foresthill and Oakhurst were concerned about large-diameter trees being cut as part of the thinning effort, and about the effect of prescribed burning on issues like home safety, wildlife, and water quality.
“All parties deeply care about the fate of these landscapes, and it was this care that sustained SNAMP for the long haul.”
John Battles with his logger's tape, used to measure distances and the diameter of trees.
It was beginning to look like then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and a self-professed environmentalist, was going to sue the Bush administration over its forest policy mandates—an expensive, bitter process that nobody relished. Instead, a novel approach was conceived: The U.S. Forest Service agreed to test the unproven SPLAT approach along with state agencies, like Fish and Game, Department of Water Resources, and Cal Fire, as long as a neutral third party could be tasked with analyzing the results. And that third party would be the University of California.
And thus, the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project was born, with another endearing acronym, SNAMP. Today, as SNAMP reaches the end of a 10-year run, the project has proven to be a multidisciplinary, multiagency, multimedia success that has the potential to transform not only how we view forest fires, but more intriguingly, how scientists, government agencies, and public stakeholders interact in the pursuit of common goals.
“The stakeholders ended up influencing the kinds of research questions that the scientists asked.”
Lynn Huntsinger with her ever-present clipboard
“Honestly, nobody wanted to do this,” recalls John Battles, a professor of forest ecology and the chair of ESPM's Ecosystem Science Division. “It seemed like it was going to be a quagmire of wasted time.” Take the always contentious issues of fire, water, and wildlife, then add in an alphabet soup of local, state, and federal agencies, and it's easy to see why most academics would keep their heads down and hope not to be called upon. But the governor was looking to the UC system to step up, and Battles, as head of Berkeley's Center for Forestry, felt that he could not refuse. “That's what we do,” he says. “That's the stuff that we should do.”
Gradually, a plan took shape. With the ultimate goal of moderating fire behavior, the U.S. Forest Service would conduct prescribed burning and tree thinning as they saw fit. It would then be up to UC scientists to study the results—not just in terms of fire, but also the impact on wildlife, water, and forest health.
Working with Stakeholders
Modern adaptive management takes into account complex factors—climate change, human impact, a century of fire suppression, marijuana farms on federal lands—requiring forest managers to continually adapt their strategies to new information, new methods, and new facts on the ground. Even so, a traditional study of various fire treatments would have been fairly straightforward: Do a range of experiments, analyze the results, publish some papers.
But SNAMP's goals went far beyond simply figuring out the best way to slow a wildfire's spread. The experiment proceeded along parallel tracks, studying fire, forest health, fishers, owls, water quality issues, and spatial data. And crucially, public participation wasn't an afterthought or an also-ran, but the key piece of the puzzle. According to Kim Rodrigues, PhD '08 ESPM, a UC Cooperative Extension regional director at the time, “The overall goals of public participation are efforts to reduce conflicts around resource management on the ground.” Rodrigues focused on figuring out how to make public participation more meaningful and relevant.
While the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act both require public comment periods, actual community participation is often disappointingly low. “You really can't just pay lip service to interaction when you have contentious issues,” says Maggi Kelly, Geography '88, an ESPM professor and Cooperative Extension specialist who is a principal investigator (PI) of SNAMP's Public Participation Team as well as its Spatial Team. “You have to dive in and do it in a committed way. You have to keep listening to your participants. These kinds of networks and coalitions can be really fragile, but they can also be really strong if nurtured correctly.”
How to best engage the public was an open question. The team eventually settled on a simple strategy: try everything. Kelly and others created a comprehensive, interactive website stuffed with videos, summaries of scientific findings, and a huge trove of documents available for scientists, agency employees, and any member of the general public who took an interest. Perhaps the best feature was the discussion section, where people submitted questions about topics as varied as fuel break maintenance, government intrusion onto private lands, and the affects of the Native American practice of gathering pine roots. The questions received thorough responses from the team members, a level of public engagement that's truly unusual for scientists who are more accustomed to responding only to peer reviewers.
The website was moderately successful. “But our stakeholders really prefer face to face,” says Kelly, so her team ramped up its in-person efforts. Extension agents who lived in the affected communities of Oakdale and Auburn made themselves available for public questions and concerns at board of supervisors meetings, PTA gatherings, and fire-safe councils. Beyond the standard bad-coffee talkathons, the scientists also held field trips to show these theoretical issues in action.
“Anyone can talk about ‘resilient forests,'” Rodrigues says, “but if you go to the Rim Fire [the massive 2013 Yosemite blaze] you can operationalize these terms. You can show someone that this is how a high-severity fire sterilizes the soil.” And the learning went both ways, according to Lynn Huntsinger, MS '82 Rangeland Science, PhD '89 Wildland Resource Science, an ESPM professor recruited by Battles for her experience working with landowners. “I've seen management programs in the past where scientists don't come to meetings and face stakeholders,” she says. “But in this case, the stakeholders ended up influencing the kinds of research questions that the scientists asked.”
Research in a Fishbowl
For the scientists, the entire process was occasionally frustrating as well as eye-opening. With the Forest Service creating the treatment plans, the PIs didn't have the same experimental control that they might have had on UC-owned land. And not only did the researchers have to learn how to share their results with lay audiences, they had also committed to sharing their results with the public on an accelerated pace, before everything was in its final form and ready for publication. “It's risky work doing research in a fish bowl,” says Rodrigues, now the executive director of academic personnel at UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Scientists don't like to be questioned, especially by non-scientists. And this team was questioned by the public, by team members, by managers.”
To start things out on the right foot, the entire UC team signed an explicit Statement of Neutrality. While acknowledging that such impartiality is difficult after a career spent studying the exact issues at hand, Battles quickly came to see how valuable neutrality was. Many of the participants from both management agencies and environmental groups had long and contentious histories with each other, often on issues unrelated to SNAMP.
“You really had to listen, just say your piece, and then not repeat it,” said Battles. “People would come to our meeting who had been cross-examining each other in court the day before. But our meetings had different rules, and they became a safe haven.” Many of the regular participants were employees of environmental organizations, the very people who—for better or worse—often make life difficult for professional land managers. And yet, just having them at the table, engaged in dialogue, helped to defuse tensions at an early stage.
Amid all the great meta-research going on, hard scientific questions were still being asked, specifically: Does treating a fraction of the land have significant effects on the rate of fire spread? The answer seems to be yes. “The best outcome,” according to Battles, “is to have no treatment and also no fires. But you're just rolling the dice then. One percent of the landscape burns every year, and with climate change, that's going to increase. Are you willing to live with that? What if it goes to 2 or 3 percent?”
While the SPLAT speed-bump idea has proven effective, implementing it more widely is not a slam dunk. According to Forest Service ecosystem management director Deb Whitman, “In reality, it's hard to implement the way it was designed.” Managers must consider more than just fire spread when they lay out treatment plots. If a plot of land designated for clearing falls on an archaeological resource or a spotted owl nest, the ideal herringbone pattern of treatment must be adjusted.
SNAMP has become a model for engaging the public on land management issues, but the resources simply aren't there to spend 10 years and $12 million—the timeframe and budget allotted to SNAMP—every time a forest must be thinned. By some estimates, if you extrapolate the current rate of fuels treatment over the next 30 years, as much as 60 percent of the land that needs treatment won't get it. “That's a nightmare scenario,” says Scott Stephens, PhD '95 Wildland Resource Science, a PI on the Fire Team. “Take the Rim Fire forward in an era of warming climate, and that's really unacceptable.”
More prescribed burning and thinning means more need for the stakeholder participation that has been SNAMP's hallmark. “We can't have a science team or a Cooperative Extension team at every site,” says Rodrigues, but her team now offers train-the-trainer seminars to teach community groups, agency representatives, and others how to lead collaborative group discussions, facilitate diverse groups, work through conflicts, document key agreements, and other skills. According to Christine Nota, the Regional Foresters' representative for the Forest Service, the techniques used in SNAMP “are very common now throughout our forests. We were just counting up forest-based collaborations, and I think we've got 17 or 18 scattered around the state.”
Even better, it seems that the tools used to talk about prescribed fires are applicable to other areas where public concern is high, issues as varied as youth development, water conflicts, and even urban housing disagreements. “I really wish I'd had this kind of experience and training when the spotted owl was listed in the '90s,” Rodrigues says ruefully. “Maybe we could have gotten better dialogue much earlier on.”
One point of general agreement that saw all SNAMP's constituencies through difficult times was that the forests of the Sierra Nevada are worth working to protect. “All parties deeply care about the fate of these landscapes, and it was this care that sustained SNAMP for the long haul,” Battles says.
Another key consensus was that being in the middle of this chaotic process is exactly where UC needs to be. Faculty members love to dive deep into theory and advanced research, but the essential framework of a land-grant institution will always be mission oriented, a quest to solve concrete problems on the land. “I'm not a Forest Service employee, and I don't work for an advocacy group,” Battles says. “And that's the pitch for the public university. You have the independence. You can speak to power. And when the state asks for your help, you say yes.”
- Author: Steve Dreistadt
Brooms are shrubs introduced into North America from Europe in the mid-1800s. Common species include Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) and Portuguese broom (Cytisus striatus). Brooms initially were introduced as ornamentals, but then used extensively for erosion control along roadsides and in mined areas.
Now throughout California forests, roadsides, and wildlands they are weeds that increase the risk of wildfire and crowd out desirable vegetation. They form impenetrable thickets that invade other vegetation, shade out tree seedlings, and make reforestation difficult. They burn readily, increase the intensity of fire, and carry fire to the tree canopy. They are toxic to cattle and horses and unpalatable to most wildlife. Brooms produce abundant, long-lived seed and are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, giving them competitive advantage over native plants.
Invasive species that create a dangerous wildfire hazard and crowd out desirable vegetation and wildlife are examples of why this book emphasizes vegetation management and pesticide handling, including correct equipment calibration and effective herbicide application. The second edition also provides broader coverage of insects, plant pathogens, vertebrate pests, and the various practices to manage them, recognizing that lands commonly have multiple uses and when and how pests are managed depends on many considerations with sometimes conflicting goals.
Experts with Cal-Fire, Caltrans, PG&E, USDA Forest Service, private industry, the University of California (UC) Berkeley and Davis campuses, UC County Cooperative Extension offices, and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) contributed to Forest and Right-of-Way Pest Control, prepared by UC ANR's Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.
Forest and Right-of-Way Pest Control is available for $35 online in the UC ANR Catalog. The table of contents and more information about the book are available on the UC IPM website. You can also preview and electronically search the contents on Google Books.
- Author: Bill Tietje
Bill Tietje is a UC Cooperative Extension area natural resources specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. He is based in San Luis Obispo.
UC Cooperative Extension's Master Gardeners have received many calls during the past few months concerning the poor condition of many California native oak trees, in both urban and rural landscapes. Many evergreen oaks, including coast live oaks, have brown leaves and thin foliage. Adding to the unattractiveness, a deciduous oak, the blue oak, dropped its leaves ahead of schedule. Although a tree may look unhealthy, it can recover.
Early leaf drop is a deciduous tree's adaptation for conserving water that it otherwise would lose through transpiration from its leaves, which can occur as long as the leaves are green.
More recently, another deciduous oak, the valley oak, kept its brown, dead leaves longer than usual. This could be due to the virtual lack of rainfall and wind last fall and early winter, both of which typically contribute to an earlier leaf drop.
So why are these things happening?
As you know, it's dry out there! In fact, the past 12 months have been the driest on record, going back to 1870. Not surprisingly, many oaks are under water stress—and they show it.
This situation reminds one of the conditions during the drought of 1988-1990, one of the most widespread and severe droughts in the state's history. Coincidentally during that time in three counties on the Central Coast, UC Cooperative Extension was conducting a study that included the monitoring of coast live oak, blue oak, and valley oak trees on study plots scattered throughout Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Many of the oaks looked stressed. Some of the trees succumbed to the drought. Small oak trees in the undergrowth and on steep terrain with southern exposure, and shallow, infertile soil, were most vulnerable. Such sites are typically drier than other slopes and orientations. However, large, mature trees—or, large branches on these trees—on more gentle slopes, also died. Usually there is not only a single factor that causes the decline and mortality of oak trees. Drought stress lowers the trees' defense, making the trees more susceptible to mortality factors such as decay fungi and boring beetles. Most likely the drought caused early death of some oak trees that would have persisted otherwise.
What can be done?
Surely our native oaks have been through droughts before. So the oak trees, other than the very small or very old trees, should be okay. Nonetheless, given the very low rainfall this year it may be prudent to give a valued tree in the urban landscape a “deep watering”.
A deep watering can be accomplished by moving a hose around under the tree's canopy during the day for a day or two at a low flow or a trickle stream, such that the water percolates into the soil, not simply run down the hill. Water a few feet away from the base of the tree to avoid inviting damage from crown rot caused by the fungi Phytophthora cinnamomi. Water-saturated soil increases the chances of infection of the tree trunk.
A deep watering followed by soil drying for a month or two should not harm the tree. In fact, a deep watering may be the best recommendation for invigorating your thirsty oak tree, thus providing some insurance that the tree will survive this current drought.
I should mention that unless California receives normal or better rainfall the rest of the rainfall season, it is likely that early leaf drop will occur next summer. Remember, as suggested above, the early browning and fall of leaves does not mean that your tree will die. This is simply the tree's way of adapting to conserve water when soil moisture is low. Unless the tree is severely weakened by some other cause, it will leaf out normally the following spring.
For more information: Tietje, W., W. Weitkamp, W. Jensen, and S. Garcia. 1993. Drought takes toll on Central Coast's native oaks. California Agriculture 47(6):4-6.
- Author: Jeanette Warnert
- Posted by: Susie Kocher
Reprinted from the UCANR Green Blog
Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, Susie Kocher bundles up her children, gathers the extended family and hikes into the Lake Tahoe Basin forest to find a Christmas tree.
“It’s my favorite part of the season,” Kocher said. “Having the fresh, living thing in the house really symbolizes the holiday. You can’t do it with a fake tree.”
Kocher, a forester and the natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in the Central Sierra, lives and works in Lake Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management District is one of nine national forests in California, all of them in the northern part of the state, where the U.S. Forest Service allows Christmas tree cutting with a $10 permit.
Though some people mourn the death of any tree, Kocher says careful selection and removal of Christmas trees is an enchanting family tradition that enriches forest health.
“We have a lot of small trees on public lands because of fire suppression,” Kocher said. “They’re all competing with one another and many will ultimately die. A smart harvest of Christmas trees can improve the forest by helping with thinning.”
People with permits to cut down Christmas trees in national forests must follow strict guidelines. The trees must be within 10 feet of another living tree, the base of the trunk cannot be more than six inches wide and it must be cut within six inches of the ground. Some national forests limit the harvest to certain tree species.
Despite committing to these guidelines when obtaining a permit, Kocher said she has seen some Christmas tree harvesters make ill-advised choices.
“Some are too lazy to find a good tree and will cut the top off a large tree,” Kocher said. “You can be driving around and see what looks like a poor old Dr. Suess tree, which is what grows from the ugly remnant left behind in the forest.”
Such irresponsible Christmas tree cutting has led some forests to discontinue Christmas tree harvesting for personal use.
Kelly Hooten, information specialist with the Sierra National Forest, said the organization stopped issuing Christmas tree cutting permits because people would tend to cut down only healthy, strong trees.
“It’s really the sickly, Charlie Brown trees that we would prefer to thin in our forest,” Hooten said.
The El Dorado National Forest does not allow Christmas tree cutting because there are more than 30 Christmas tree farms in the vicinity where visitors can choose and cut down their own trees.
“Allowing Christmas tree cutting in forests would hurt these farmers economically,” said Lynn Wunderlich, UCCE advisor in the Central Sierra office. Many Christmas tree farmers also provide food, crafts, activities and visits with Santa.
“Families can visit the farmer year after year as their children grow, so that’s part of the experience,” Wunderlich said.
There has been ongoing debate about whether a fake tree or real tree is more environmentally friendly, but for Kocher, there is no question.
“Fresh real trees are a renewable resource, fake trees are not,” she said. “It’s an agricultural product. You can contribute to a local farmers’ income or you can help thin the forest. Picking and bringing home a fresh tree, decorating it and smelling it defines the season for me. Without it, I don’t think it would feel like Christmas.”
- Author: Kim Ingram
- Posted by: Susie Kocher
Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog
Thinning a forest of woody materials has multiple objectives. It can increase the resiliency of the remaining trees from the effects of fire, drought, pest and disease; it can improve habitat quality for wildlife including watersheds; and it can make it easier for firefighters to protect human lives and livelihoods when a fire is burning. There are several ways thinning is carried out: cable logging, feller bunching, conventional tractor skidding, hand-thinning and piling, and mastication. One of the issues with thinning is the disposal of biomass that is non-merchantable (e.g., branches, tree tops, small diameter trees). Typically this material goes into large slash piles. For the most part, these piles are left in the forest to break down naturally under winter rain and snows, and are later burned. Because of strict air quality rules, forest managers have very small windows of opportunity to burn these piles, so they are often left on the landscape for many years, sometimes becoming a fire hazard themselves.
Forested communities are searching for ways to deal with this residual biomass that will improve the health of the forest ecosystem; improve and protect critical watersheds and wildlife habitat; reduce the amount of air pollution by removing the piles instead of burning them; and reduce the critical fire danger to their communities. The Placer County Biomass Program is taking up this challenge by chipping the slash piles and trucking the chips to a biomass facility to be converted into electricity.
Outside of Foresthill, Calif., the Tahoe National Forest American River Ranger District and the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP) have been collaborating on a study of forest fuels reduction treatments carried out on national forests. The eight-year ‘Last Chance’ study involves independent third party research by University of California scientists of the integrated effects of forest thinning on fire hazard, forest health, wildlife, water quality and quantity, and public participation. The Placer County Biomass Program, in conjunction with the Tahoe National Forest, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) and the Placer County Air Pollution Control District, proposes to remove some of the biomass waste from the Last Chance project to provide an alternative to open burning of the piles. Local contractors are hired to grind the material on-site, load the material into chip vans, and bring the material to market within 60 miles of the Last Chance site to create green, renewable electricity. Placer County estimates that roughly 3,000 Bone Dry Tons (BDTs) of biomass can be removed. According to UC researchers, one BDT burned in a typical commercial boiler fuel will produce 10,000 pounds of steam and 10,000 pounds of steam will produce about 1,000 horsepower or generate 1 megawatt hour (MWH) of electricity.
The economics of this project will be used as part of the assessment of locating a biomass energy facility in the Foresthill area. The removal of these biomass piles will greatly reduce the possibility of catastrophic fire to the local communities on the Foresthill Divide. The improved forest and watershed health will be noticed by the local community and the surrounding county which derives recreation and watershed benefits from the American River area. In addition, several tons of air pollutants will be avoided by removing the pile burns from this area which is currently a federal non-attainment basin that carries both business and health risks to the local population.
Though this project is of benefit to the Foresthill community, other communities in the wild-land urban interface aren’t as lucky. According to Brandon Collins, research scientist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station and UC Berkeley, the lack of funding to chip and remove slash piles and the lack of infrastructure or facilities to take the chips to, makes it impossible at this time to remove that biomass at a larger scale.
“There is so much woody material on the landscape as a result of fire exclusion, it could take decades to really get a handle on it," Collins said. "However, any effort to remove thinning residues from the forest and to also get a benefit from it, such as energy, is great and should be supported.”