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Is wildfire management ‘for the birds’?

Reposted from UC Berkeley News

A photo of a spotted owl on a tree branch

Spotted owls, native to the old-growth forests of the West Coast, have already lost much of their former habitat to logging. Without active forest management, the birds now risk losing even more of their remaining habitat to wildfire, a new paper argues. (Photo by Tom Munton)

Spotted owl populations are in decline all along the West Coast, and as climate change increases the risk of large and destructive wildfires in the region, these iconic animals face the real threat of losing even more of their forest habitat.

Rather than attempting to preserve the owl's remaining habitat exactly as is, wildfire management — through prescribed burning and restoration thinning — could help save the species, argues a new paper by fire ecologists and wildlife biologists and appearing today (July 2 ) in the journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The paper compares the plight of the owl with that of another iconic threatened species, the red-cockaded woodpecker, which has made significant comebacks in recent years — thanks, in part, to active forest management in the southern pine forests that the woodpecker calls home. Though the habitat needs of the two birds are different, both occupy forests that once harbored frequent blazes before fire suppression became the norm.

“In the South, the Endangered Species Act has been used as a vehicle to empower forest restoration through prescribed burning and restoration thinning, and the outcome for the red-cockaded woodpecker has been positive and enduring,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author on the study.

“In the West, it's just totally the opposite,” Stephens added. “Even though both places physically have strong connections to frequent fire, the feeling here is that the best thing to do is to try to protect what we have and not allow the return of frequent fire — but that's really difficult when you have unbridled fires just ripping through the landscape.”

A red-cockaded woodpecker on a tree

The red-cockaded woodpecker, native to the Southeastern U.S., has benefited from prescribed burning and restoration thinning of the pine stands where it makes its home. (Photo by Warren Montague)

A tale of two birds

Spotted owls make their homes in the dense forests of the Western and Southwestern U.S., feeding on flying squirrels and woodrats and nesting in broken-off treetops or tree hollows. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, meanwhile, reside in pine stands in the Southeastern U.S., provisioning nests from nest boxes or hollowed-out cavities in living pine trees and eating insects pried from under tree bark.

Development and logging have robbed both species of much of their former habitat, and their populations have both taken a hit: Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of spotted owls to be at 15,000 individuals.

What habitat remains is now largely protected under the Endangered Species Act — but when it comes to fire and forest management, the act has been interpreted in dramatically different ways in the two regions, said paper co-author Leda Kobziar, associate clinical professor of wildland fire science at the University of Idaho.

“In the South, the act is interpreted to support active management through forest thinning and prescribed burning, and in the West, it is interpreted to exclude most fires and active management from protected areas surrounding spotted owl nests,” Kobziar said.

One critical difference is the degree to which active management in red-cockaded woodpecker habitat provides complementary benefits. “In the South, active management is known to reduce wildfire hazards, and it benefits local economies, along with a host of other fire-dependent species. In the West, those complementary benefits are less well-defined,” Kobziar said.

Another part of the reason for the discrepancy is perceived differences in the habitat preferences of the two birds, Kobziar explains. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in more open, mature pine forests that result when low-intensity natural or prescribed burns limit the development of a forest midstory, where woodpecker predators take cover. Meanwhile, spotted owls generally prefer the dense, multi-layered forests that grow when fire is excluded.

A photo of pine trees on fire behind a lake

The 2014 King Fire ripped through regions of Eldorado National Forest that had been home to a long-term study of the California spotted owl. (U.S. Forest Service photo via Flickr)

However, suppressing all fires in order to encourage growth of these dense canopies also creates conditions that are ripe for large, severe wildfires that can take out not just the smaller trees, but entire forests, obliterating swaths of owl habitat in the process. The 2014 King Fire, for example, tore through regions of the Eldorado National Forest that were home to a long-term study of the California spotted owl and caused the bird's largest population decline in the 23-year history of the study.

“A key question to be asking is: Where would owl habitats be with more characteristic fire regimes, and could we tailor landscape conditions where these habitats are less vulnerable and more supportive of today's wildfires?” said co-author Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.

The solution would mean, “essentially creating less habitat in order to have more in the long run,” he said.

Fighting fire with fire

Before European settlement, many small- to medium-sized wildfires burned through the forests of the Southeastern and Western U.S., sparked by lightning or intentionally lit by native peoples to produce food, clear land or drive game. These fires would gobble up the dead wood, seedlings and saplings that made up the forest understory, while leaving taller, older trees standing and marked with fire scars recorded in their growth rings that fire ecologists use to track the frequency of historical fires.

In the mountainous landscape of the West, these fires didn't strike uniformly everywhere, to the potential benefit of the owls, Hessburg said. “If I took you back in the way-back machine 200 years ago, you would have seen that fire regimes in the Cascade Mountains differed very much by topographic setting,” he said. “Ridgetops and south slopes would often get pounded with lightning and fires, and so tree cover would be sparse. But in shaded and cool valley bottoms and north slopes, you would see complex layered forests, and some of these would have been incredible owl habitats.”

Two panoramas of Bethel ridge in Washington State; the top one taken in 1936 and the bottom one taken in 2012. The bottom one shows a considerably denser forest cover compared to the top.

Bethel Ridge, located in central Washington State, photographed in 1936 (top) and again in 2012 (bottom). Decades of fire exclusion has allowed smaller, younger trees to flourish, making the forests considerably denser in contemporary times. (Top: National Archives photo; Bottom: Photo by John Marshall; both courtesy of Paul Hessburg)

Targeted restoration thinning and prescribed burning on ridgetops and dry southern slopes where fire used to be a frequent visitor, while leaving valley bottoms and northern slopes to develop into complex forest, could be a way to discourage large wildfires from ripping through vast landscapes, while maintaining owl habitat in a more fire-protected context.

New evidence also hints that owls may not be so dependent on dense understory canopies as once thought, the paper notes. Recent findings indicate that other aspects of forest structure, particularly the presence of large, old, tall trees, may be more important to the owls. These findings hint that prescribed burning and restoration thinning to reduce the size and severity of wildfires may not be damaging to owl habitat, even in the short term.

“We're treating the habitat as if we know precisely what habitat characteristics are preferred. It might be that these birds are tolerant of a broader range of characteristics that would enable things like fuels reduction to protect them from high-intensity wildfires,” Kobziar said.

“The South has melded fire and rare species management in a holistic way, but in the West, we're doing one or the other — (in) most places (where) we do forest restoration, we are trying to avoid owls,” Stephens said. “But the King Fire showed that owls and their habitats are vulnerable to large wildfires. More restoration thinning and prescribed burning could help us keep the habitat that we have now, modify it and actually make it more sustainable in the future.”

Other co-authors on the study include Brandon M. Collins of UC Berkeley; Raymond Davis, Joseph Ganey, James M. Guldin, Serra Hoagland, John J. Keane, Warren Montague, Malcolm North and Thomas A. Spies of the U.S. Forest Service; Peter Z. Fulé of Northern Arizona University; William Gaines of the Washington Conservation Science Institute; Kevin Hiers of the Tall Timbers Research Station; Ronald E. Masters of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Ann E. McKellar of Environment and Climate Change Canada.


Posted on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at 12:50 PM
  • Author: Kara Manke

Californians agree: Don’t build in wildfire-prone areas

a man looks at the remains of a burned home

A man helps friends recover after the 2007 Witch Fire in San Diego County destroyed their home. Californians agree that new homes should not be built in wildfire-prone areas, according to a new Berkeley IGS Poll. (FEMA Photo by Andrea Booher via Wikimedia Commons)

Almost three-quarters of California voters think limits should be imposed on new housing developments in high-risk wildfire areas, according to a new Berkeley IGS Poll.

The survey showed that 74% of voters thought building in risky areas, often called the wildland-urban interface, was a bad idea. Twenty-five percent said there should be no restrictions.

Opinions were strong across the state. Almost 80% of voters in Los Angeles County thought new, high-risk development should be limited, while 74% of San Diego-area voters and 77% of San Francisco Bay Area residents agreed.

Even in the conservative, rural areas of Northern California and the Central Valley, roughly two-thirds of voters agreed there should be limits on new buildings.

The poll comes after a series of destructive wildfires in California destroyed thousands of homes, killed more than 100 people and burned millions of acres across the state. Estimates suggest California's 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons cost $21.5 billion.

“Support is bipartisan and includes large majorities of voters across all major regions in the state,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll, which is affiliated with UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.

The poll, however, did not define areas where new development might be limited, which could change how voters feel about the issue.

A recent study by the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates that nearly a quarter of Californians live in areas that could be considered high-risk for wildfires, including several areas in suburban Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The poll also asked Californian's opinions about the housing crisis, but found no clear consensus on the issue.

Thirty-four percent of those surveyed thought offering subsidies for low- or middle-income homebuyers was a solution, while 24% agreed building new housing along transit lines in urban areas was a good idea.

Just 17% thought increasing the scope of rent control would help. Twenty-four percent said none of those ideas were good ways to make housing more affordable.

Just a bare majority—51%—said the state government “should assume a bigger role and require local communities to build more housing.” Forty-seven percent said the issue should remain in local hands.

The survey queried 4,435 registered voters in English and Spanish via email from June 4 to 10. The poll's margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.

Posted on Thursday, June 20, 2019 at 10:24 AM
  • Author: Public Affairs

With access to native foods, Native American families less likely to face food insecurity

Reprinted from the UCANR food blog

Nearly all of the Native Americans surveyed in the region said they want more native foods such as salmon. Photo courtesy of Klamath Tribes Food Security

Native Americans suffer from the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty and diet-related disease in the United States. A new study finds that Native American communities could improve their food security with a greater ability to hunt, fish, gather and preserve their own food.

“How food security is framed, and by whom, shapes the interventions or solutions that are proposed,” said Jennifer Sowerwine, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley, who led the study in partnership with the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and Klamath Tribes. “Our research suggests that current measures of and solutions to food insecurity in the United States need to be more culturally relevant to effectively assess and address chronic food insecurity in Native American communities.”

The study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and four Native American tribes shows that 92% of Native American households in the Klamath Basin suffer from food insecurity.

Native American tribes in the Klamath Basin seasonally harvest, consume and store diverse aquatic and terrestrial native foods including salmon, acorns and deer. In survey responses, 86% of the participants said they consumed native foods at least once in the previous year. Yet significant barriers, including restrictive laws and wildlife habitat degradation, limit availability and quality of these foods.

While 64% of Native American households in the Klamath Basin rely on food assistance (compared to the national average of 12%), 84% of the Native Americans using food assistance worried about running out of food or had run out of food. This suggests the need to consider more effective solutions rooted in eco-cultural restoration and food sovereignty to address food insecurity in Native American communities.

Ben Saxon field dresses a deer. Tribe-led workshops on native foods gathering, preparation and preservation was among solutions suggested to improve food security for the Native American community. Courtesy of Karuk Tribe Food Security

Study participants strongly expressed the desire for strengthened tribal governance of Native lands and stewardship of cultural resources to increase access to native foods, as well as strengthening skills for self-reliance including support for home food production. Community members suggested solutions including tribe-led workshops on native foods gathering, preparation and preservation; removing legal barriers to hunt, fish and gather; restoring traditional rights to hunt, fish and gather on tribal ancestral lands; providing culturally relevant education and employment opportunities to tribal members; and increased funding for native foods programs.

While growing evidence suggests that native foods are the most nutritious and culturally appropriate foods for Native American people – and over 99% of people surveyed in the region said they want more of these foods – nearly 70% said they never or rarely get access to the native foods they want.

“We know our efforts to revitalize and care for our food system through traditional land management are critical to the physical and cultural survival of the humans who are part of it,” said Leaf Hillman, program manager for the Karuk Tribe's Píkyav Field Institute. “This study will support our ability to bring that message to the decisionmakers who need to hear it.” 

With the study results indicating that increased access to native foods and support for cultural institutions such as traditional knowledge and food sharing are key to solving food insecurity in Native American communities, Sowerwine and the research team propose including access to native foods as a measure for evaluating food security for Native people.

Removing legal barriers to hunt, fish and gather food would improve Native Americans' access to native foods. Courtesy of Yurok Tribe Food Security

The assessment is based on 711 surveys completed by households from the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath Tribes, 115 interviews with cultural practitioners and food system stakeholders, and 20 focus groups with tribal members or descendants.

In addition to Sowerwine and Hillman, the study was conducted by post-doctoral researchers Megan Mucioki and Dan Sarna-Wojcicki, and research partners from the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath Tribes.

“Partnering with tribal community members in the research makes the research stronger, and that is especially true in this unique food security assessment,” said Sowerwine. “With the study design grounded in nearly a decade of relationship-building and respectful engagement with our tribal partners, we are confident that our results reflect their priority questions and concerns while contributing valuable new information to the field of indigenous food systems.”

Reframing food security by and for Native American communities: a case study among tribes in the Klamath River basin of Oregon and California” is published in the journal Food Security.

This research was part of a $4 million, five-year Tribal Food Security Project funded by USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture-Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Food Security Grant #2012-68004-20018. For full results and recommendations from the project team, visit

Posted on Wednesday, June 19, 2019 at 3:34 PM
  • Author: Pam Kan-Rice

ESPM experts can lead on carbon dioxide removal

Reprinted from ESPM news

A graphic showing types of carbon removal technologies

In the May edition of California AgricultureDaniel Sanchez and Whendee Silver discuss challenges and new carbon dioxide removal technologies:

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies, also known as negative emissions technologies, appear critical to achieving California's ambitious climate change mitigation goals. Reducing the state's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions cannot be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions alone. Instead, both emissions reductions and pathways to extracting CO2  emissions from our atmosphere are needed to help achieve California's climate goals. Yet Carbon dioxide removal technologies lack both technical and commercial maturity—and are not yet deployed at the industrial scales that could help make large-scale impacts across California possible. In response, numerous state government and nongovernmental organizations in California have taken early steps to support research, development and demonstration of carbon removal.

There are two general approaches to carbon dioxide removal—biological and engineered. Biological approaches enhance or manipulate natural sinks for CO2 to store more carbon, typically on land. Engineered approaches apply chemical and physical processes to capture and reliably convert or store CO2. Biological and engineered approaches to CO2 removal can be deployed alongside other climate change responses to reduce emissions, avoid climate impacts, and promote economic development within California. In this way, carbon dioxide removal offers an array of useful co-benefits for the economy, people and the planet.

Sanchez and Silver, along with UC Davis  colleague Benjamin Z. Houlton, also outline the goals and structure of the newly-formed Working Lands Innovation Center, a collaboration across several University of California and California State University campuses, which will continue to study and publish research about carbon dioxide removal technologies.

Read the full California Agriculture  article on UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' website.


Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at 1:18 PM

The California's 2019 wildfire season takes off

Reprinted from the UCANR News

As California grappled with a record-breaking heatwave last week and 236 wildfires, officials are bracing for the worst, reported Maanvi Singh in the Guardian.

The fires have been mostly fueled by grass and brush that came up during the state's especially wet winter and mild spring, according to a CAL FIRE official. UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said California's annual wildfire season is growing longer – beginning earlier in the spring and stretching later in the fall.

“It's not unusual for us to see this many small fires in June,” she said. “But 50 years ago, so many fires this early on – plus these extreme, high temperatures in June – would have been abnormal.”

It is difficult to predict how bad the rest of this fire season will be based on the number of fires so far, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.

"Our worst fire years aren't necessarily the years that we've had the highest number of fires,” he noted. “All it takes is one – one huge, destructive fire to ruin the whole year."

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, center, is the UC Cooperative Extension fire scientist serving Humboldt, Siskiyou, Trinity and Mendocino counties. She is pictured with Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, left, and Kelly Martin, right, at a Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange session.
Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at 12:34 PM
  • Author: Jeanette Warnert

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