Posts Tagged: forest management
Have you given your favorite tree a hug lately? Perhaps you would rather plant a tree? Well, on March 21, International Forest Day, Californians have a good excuse to do both.
In the first two decades of this new century, fire is having a transformative effect on California forests. Fires are burning with larger proportions of high severity and these high-severity patches are much larger, in many cases exponentially larger than would have occurred under natural fire regimes. This creates landscapes where all living trees – and potential seed sources for the next forest – have been killed. While fires can also have restorative effects and many species in California are adapted to fire, some species, like ponderosa pine, aren't adapted to these large, high-severity fire patches which alter the natural regeneration dynamics of the dry Sierran mixed conifer forests.
Across U.S. Forest Service lands in California, an average of 50,000 acres of forestland burned at high severity between the years 2000 and 2015; however, less than 30% of these acres were reforested on an average annual basis during this period. This creates a net cumulative loss of forest cover across public lands in the state.
To compound the complexity of this problem, there are growing instances of these large high-severity patches, burning again at high severity one to two decades later due to the homogeneity of vegetation and fuel profiles in the early seral stages after a fire. In 2013, the Rim Fire burned over 257,000 acres of largely mixed conifer forest, a notable portion of which had been replanted after the 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire. Now foresters have to think: "Not only do we have to consider reforestation after a fire, but we must consider how we keep these young trees from burning up again!"
A common theme many ecologists agree on is that heterogeneous landscapes may be more resilient to fire – essentially breaking up the continuity of fuels and diversifying forest structure helps moderate fire behavior. However, over the past half century in California, we have tended to replant fires with a somewhat dense uniform square grid-spaced pattern of trees, which grow into a homogeneous carpet of new forest. As these trees grow, these dense plantations require maintenance – also referred to as “timber stand improvement” – activities to reduce competing shrub competition and “thin” the trees in order to maintain tree vigor and growth and reduce the fire hazard within the planted stand. Funding for timber stand improvement can wax and wane with the forest products market or federal budget priorities, and, on U.S. Forest Service lands, many of these plantations did not have follow-up treatment.
Seeing this problem brewing across the state, in 2005, a small sect of curious silviculturists and forest ecologists started asking some poignant question such as “Why do we spend money to plant trees which we will then spend time and money to remove a few years later – why don't we just plant less trees?” and “If heterogeneity is important for resilience, why do we always plant new trees in evenly spaced rows?” To many, this was, and still might be, heresy. But it begs a broader philosophical question that if we have diverse objectives for our forests, is it always appropriate to re-establish them in generally one uniform way? More importantly, given the latest fire trends, how can we promote heterogeneity and resilience to fire when we establish forests through planting?
I was one of these intrigued silviculturists. Linda Smith, culturist on the Plumas National Forest, and I started designing and planting low density, wide-spaced cluster plantations in 2007, after the 2006 Boulder Fire. The fire burned in a recreation area adjacent to a lake and part of our objective was to create a forest that would mimic a more naturally appearing structure, but we also knew this could be congruent with fire management objectives as well.
Ten years after the 2007 Moonlight Fire, much of the public lands were dominated by a homogenous fuel profile of flashy grasses, standing dead trees, a jack-strawed arrangement of fallen dead logs, and chest-high shrubs. While some of these stands had been planted, no site preparation or management of competing vegetation had been funded. We knew that any trees in this intermix would have a long haul competing against the shrubs, and in the meantime were exposed to high fuel-hazard each fire season.
Knowing something had to be done, the Plumas National Forest developed partnership agreements with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the Feather River Resource Conservation District to prepare the site, reforest and manage competing vegetation over approximately 3,000 acres. They also developed partnership agreements with Brandon Collins, a research scientist with both the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station and UC Berkeley Fire Science Laboratory, and Malcolm North, UC Davis associate professor of forest ecology, to monitor the success of different reforestation techniques at promoting heterogeneity and resilience to fire.
Through this partnership, we set up a replicated study to examine the effects of site preparation, planting, and competing vegetation treatments at promoting tree establishment and heterogeneity in young plantations.
This spring will be the one year mark for the planted seedlings! There's still a bit longer to go before we're ready to reintroduce fire to the plantations, but we're on our way to that end goal.
In a sense, wildfire may have beat us out: Some of the wide-spaced cluster plantations that Linda and I planted in 2008 after the 2007 Antelope Fire burned 11 years later in the 2019 Walker Fire. I am pleased to see tree survival and some variable mortality. Looks like there will be some trees that deserve a hug this spring!
“The goal of the Forestry Institute for Teachers, or FIT, is to provide K-12 teachers with knowledge, skills and tools to teach their students about forest ecology and forest resource management practices and introduce them to environmental education curriculum such as Project Learning Tree, Project WILD and California's Education and the Environment,” said Mike De Lasaux, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor for Plumas and Sierra counties and a FIT instructor.
The program, which is in its 23rd year, brings teachers from rural and urban settings together with natural resources experts to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between forest ecosystems and human use of natural resources. The environment becomes the basis for learning in many subject areas, including environmental science, physical science, social science, biology, forestry and history.
“FIT gave me a lot of physical group activities and ideas for how to get to know a new group of people,” said Renata Martin, who is a substitute teacher for grades 3 through 8 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Especially because I meet new kids every day, I've been able to use the lesson that we did around the campfire the first night with sharing important points in our lives as if they were tree cookies” or slices of a tree, said Martin.
FIT emphasizes California Department of Education Content Standards including Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Since 1993, more than 2,200 teachers have graduated from the program.
Using what they learn at the workshop, the participants conduct training for their colleagues and develop a forestry education project for their students during the school year.
Martin, who participated in FIT in 2014 in Plumas County, said she has adapted many of the lessons for her students based on their age, development and behavior.
Four 1-week FIT sessions are scheduled at four different locations: Plumas, Tuolumne, Shasta and Humboldt counties.
Two June sessions will be held at the University of California Forestry Camp, close to Quincy in Plumas County, and at Sierra Outdoor School near Sonora in Tuolumne County. The July sessions will be at Camp McCumber just east of Shingletown in Shasta County and at Humboldt State University in Arcata in Humboldt County.
The presenters and staff include public and private forest resource specialists and other natural resource managers, environmental activists and science and environmental education curriculum specialists. Groups are welcome to register as teams. There is an application fee of $25, but training, meals and lodging are free for first-time participants.
The deadline for applications is March 16. For more information and to apply, visit http://forestryinstitute.org or call the Forest Stewardship Helpline at (800) 783-8733.
The Forestry Institute for Teachers (FIT) workshop was developed by the Northern California Society of American Foresters, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension, Shasta County Office of Education, The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Project Learning Tree. The FIT Program is underwritten by a consortium of public and private sources.
An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.
A UC team tamps down fire danger and finds common ground
In California, the plan coalesced around the concept of strategically placed landscape treatments, colorfully shortened to SPLATs. Mark Finney, 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.
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.
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, 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.
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, professor in the Department of ESPM at Berkeley, who was 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.”
Tintype photography by Michael Shindler