How wildfires have reversed California’s environmental gains

This year, California public radio embarked on a year-long investigation, titled BURNED chronicling the U.S. Forest Service’s struggle to reduce wildfire risks in the Golden State, a story that’s all too common throughout the west. The agency’s efforts to thin and manage overgrown forests and protect communities are routinely delayed, and sometimes are abandoned altogether.

Recent studies also illustrate the costs of forest non-management to the state’s environment.

A new analysis led by researchers with the University of California found the state’s 2020 wildfires-the most disastrous wildfire year on record- put twice as much greenhouse gas emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere as the total reduction in these pollutants in California between 2003 and 2019.

During that time, California’s greenhouse gas emissions had declined by 65 million metric tons of pollutants, largely due to reductions from the electric power generation sector. Yet according to one of the study’s authors, the “positive impact of all that hard work over almost two decades is at risk of being swept aside by the smoke produced in a single year of record-breaking wildfires.”

Another new study details the loss of old growth and mature forests, and wildlife habitat for species such as the California spotted owl.  The research is highly relevant as anti-forestry groups pressure the Biden Administration to further limit active forest management as a way to “protect” big and old trees.

The study, published in Ecological Applications, found that between 2011 and 2020 in the southern Sierra Nevada, 30 percent of conifer forest have become non-forest, and up to 85 percent of mature forest habitat was lost or degraded due to fire and/or drought.

The study also found southern Sierra forests set aside for spotted owl habitat (known as PAC’s California spotted owl Protected Activity Centers) have become highly vulnerable as overstocked forests burn in wildfires. In fact, PACs experienced a greater canopy cover decline (49 percent of 2011 cover) than non-PAC areas (42 percent decline).

The researchers suggest restricting forest management may result in further losses of forests and wildlife habitat. “Remaining dry mature forest habitat in California may be susceptible to complete loss in the coming decades without a rapid transition from a conservation paradigm that attempts to maintain static conditions to one that manages for sustainable disturbance dynamics,” the researchers wrote.

Both the Forest Service and California’s elected officials understand more forest management is needed to reduce the risks of wildfires. Yet the state has lost much of its forest infrastructure, including foresters, loggers, and mills to harvest, transport and process material from overgrown forests in order to have healthier and more resilient forests. Today, the state has less than half of the sawmilling capacity it had in the 1980s, and less than half the number of foresters and loggers working in the woods.

While record government spending on land management helps, restoring this lost infrastructure will require addressing the anti-forestry litigation, obstruction and analysis paralysis that stymies active forest management. Bending the curve of destructive wildfires as long as it take years for the Forest Service to meet federal regulatory requirements to implement even modest thinning projects.

As Bay Nature reported, state and federal agencies are now trying to make up for a century of “ineffective forest management,” says Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “We need more activity in forests, not less.”

How wildfires have reversed California’s environmental gains