Wildfires are costly. They are expensive to extinguish, they destroy billions in property, and the damage they do to our air and water resources is nearly impossible to compute.
We can accept those costs and admit they’re only going to get higher as climate change compounds our problems, or we can try to do something about it.
The place to start is in our forests. There are hundreds of millions of trees in the Sierra Nevada. A report issued Monday by the governmental watchdog Little Hoover Commission sounds the alarm on the condition of those forests. Simply put, the Sierra Nevada forests are being mismanaged in ways that hurt every Californian.
Our approach to managing the forests must change.
The federal government owns 57 percent of the forests in California, so it must accept its share of the responsibility and partner with us. Since the state owns a mere 2.2 percent, it’s clear the rest is in private hands. But we all have an interest in both healing and protecting the forests:
▪ Massive fires erase any gains made in curbing auto and truck emissions. The 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite emitted as much greenhouse gas as the city of San Francisco produces in a year, and more methane is being emitted as vegetation destroyed in the fire continues to decay, the report says.
▪ The state spent $600 million fighting fires in 2017; property damage exceeded $9 billion. Once fires are out, water districts must spend millions to remove eroded soil that washes into reservoirs.
▪ Healthier forests could help with the state’s perennial lack of water. If forests are thinned, using prescribed burns and selective logging, the state could realize up to 6 percent more water, the report said, quoting a Nature Conservancy report.
The report focuses on the 10 million forested acres in the Sierra, encompassing a fourth of California’s landmass. Weakened by insufficient water, Sierra trees are unable to fend off bark beetles. At last count, 129 million trees have died.
The problem dates back to decisions by the federal and state governments to fight fires at all cost. The policy was all too successful. Before Europeans arrived, fire burned 4.5 million acres annually in California. From 1950 through 1999, only about 250,000 acres burned annually. Now fires burn hotter, destroying trees that in an earlier time could have withstood the flames.
The Little Hoover Commission offers some solutions, including a public education campaign. People need to accept regular prescribed burns and selective logging to return forests to a more natural state.
We should be willing to consider developing jobs from forest products in the jobs in economically depressed mountain regions of the state. The report suggests using state grants to finance specialty mills that could process spindly trees so the rest of the forest can flourish. Another notion is to create bio-fuel power plants to turn forest waste into electricity.
The report cited the town of North Fork, where a sawmill was put back into use with funding by the California Energy Commission. The result included a small biomass power plant and a mill that turns wood from trees killed by bark beetles into pallets. The payroll of a few dozen jobs is small, but for a community of 3,500 people it’s meaningful.
Many Sierra towns could use such facilities.
In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature made a significant down payment by earmarking $200 million for forest health. More will be needed.
It took a century to get into this situation. It will take a generation to return our forests to health – longer if we don’t start now.