Forests Need Better Management, Despite Extreme Environmentalist Pushback
By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
Dense forest growth inhibits water saturation. David Rogers, Madera county supervisor, explained to California Ag Today how less undergrowth will assist in water runoff in the forests.
“We have so much overgrowth in the forest that the snowpack wasn’t even making it to the ground,” he said.
The snow would sit on top of the vegetation and evaporate, thus never making it to the forest floor.
“Removing the vegetation is going to be an important component of restoring the health to the groundwater situation, because 60 percent of California’s water comes from the Sierra Nevadas,” Rogers said.
A 2013 study showed that 30 percent more water can be collected from the forest. This increase in water has been present in areas that have a healthy level of vegetation and not overcrowded. The overcrowded conditions have led to catastrophic fires, and it is important to manage those areas.
The burn areas of those fires are becoming a hazard.
“Not only does the soil runoff fill our reservoirs and mean dredging and all of those things, but what will return won’t be healthy vegetation,” Rogers said.
The vegetation that does return will be chaparral and absorb more water than the trees. The water would most likely be evaporated rather than absorbed.
“What was happening was there was no room for the snow to even hit the ground. It would sit on top like an ice sheet. It would evaporate from the top down and never get to the bottom,” Rogers explained.
Underground systems benefit from the forests; the runoff goes down through the rocks and crevices that in turn fill the rivers, streams, and wells.
“Our groundwater is dependent on that snowmelt going into the ground,” Rogers said. “Filtered underground rivers are a result of the water absorbed into the ground; the forest floors need to be managed.”
Editor’s Note: The image depicted in this article is exactly how a forest should be managed.
Reducing Catastrophic Devastation with Preventive Forest Management
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor
In light of the deadly Paradise fire in northern California, along with the other devastating fires in the state over the last 10 years, California Ag Today spoke with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke about the state’s forests.
Perdue believes that significant losses could have been averted.
“The issue really right now is what are we going to do about it? These are called disasters. Because of the loss of life, wildland fires have been greater than hurricanes this year,” Perdue said. “We’ve had two significant hurricanes, but the death toll is surpassing that. And the interesting thing in this disaster: these are disasters that we can do some things about, and we need to be about doing things … that we can do, but we need the authority to do that.”
Zinke said that officials need to act on good forest management.
“We talked about active forest management for a long time, but you know, talking’s over,” Zinke said. “It’s now time to act.”
Zinke noted common sense forest principles that need to be addressed at once.
“One is to remove the dead and dying trees; to thin and do prescribed burns late in the season rather than midseason,” Zinke explained. “This is fixable. The president’s right, and this is not just one administration—this goes back years of failure to manage our public lands, and it is absolutely a situation that can be mitigated, but we need to act.”
“It is unsustainable and unacceptable that we have the devastation, the loss of life, but we need to prioritize getting back to an active management system. There are other countries that prevent the devastation,” Zinke said. “I spent a lot of time in Germany, which does not have the scale of fire that we experience. There are models of active forest management that are effective, and this is the time to act.”
But Zinke explained that good forest management in California has a big problem: radical environmentalists.
“Take a look at who’s suing. Every time there is a thinning project, who’s suing. Everyone should recognize that the density of dead and dying trees is higher. The density of trees are higher and there are active forest management principles that we should use to mitigate these devastating forest fires,” Zinke said. “However, when there is lawsuit after lawsuit by, yes, the radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest. And it’s easy to find who is suing and who has promulgated these destructive policies.”
Zinke said that he does not want to point fingers just at the environmentalists, though.
“There’s a lot of variables: the season’s getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter. We’ve had historic drought conditions in California, which has lead to dead and dying trees from beetle kill. There is a high density of trees, with enormous underbrush and those things can be mitigated, but we have to get to work,” he explained.
Perdue challenges the radical environmentalists’ desire for an untouched, pristine forest.
“I think that’s been the theory from well-meaning environmentalist over the years: is that a forest that you did nothing to was pristine,” Perdue said. “We know that’s not to be the case. It gets undergrowth. It gets where you don’t have good recreational activity, poor hiking, poor access or wildlife growth and access, water quality, all those kind of things. It’s not pristine, and that’s the issue that we’re trying to bring up. A well managed, well-groomed forest is always better for all of those kinds of issues.”
A well-managed forest provides economy and jobs for rural communities as needed, but wildlife, the recreational aspect, the hiking, the water quality, all those also improve with well-managed forests.
“I think some environmentalists are coming around to that to that way of thinking, I think even some environmentalists realize they’ve overreached and [are] keeping management out of these forests, but we need more to come along, and we need the lawsuits to stop,” Perdue said.
Zinke said public land is for the benefit and the enjoyment of all people and not special interest groups.
“And what we’re seeing in the last decade [is] that special interest groups are really exercising their very tight agenda. The result has been a buildup of fuels coupled with droughts, and with increased density of dead and dying trees, as well as beetle kill. And so the condition of our forest as we look at them today, are not healthy—and they are a threat to populations like, like Paradise, and we can do better,” Zinke explained.
“I think the solution is looking at models that are effective, using best science, best practices, and certainly having more authority or we don’t have to go through an entire Environmental Impact Report (EIS) to cut a single tree,” Zinke said.
And that’s exactly what Zinke had to do when he was a congressman in Montana.
“[As] a former congressman, I sponsored the bill to allow a power company to remove vegetation in a prescribed easement. And it took an act of Congress to move the bill through. But is still gave 60 days for a notification before the power company could remove what was called an imminent danger tree. This is a tree that’s going to fall on the power lines, no doubt … it has a potential of starting a forest fire, but it still took 60 days of notification for a power company to have the authority to remove a single tree in a prescribed easement,” he said.
Zinke noted that there are a number of legislative fixes, and some of them can be in the Farm Bill.
“We need more authority to have category exclusions, to do the right thing and take a common sense approach so we don’t have to go through year after year of these 100,000-acre-plus fires that are enormously destructive,” Zinke said.
The massive fires put our firefighters and our communities at risk.
“I do think that America is waking up, and sees that we can manage these forest using best practices, and best science,” Zinke said.
“We should be able to manage our forests. And when nature alone takes this course without management .. it has consequences, and those consequences, unfortunately, have led to entire communities being destroyed and a tremendous amount of loss of life. We can do better and we should,” Zinke explained.
Livestock Owners Should Participate in Fire Survey
By Pam Kan-Rice, UC Agriculture & Natural Resources
Preparing a farm for wildfire is more complicated when it involves protecting live animals. To assess the impact of wildfire on livestock production, University of California researchers are asking livestock producers to participate in a survey.
People raising cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, swine, horses, llamas, alpacas, aquaculture species or other production-oriented animals in California who have experienced at least one wildfire on their property within the last 10 years are asked to participate in the FIRE survey.
“We will aim to quantify the impact of wildfires in different livestock production systems,” said Beatriz Martinez Lopez, director of the Center for Animal Disease Modeling and Surveillance in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “The idea is also to create a risk map showing areas more likely to experience wildfires with high economic impact in California.
“This economic and risk assessment, to the best of our knowledge, has not been done, and we hope to identify potential actions that ranchers can take to reduce or mitigate their losses if their property is hit by wildfire.”
Martínez López, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Medicine & Epidemiology at UC Davis, is teaming up with UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisors and wildfire specialists around the state to conduct the study.
“Right now, we have no good estimate of the real cost of wildfire to livestock producers in California,” said Rebecca Ozeran, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Fresno and Madera counties. “Existing UCCE forage loss worksheets cannot account for the many other ways that wildfire affects livestock farms and ranches. As such, we need producers’ input to help us calculate the range of immediate and long-term costs of wildfire.”
Stephanie Larson, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range management advisor for Sonoma and Marin counties, agreed, saying, “The more producers who participate, the more accurate and useful our results will be.”
“We hope the survey results will be used by producers across the state to prepare for wildfire,” said Matthew Shapero, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, “And by federal and private agencies to better allocate funds for postfire programs available to livestock producers.”
The survey is online at http://bit.ly/FIREsurvey. It takes 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of properties the participant has that have been affected by wildfire.
“Survey answers are completely confidential and the results will be released only as summaries in which no individual’s answers can be identified,” said Martínez López. “This survey will provide critical information to create the foundation for future fire economic assessments and management decisions.”
The Thomas Fire that burned through Ventura County last December led to some major agricultural losses. California Ag Today spoke with Henry Gonzales, the Agricultural Commissioner of Ventura County, about the situation.
“There were 6,603 acres of avocados and then another 1,800 acres of lemons, about another 540 acres of oranges, and another dozen crops were affected,” Gonzales said.
“One of the things that we’ve seen is that these orchards actually provided a buffer between the fire and urban areas. They really saved us quite a bit. Some of the avocado orchards experienced significant losses; the very efficient irrigation systems that we have are sadly made out of plastic, and so they melted and we’re actually looking at two different disasters,” Gonzales explained.
“We’re still suffering from the impacts and effects of the drought … so everything was very dry, and then we had the Santa Ana winds, and it really created the perfect firestorm,” Gonzales said.
The rain this last year did help, but then it created more problems.
“It did help. No doubt. We didn’t get as much rain as many other areas. In Southern California, we were very happy to get the amount of rain that we did get,” Gonzales said. “But then it created mudslides that we’re now dealing with.”
Emergency Livestock Assistance Program Can Help with Livestock Losses
By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
“It’s been a crash course for me,” said Aubrey Bettencourt, a third generation farmer in California. Last month, she was appointed by the Trump administration to serve as the executive director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s California Farm Service Agency. She recently spoke to California Ag Today about FSA programs for livestock losses, which would be applicable to all states across the country.
“Emergency Livestock Assistance Program … provides financial assistance for eligible producers for certain diseases, adverse weather events, wildfires, and more. These are great programs that we need, especially with some of the disasters California is dealing with,” Bettencourt said.
She is very close to the situation in southern California with all of the fires, which have affected a lot of cattle. Any cattleman or woman who is having trouble should get a hold of the FSA office immediately to get into the system to be matched up to programs such as ELAP.
“We also have a livestock indemnity programs, so if there is unfortunately a loss of livestock, we can definitely help you with that,” Bettencourt said.
ELAP also has a forage program that helps if you have lost the ability to graze, and there are also other programs along the lines of secondary insurance for non insurable crops that can be purchased ahead of time.
“In case there is a disaster, we can help cover some of the costs if you are not able to graze or you are not able to care for cattle in some capacity because of the loss or a disaster of some sort,” Bettencourt explained.
“I would encourage you not only to reach out to our offices, but a lot of the really good trade associations have great information on this as well,” she said.
Avocado Growers Should Not Cut Down Trees With Only Fire-Damaged Canopies
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
Avocado growers should not make quick decisions on what to do with fire damage on avocado trees. There are right decisions and wrong decisions.
Wildfires in Ventura County have burned over two hundred and thirty thousand acres, and avocado growers are among those affected by the fires; many orchards have been burned. We spoke with Ben Faber, a UC cooperative extension farm advisor in Ventura County. He told us about this devastation, and how it’s affected avocado orchards.
“I’ve been out looking at burned orchards, and it’s really too early to look. It looks worse than you see, so you see the burn canopies and it looks devastating, but they’ll come back,” Faber said. “It’s when you look at the orchard and see the green canopy and and you say, Oh gosh, I’m saved. But if you get down on your knees and you see these pustule, or boils round the base of the tree, that means the tree is gone.”
“This is tree sap underneath that’s boiled out,” Faber explained. “The cambium is damaged, and you may think, ‘Oh, everything is looking fine,’ and then you get a nice dry wind and the tree collapses all of a sudden because the can’t carry enough water to meet transpirational demand. Oftentimes, that means it was a crown fire and burned around the base of the trunk.”
“Some of the trees that looked the most damaged actually might be much better off than those showing little signs of damage. That’s why it’s important for growers to wait to assess the damage in their orchards,” he said.
In trees showing canopy burn, you’ll have to prune the tree. It’ll come back fine, according to Faber.
“What we are afraid of is that growers will respond in the wrong way. They’ll probably start cutting down trees that have lost their canopies and leave the ones that have a green canopy, and it might be the other way around,” he said. “We’re telling people, don’t do anything. Water if they need to and let nature take its course.”
Last year’s Rim Fire, California’s third-largest fire, understandably garnered a lot of media attention. More than 250,000 acres burned, private property was lost and significant water resources were placed at risk of impairment.
As we enter the 2014 fire season after a winter of significant drought, it is timely to reflect on the series of events that place California at risk of extreme wildfire. It is also important to remember how costly the devastation from just one fire can be. Individually, the Rim Fire cost $130 million to suppress—and this does not include the damage to rural communities, the environment or economic activities that rely on the forest.
California has already experienced numerous fires this season and the outlook for 2014 shows significant wildland fire potential. Fires are historically common in California and can actually prompt a regrowth process for several species. However, we’ve reached a point where fires burn hotter and more frequently than ever. Fires of this intensity and size threaten our rural communities, environment, water supplies, and federal and state budgets.
Devastating wildfires represent a cost associated with not managing our forests. Fires that once burned every 10 to 15 years, naturally, allowed for new tree and vegetation growth and the release of regenerating seed. However, today’s fires are less frequent, cover larger acreage, burn hotter and pose a greater risk to life and property.
Forest management on federal lands to reduce dead trees, thin densely grown areas and remove brush is significantly backlogged and commonly subject to nonsensical litigation, resulting in overgrown tree canopies, increased presence of disease and diminished wildlife habitat. This backlog and inability to properly manage our forests results in a series of destructive wildfire seasons.
Just as homeowners maintain their private gardens to manage overgrowth, weeds and dead plants so healthy plants can thrive, our forests need to be managed. But timber harvesting and thinning of trees have become fraught with litigation, which has left forestland to become overgrown with trees and underbrush, making it perfect habitat for forest fires.
Timber harvesting is often depicted as clear cutting that results in our lush forests looking like vacant lots. But most forestry in California consists of selective harvest, limited to younger trees within a range of height and width. Older-growth trees are left to grow and stabilize the soil, while dry brush and dead trees are cleared from the forest floor. Thinning out only selected trees and clearing the forest floor of dead brush creates spacing for new, beneficial vegetation and reduces overgrown brush and dry vegetation.
We also need to recognize that rural towns rely on foresting jobs to survive. Though growing marijuana is becoming popular in these areas, the money generated from that activity does not stay in the community and support local schools, public services or roads.
Because not enough money has been set aside in the federal budget to fight wildfires, money for forest-management activities ends up being robbed. Here’s how: The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are the two federal entities responsible for wildfire suppression. Suppression funding levels are based on the 10-year average of suppression costs; currently, that’s not enough to provide the necessary level for suppression activities nationwide. When suppression funding runs out, which happens regularly, both the USFS and DOI have the authority to transfer funds from within their budgets to make up for shortfalls. So money is usually taken away from non-suppression programs, including land management programs that decrease long-term wildfire risk and costs.
In the last two years, more than $1 billion was taken from 2013 and 2014 appropriations bills to repay the transfers from 2012 and 2013. It is estimated that the fiscal year 2014 wildfire season suppression is underfunded by $470 million, which will likely lead to another round of transfers that will again short-change forest management and other programs.
For this reason, the California Farm Bureau Federation is a member of the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions, a diverse coalition working to pass legislation known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The WDFA would change the approach to funding wildfire suppression by developing a wildfire emergency funding process for a portion of USFS and DOI suppression activities similar to funds for other natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.
The legislation would treat catastrophic wildfires as the “predictable” emergencies that they are and provide a more reliable funding structure that does not harm land management and wildfire risk-reduction activities. In the rare case it should become necessary, USFS and DOI would retain their financial transfer authorities.
We must plan for catastrophic wildfires and manage our forests. Rather than relying on annual emergency appropriations to suppress fires we expect, this legislation provides a consistent, predictable funding stream that protects critical forest management activities that benefit the California economy and our forests.