California’s great Sierra forests are dying. We all have a stake in saving them

Large swaths of brown dead trees contrast against the green of the living trees on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley, on July 28, 2015. (Al Seib/Los Angels Times/TNS)
Large swaths of brown dead trees contrast against the green of the living trees on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley, on July 28, 2015. (Al Seib/Los Angels Times/TNS) TNS

Given the huge sums California has spent staving off wildfires, curbing greenhouse gas and ensuring clean air and clean water, it is surprising that more attention hasn’t been paid to the one factor those challenges have in common: trees.

California’s forests, and in particular the massive forests of the Sierra Nevada, play a role that is as critical to California’s environment as it is misunderstood and taken for granted.

Now a report issued Monday by the governmental watchdog Little Hoover Commission sounds the alarm on the state of the state’s forests, noting something we have warned of before: The Sierra Nevada forests are being mismanaged in ways that affect every Californian. Our approach must change.

The feds must become a full partner in solving the problem. Uncle Sam owns 57 percent of the forests in California. The state owns a mere 2.2 percent. Most of the rest is in private hands. But we all have an interest in healing the forests:

▪  Massive fires can erase any gains made in curbing factory and auto 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 dead vegetation decays, the report says.

▪  The state spent $600 million fighting fires in 2017 and property damage exceeded $9 billion. Once fires are out, water districts must spend millions to remove eroded soil from 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 real problem dates back a century to decisions by the federal and state governments to fight fires at all cost. The policy proved to be too successful. Prior to Europeans’ arrival, fire burned 4.5 million acres annually in California. From 1950 through 1999, about 250,000 acres burned annually. When fires do catch, they burn hotter, destroying trees that in an earlier time could have withstood the flames.

The Little Hoover Commission offers several worthy solutions, not the least of which is a public education campaign. People need to accept regular prescribed burns and selective logging to return forests to a more natural state.

Another set of intriguing recommendations involves focusing economic development efforts that put to use forest products and provide jobs in economically depressed parts of California.

The report suggests using grants to finance specialty mills that could handle the spindly trees that should be felled so the rest of the forest can flourish. Another notion is to create power plants that would turn forest waste into electricity.

The report cited the town of North Fork, where a former 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 facility’s payroll of a few dozen jobs is small, but not for a community of 3,500 people.

Such facilities could be created in towns up and down the Sierra, helping to invigorate a part of California that has not benefited from the economic boom in the Bay Area and much of urban Southern California.

In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature made a significant down payment by earmarking $200 million for forest health. More will be needed, and much of it ought to come from the feds.

It took a century to get into the current situation. It will take a generation to return our forests to health. The Little Hoover Commission report offers a path to get there.