California forests in crisis

Many environmentally concerned citizens oppose commercial timber harvesting on public lands.   Their advice is “Hands off.   Let nature take its course”.  California, always the trend setter,is giving the rest of the west (and in time, the east) a preview of what happens when the gardener is not allowed to weed, thin, and harvest his crop.

As climate change transforms ecosystems; dead pines and megafires have become the new norm for drought–stricken forest lands in California.  These scourges are affecting both public and private lands but federal timberlands, 70% of which are managed by the the U.S. Forest Service, have been especially hard hit.  Major causes for this devastation are the fuel-buildup and unhealthy weakened timber stands resulting from decades of neglect.

Managed fire and timber harvesting are the forester’s principal tools.  In the west, until recently, fire has been seen only as an enemy to be suppressed at all costs.  The result: an accumulation of heavy fuels that make control and mop-up difficult, together with dense understories of brush and tree saplings: ladder fuels that carry fire into the forest canopy producing intense, fast-moving crown fires.

For a number of reasons, importantly including underfunding, the timber harvest from national forest lands has declined by 85% over the past 25 years.  The chart shows long-term national trends in the 4 most important components of timber resource management.

The results of a quarter century of non-management are revealed in the following statistics (Source: USFS Gen Tech Report WO-91, Oct 2014, tables 33,34,35 ).  They demonstrate the differences between private (well-tended) timberlands and national forest (virtually unmanaged) timberlands in California.

In California, timber stands on national forest land are, on the average, nearly twice the age of those on private land. Mortality on national forest land is 2.5 times that of private land while the timber harvest on national forests is only 12% of the harvest on private timberlands.

Private landowners harvest about 43% of the gross annual growth; removing weak, over-aged, and unhealthy trees thus preventing mortality.   Only 17% of the annual growth dies.   In contrast, the Forest Service harvests about 8% of the growth while 56% of the annual growth dies. The data indicate that prudent harvesting will prevent mortality and yield substantial economic and social benefits to the landowner and to society.

Given the money and enabling legislation, the Forest Service could equal or surpass California’s private landowners in the quality of resource management. Two companion bills (S-3085 and HR-2647) now being considered by congress are aimed at providing federal land management agencies with the tools they need to manage our federal forests and adapt them to withstand the inevitable future stresses that a changing climate will bring.

Our national forests and their controlling agency, the U.S. Forest Service, are in crisis.  So also are the communities, counties, schools, and families that depend on national forest resources for their survival.   The pending legislation is not perfect but is a giant first step towards renewed federal land husbandry.  Modified as necessary through debate and by compromise, it will allow federal agencies to once again tend the public’s land, to serve the people who rely on its resources, and to better meet the challenges of a changing global environment.


For another look at the “Nature knows best” approach, check out “Two management perspectives” on the menu..