Governor orders new focus on ailing forests

05/31/2018

After a year of calamitous wildfires that capped four years of historic drought, Governor Jerry Brown is ordering additional resources and prioritization toward managing the health of the state’s ailing forests. 

In an executive order issued this month, the governor directed the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Natural Resources Agency and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to tackle the serious threats facing the state’s 33 million acres of forests and nearly 1,300 square miles of urban forest canopy. 

The order could help public and private landowners in West Marin receive state assistance and regulatory relief to help manage dead and dying trees, and directs state agencies to increase cooperation with federal parks. 

“I think it’s a great thing that the governor’s paying attention to the health of forests,” Tom Gaman, an Inverness resident and a forester, said. “Active vegetation management is obviously going to have to be part of the solution.”

The executive order describes the worsening health of California forests as a nearly existential threat to the state’s economy, biodiversity, water supply and climate goals. It lays out 16 bureaucratic directives for the state’s public agencies to coordinate a more urgent and vigorous response to an increasingly visible crisis.

It also emphasizes the forests’ importance in meeting California’s greenhouse gas emissions goals, calling on the forests “to be maintained as a net sink rather than a source of gas and black carbon emissions” resulting from increasingly widespread and intense wildfires, several of which recently “have been the largest, deadliest and costliest in state history.”

State Assemblyman Marc Levine, who represents Marin and Sonoma Counties, called it “the kind of responsible and forward-looking commitment of resources that we have been calling for,” and noted the governor’s pledge of an additional $96 million in funds to adapt to the “year-round” fire season.

Specifically, the order requires state agencies to implement the practices recommended in the Forest Carbon Plan, a 186-page report released in May that highlights the cumulative, increasingly alarming impacts of drought, wildfire, climate change and native and exotic pests and diseases on the state’s woodlands. 

The plan outlines doubling the amount of acreage treated to reduce those impacts, from 250,000 to 500,000 acres a year, with a particular focus on the Sierra Nevada, where tree mortality has sharply increased in recent years. 

Still, an estimated 15 million acres of forest are estimated to need some form of restoration, and around 129 million trees have already perished since 2010. Significant drought, warming temperatures, and “high stand density” from a century of fire suppression have added to trees’ vulnerability to both natural and anthropogenic perils. 

The United States Forest Service recently estimated that California could lose as much of 25 percent of its standing live forests, or 5.7 million acres. That study is a forecast based on current and expected conditions, acknowledging that tree mortality could be even greater should unanticipated or more severe than expected threats develop in years to come.

In addition to state-initiated forest management and conservation measures, the governor called on agencies to make it easier for landowners to pursue projects that improve the health of the forests and reduce fuels for wildfire. The agencies must work with the California Coastal Commission to facilitate permitting in the coastal zone, and to provide financial and permitting assistance for those who own less than 5,000 acres.

“Human management created the problems in the first place,” Mr. Gaman said. “We need more trained people—foresters and biologists, technicians and other experts—to help guide our natural landscape into its sort of urban self. Permitting is a big issue for everything that comes along.”

Locally, the Point Reyes National Seashore has a preponderance of dead and dying trees, largely due to the oaks and tanoaks succumbing to a sharp increase in sudden oak death. The non-native pathogen, first noticed in Marin in the mid-1990s, is spread by air and water droplets from plant to plant, often with unintended help from human traffic. 

Native bishop pines have also suffered from a severe outbreak of pine pitch canker, a fungal pathogen observed in the area since 1986.

Many residents still remember the devastation of the Mount Vision fire of October 1995, one of many in the state that have highlighted the challenges of human settlement in forests that have evolved with fire, a cycle that reduces competition for resources and activates seeds that lay dormant until a burn.

California State Parks says that it has identified potential projects within Samuel P. Taylor and Tomales Bay State Parks that will be evaluated “against other statewide needs” as the department implements the governor’s order. 

The department also pointed to increased funding in the May revision of this year’s state budget that “will support State Park forest health projects, including watershed-based forest restoration, fuel reduction treatment, prescribed fire, selective forest thinning, and wildfire response planning.”

Seashore officials reached for comment could not cite any plans to increase its cooperation with the state to manage tree mortality and wildfire risk.