Across the US, the National Forest Service manages over 20 million acres of land; in the State of California over 20% of total land is managed by the US Forest Service. The impact of this land on our daily lives cannot be overstated. Watersheds protected by the forest provide almost 60% of total water consumption in California, and the forests provide enormous air, climate and recreational benefits.
Managing the forest sustainably is an enormous task, and the US Forest Service needs help from both public and private agencies. In a Forest Futures Salon, we heard from Barnie Gyant of the US Forest Service and Dan Tomascheski of Sierra Pacific Industries on how the forest service and for-profit businesses are working together, as well as what other partners could be doing.
Alongside the US Forest Service and large timber companies, like Sierra Pacific Industries, there are multiple other stakeholders that are crucial to the success of forest management. Among them are CalTrans (80% of fires begin at the roadside), private landowners, utility companies and the other land management and park service agencies. Fires do not adhere to land boundaries and they ignore land ownership. For successful fire prevention strategies to work, stakeholders must come together to jointly manage the forest.
The US Forest Service and Sierra Pacific Industries have signed multiple agreements outlining coordinated fire management strategies, which shows signs of progression. Additionally, industrial land owners and utility companies are signing into the agreements to manage shared forests in a cohesive way.
When our speakers were asked how we can move forward they acknowledged that working on difficult problems with multiple partners can be painful and slow. The costs associated with forest management are significant, but costs for stopping fires that have already started are much greater than the cost of fire prevention work. Once a fire has started you must consider sunk costs; the lack of camping because of burnt terrain, the health impact because of the smoke, a landscape that is now home to invasive species, and the loss of biodiversity, homes and life.
The scale of forest management in California is so extensive, that choosing somewhere to start can seem overwhelming, especially for smaller nonprofits, businesses and individual landowners.
“We have lost so many structures and lives, that when it comes to making a choice about where to start, we focus on communities first” – Barnie Gyant, US Forest Service
We need to come together to achieve real difference in the sustainability of our forests for the long-term. The salon discussed single actions that could create inordinate impact.
Here are some ideas of where we can begin:
- Monetize the value of the public benefit received from forests, and therefore enable impact investors and others to create financial models around spending time in forests. The true costs of managing the forests is currently buried in fire suppression costs that occur when fire prevention work has been avoided.
- Develop better biomass systems. This has been mentioned again and again; biomass has the potential to be a great way of sustainably clearing the forest, if it is made accessible, affordable and scalable. (Learn more from our salon on Biomass).
- Tap into the carbon credit market. Managing forests while generating income from carbon credits could be an important source of income for the US forest service.
- Promote prescribed burning. Vegetation in California is becoming much drier and winters are becoming shorter creating fewer chances for safe prescribed burning. There is also significant work to do to improve public knowledge on why prescribed fire is needed, but fire crews could be trained, paid and used to do fire prevention work that includes prescribed burning.
We must be deliberate if we want a better future. We need to measure the alternative of not doing anything, and realize that not managing the forest has far-reaching impacts on everything from tourism, health and wellbeing, to the biodiversity of our landscapes and growth of invasive species. When we talk about the cost of fire prevention work, we ignore the true costs of not doing anything.
About Forest Futures
The Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation’s Forest Futures work focuses on a Venture Lab model to fuel innovation, cultivate sustainable economies for our region and create new jobs with the ultimate goal of preventing forest fires. We host several events a year as part of the Forest Futures Salon Series to engage in productive conversations with scientists, investors, policymakers, artists and entrepreneurs to work towards a healthier forest.