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Forests for the Trees

by Char Miller on

Leading environmentalist and historian, Char Miller, analyzes California’s ecological history in his new book Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream. For all the glitz and glamour that the state has to bring, Miller uncovers some of the less enticing environmental issues that hide just below the surface where most do not notice. Char Miller will be in conversation with Bob Rivard of The Rivard Report on "California Dreams, Texas Schemes: Two States in Environmental Crisis and What They Can Learn From Each Other.” Free and open to the public at the Trinity University Holt Center on Wednesday, October 25. Before that, Miller brings us a few words to open our eyes to one of the environmental isuues they will discuss. Seating is limited, but you will be able to view a livestream at tupress.org. More information on the event here.

The trees are dying. The forests are not.

This subtle but absolutely critical distinction is getting lost in all the angst over the tree die-off in the Central Sierra, coastal ranges, and other forests of the Golden State. Players ranging from the U.S. Forest Service to Cal Fire to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other public officials are ignoring this key fact in their rush to do something, anything, about the dying trees.

Feinstein, in a recent letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urged him to transfer the tidy sum of $38 million to the Forest Service so that it can immediately harvest thousands of red-needled pine and other dead trees in high hazard areas in the Sequoia, Sierra, and Stanislaus national forests.

“After five years of historic drought,” she argued, “which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come.”

Her words are important, for how we talk about drought, fire, and ecosystem resilience is revelatory of larger issues. As I argue in Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream, “A wildland fire is never just a fire. Even as it burns through forests, grasslands or chaparral, it also eats into the political landscape, like acid on a copper plate. And in that etching, with the surface opened, we can glimpse a society’s most basic philosophical commitments, its deepest operating assumptions.”

Those assumptions are partly revealed in Senator Feinstein’s request for funding to harvest large swaths of the Sierra. She, and those who are co-promoting this policy, are calculating that dead trees equal catastrophe. To avoid catastrophe, clearcut the forests. Their calculation is flawed.

 Consider the attention-getting figure of 66 million dead trees (or “snags”), widely publicized this summer. It seems like a lot, yet the figure shrinks when set in its wider, arboreal context. As Doug Bevington of Environment Now has reported, there are 33 million forested acres in the state, meaning that the recent pulse of tree mortality on average has increased the number of dead trees by a mere two snags per acre.

“To put that number in perspective,” he writes, “forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags.” Portions of California’s forests suffer from a deficit of dead trees, not a surfeit.

Besides, dead trees are not dead. They are essential to the life chances of such cavity-nesting species as the endangered California spotted owl and the increasingly rare black-backed woodpecker. Ditto for the little-seen Pacific fisher, a forest-dweller related to the weasel whose diet in part consists of small mammals that take advantage of snag-ecosystems. A host of other organisms feast on dead trees upright or fallen, so that what on the surface might seem like a ghost forest in fact is a biodiversity hotspot, a teeming terrain.

While countless living things thrive off of the “dead” trees, fire does not. This seems counterintuitive, which may account for the head-scratching, heated rhetoric that Senator Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, and firefighting agencies have deployed to make their case that California is on the verge of burning up. In doing so, they have dismissed the findings of fire ecology research demonstrating that snags do not burn with a greater intensity and that their presence does not accelerate the spread of fire.

As scientists reported in the 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Contrary to the expectation of increased wildfire activity in recently infested red-stage stands, we found no difference between observed area and expected area burned in red-stage or subsequent gray-stage stands during three peak years of wildfire activity, which account for 46 percent of area burned during the 2002–2013 period.”

Even the state’s firefighter-in-chief, Cal Fire’s Director Ken Pimlott, agrees with the “emerging body of science that has found dead trees don’t significantly increase the likelihood of wildfires.”

Don’t get me wrong: there are legitimate reasons to log some snags located in portions of the wildland-urban interface to ensure public safety and protect vital infrastructure. But slicking off tens of thousands of trees willy-nilly—let alone the 3.7 million that have been proposed for harvest in the Central Sierra national forests alone—cannot be defended in terms of science or policy; and doing so would break the bank.

Nor can it be defended as a kind of political logrolling, in which agencies and their allies spread fear of imminent ecosystem collapse that can only be averted with a massive infusion of federal and state dollars to prop up the collapsing timber and biomass industries. The latter turns board-feet into kilowatts, a process as inefficient and CO2-spewing as coal, accelerating the planet’s warming. Not climate-smart.

So let’s take nature seriously. Those who mourn the loss of the iconic, pine-scented sweep of green, for example, should remember that the “death” we perceive in California’s forests presages their regrowth, a point I also stress in Not So Golden State.

“Set aside the concept that fires inevitably, irreparably destroy forests,” I observe, “and consider instead the idea fire may have a regenerative capacity.”

But don’t take my word for it. Read John Muir, the troubadour of all things Sierra, who in 1878 concluded that natural disturbances were how his beloved sequoia flourished. Erosion and floods, the “burrowing of wolf or squirrel,” and the “fall of aged trees” cleared the way for successive generations to flourish. Even fire, “the great destroyer of Sequoia . . . furnishes bare virgin ground, one of the conditions essential for its growth from seed.”

Muir’s penetrating insight was controversial in the late nineteenth century, but it shouldn’t be today.

The trees are dying. The forests are not.

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