State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report says forests are in decline, immediate action is needed

King Fire

King Fire Photo Credit: Tim Webster

Recent events like the King Fire in El Dorado County, the Courtney Fire near Bass Lake, the Gulch Fire in Shasta County, and the Meadow Fire in Yosemite National Park, can leave no doubt that we are entering the peak of fire season in the Sierra Nevada. Already more than 220,000 acres have burned in the Region this year according to data pulled from the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Group (GeoMAC), and the combination of overgrown forests, record high temperatures, and extremely dry conditions suggest that that number will continue to increase significantly before the fire season wraps up. 

Longer, busier fire seasons seem to be becoming a trend all over California, and the current drought has amplified the ready-to-ignite conditions in the Sierra Nevada. The region is at a tipping point and there is broad consensus among scientists, the wood products industry, and environmentalists that unhealthy conditions in Sierra Nevada forests need to be addressed immediately or else we stand to lose an incredible number of benefits that many take for granted.  

A new report developed by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy highlights just how unhealthy forest conditions currently are in many of the Region’s forests and identifies specific obstacles that need to be overcome in order to reduce wildfire threat, improve forest health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect valuable habitat and protect California’s water supply.  

Here are some of the key points made in the State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report:  

Overall Sierra Nevada forest health is in rapid decline.  

Due to decades of fire suppression, a changing climate, and a shortage of forest restoration efforts, there are significant areas of overgrown, diseased, dry, and threatened forests throughout the 25 million-acre Sierra Nevada Region. While fire has historically been a natural part of the Sierra ecosystem, the unnatural conditions in our forests today can lead to fires that do far more damage than good.  

Forests of the Sierra Nevada Region are critically important to the health of California, and the benefits that they provide, like clean air and water, are at risk.  

Sierra forests provide more than 60% of the state’s developed water supply, provide clean air, store carbon, provide habitat for wildlife, and are a world-renowned tourist destination. Megafires, like the Rim Fire, are becoming more common. Research indicates that the size and severity of wildfires has been increasing over the past few decades. Along with that increase comes an increased risk of post-fire erosion into our streams, higher levels of air pollution from smoke, loss of recreational sites, loss of habitat, and dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  

Investing in forest health saves money, and will protect California’s water supply and air quality.  

Reducing overgrowth in Sierra forests protects them from megafires like the Rim Fire. In fact, investing in forest thinning and controlled burning can save a minimum of two times the costs of suppression, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and protect waterways from post-fire erosion and flooding.  

Failing to understand the urgency of the situation will have devastating consequences to California’s environment and economy.  

Without bold action to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in the Sierra Nevada, California will face ongoing adverse impacts to its environment and economy.  

Unhealthy Sierra forests are costing us, and in more ways than one. A report issued by the U.S. Forest service back in August highlighted just how much suppression efforts cost, and how policies related to funding suppression have resulted in an enormous shortfall in funding available for fire prevention activities. The inability to fund prevention projects ultimately leads to higher suppression costs, and the cycle is repeated. In addition, unhealthy forests are costing Californians a reliable water supply. According to a study released earlier this month, overgrown Sierra forests may be responsible for a reduced amount of runoff from snowpack, and the result is a decrease in the amount of water available for agriculture and urban needs downstream. Overgrown forests and increased fire risk are also costing Californian’s the air that we breathe. The recent fires alone have landed several adjacent counties in the Unhealthy range for air quality due to smoke concentrations.  

The State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report will be followed by the development of a regional and watershed by watershed action plan identifying specific activities to achieve the objectives of restoring forest health and improving local socio-economic health. It’s time we recognize the interconnection between all of these things, build on a great deal of work being done in the Sierra Nevada, and take bold action towards improving the situation.