Is Policy Standing in the Way of Healthy Forests and Watersheds?
We may think it’s obvious, but still it must be said: Sierra Nevada forests and watersheds are at a critical point. Four years of drought, over a century of fire subdual, pervasive tree mortality throughout the region due to bark beetle infestation and disease, and a changing climate have led to an increased and severe risk of continued wildfires. The recent U.S. Forest Service study published in November 2015, “Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States”, further outlines how hotter, drier and more extreme weather will spark massive insect outbreaks, tree and plant die-offs, bigger and more costly wildfires, and economic impacts to timber and rangeland habitat, which have been said to reach an estimated $1 billion in insurance losses. It’s time for our state and federal policies to meet these challenges head on.
While a growing consensus agrees that more must be done to increase the impact of Sierra forest restoration efforts, a number of obstacles related to policy remain in place. The following barriers must be addressed if restoration efforts are to be effective:
- Under appropriate conditions, controlled burns help to thin overgrown forests and reduce the risk of large, damaging fires. However, air quality regulations often restrict the available days that forest managers can conduct such burns.
- Policies related to federal funding for fire suppression often result in funds that would otherwise be available for restoration being “swept” to pay for suppression.
- Completion of environmental assessment processes under federal and state regulations can take a year or more, and can be costly. Developing projects on a larger landscape scale may provide greater efficiency in complying with regulations.
- The lack of wood and biomass processing infrastructure in the Sierra Nevada is a significant impediment to forest restoration efforts. Recent state policy efforts such as the Bioenergy Action Plan and SB 1122 (2012) provide direction on increasing the use of forest biomass for energy production. However, a number of challenges still remain.
There is good news. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC), a regional partner of SBC and steering committee member of the Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (CAMP) has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region and its supporters to coordinate the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program, a collaborative effort to influence policy and restore the health of California’s primary watershed.