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Restoring California’s Forests to Reduce Wildfire Risks Will Take Time, Billions of Dollars and a Broad Commitment | Best States

By Roger Bales and Martha Conklin

Many of California’s 33 million acres of forests face widespread threats stemming from past management choices. Today the U.S. Forest Service estimates that of the 20 million acres it manages in California, 6-9 million acres need to be restored.

Forest restoration basically means removing the less fire-resistant smaller trees and returning to a forest with larger trees that are widely spaced. These stewardship projects require partnerships across the many interests who benefit from healthy forests, to help bring innovative financing to this huge challenge.

The California Wildfires in Photos

california wildfires

We are engineers who work on many natural resource challenges, including forest management. We’re encouraged to see California and other western states striving to use forest management to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire.

But there are major bottlenecks. They include scarce resources and limited engagement between forest managers and many local, regional and state agencies and organizations that have roles to play in managing forests.

However, some of these groups are forming local partnerships to work with land managers and develop innovative financing strategies. We see these partnerships as key to increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration.

Under contemporary conditions, trees in California’s forests experience increased competition for water. The exceptionally warm 2011-2015 California drought contributed to the death of over 100 million trees. As the forest’s water demand exceeded the amount available during the drought, water-stressed trees succumbed to insect attacks.

Funding is a significant barrier to scaling up treatments. Nearly half of the Forest Service’s annual budget is spent on fighting wildfires, which is important for protecting communities and other built infrastructure. But this means the agency can restore only a fraction of the acres that need treatment each year.

The Benefits of Restoration

Forest restoration provides many benefits in addition to reducing the risk of high-severity wildfires. It reduces tree deaths and provides a foundation for sustaining carbon stored in trees and soil. Removing trees reduces water use in the forest, making more water available for the remaining trees, for in-stream flows and for food production and urban areas downstream.

Increased streamflow also enhances electricity generation from hydropower plants, offsetting use of fossil fuels to produce electricity and contributing to state greenhouse gas reduction initiatives.

Restoring forests reduces the erosion that often follows wildfires when rain loosens exposed soil, damaging roads, power lines and ecosystems and depositing sediments in reservoirs. And it improves rural mountain economies by supporting local jobs.

The French Meadows Forest Restoration Project is an innovative public-private partnership to improve watershed health and restore the landscape’s historic fire regime.Mountain headwater forests are an integral part of California’s water infrastructure. They store winter snow and rain and release moisture slowly to rivers for downstream irrigation and municipal supplies during the state’s dry summers. That’s why supporting forest restoration is also gaining traction with downstream water and hydropower providers.

Residents across the western U.S. had weeks of unhealthy air this summer owing to smoke from wildfires. Short of