As California braces for another perilous wildfire season, forest resilience projects are advancing on a number of fronts, along with new state investments in wildfire prevention. During California Forward’s Building Equitable Economies webinar series, promising efforts in four forested regions were highlighted and explored.
The series, which ran between February and April and will continue with occasional additional webinars, was designed to address racial and economic inequities across a broad range of issues. The series has brought attendees into timely conversations about climate resiliency, criminal justice, housing, broadband access, youth engagement, and more.
On March 4 and March 11, the series focused on one of the state’s most pressing problems: relentless wildfires claiming lives, destroying property, and damaging the environment, communities, and the overall well-being of the state. Featured in these webinars were on-the-ground forest resiliency projects with potential for scaling and replication.
A brief recap of each forest-related presentation follows, along with recent developments.
March 4 Webinar
During the first forest resilience webinar, Jennee Kuang, environment program fellow with the Hewlett Foundation, highlighted the urgency of the crisis and need for effective policy and investment solutions. Patrick Wright, director of California’s Forest Management Task Force (since reconstituted as the multi-agency “Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force”), described the state’s Wildfire Action Plan and noted numerous requirements for successful implementation, including the need for all levels of government and other interests to work together.
“If we’re going to scale up, we’ve got to get all those interests together at the table,” Wright said.
A key theme of the March 4 webinar involved the need to restore the use of managed fire on threatened landscapes to create more resilient forests.
Western Klamath Restoration Partnership
Presenter Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, described the work of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, formed in 2013 to restore fire processes on 1.2 million acres along the Klamath River in the Western Klamath Mountains. The partnership is increasing capacity to shift fire management at the landscape scale by using linear manual and mechanical treatments to prepare for large scale prescribed burns.
Through the partnership, Harling said, on-the-ground partners have transitioned “from conflict to collaboration” in treating fire-prone lands for multiple benefits. Still, Harling said, the culture of fire is changing slowly while the size and severity of fire in the Klamath Mountains is increasing rapidly. Federal and state agencies need to empower key partners, including the Karuk Tribe, who have managed fire successfully on this landscape for thousands of years, to build fire management strategies based on fire use and not fire suppression. To this end, the Tribe, U.S. Forest Service, and the partnership have been implementing collaborative prescribed burns to learn how to burn together again.
South Lassen Watersheds Group Landscape Restoration Project
Jonathan Kusel, executive director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, echoed the need for collaboration in describing the South Lassen Watersheds Group Landscape Restoration Project. The effort includes 25 entities working together, including the U.S. Forest Service, environmental groups, timber interests, and Mountain Maidu Tribal members. The project encompasses 850,000 acres in the Upper Feather River Watershed, whose headwaters supply the State Water Project serving 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of agricultural lands.
Through this work, resiliency projects have been launched on thousands of acres. Yet the needs run even greater.
“On an 850,000-acre landscape, we have to go bigger with our restoration projects, to match the scale of the challenge,” Kusel noted.
Since the webinar, the Sierra Institute has received a $1 million High Road Training Partnership (HRTP) grant from the state to advance workforce development associated with forest restoration with an emphasis on standing up tribal crews. The effort launches June 1.
The complete May 4 webinar and slide deck can be found here.
March 11 Webinar
During the second webinar, Barbara Hayes, chief economic development officer for Rural County Representatives of California, stressed that the harmful results of catastrophic wildfires, including impacts to water supply and air quality, touch all Californians, whether rural or urban.
“Forest health is important to all of us,” she said, “no matter where you live in California.”
This webinar’s presenters highlighted the challenging interplay between supply and demand of woody biomass in forging forest resilience solutions.
Central Sierra Natural Resources Supply Aggregation Pilot Project
Cole Przybyla, Tuolumne County’s director of innovation and business assistance, provided an overview of the Central Sierra Natural Resources Supply Aggregation Pilot Project. The project brings together five counties – Amador, Alpine, Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mariposa – to pilot a joint organizational structure to support wood product market development and industry innovation.
Several companies are exploring biomass utilization opportunities in the area, which could create 200 to 300 new jobs by 2023, Przybyla said. But moving a reliable supply of woody material out of the forests to feed those businesses is a challenge. The pilot effort’s activities include analysis of feedstock, legal and fiscal issues; support for small business incubation and research; and cross-generational education for the needed workforce. The new governing structure, which is currently under development, “will help encourage investments in forest fire prevention and forest management,” Przybyla said.
“SERAL” Project in the Stanislaus National Forest
Jason Kuiken, forest supervisor in the Stanislaus National Forest, described the Social and Ecological Resilience Across the Landscape (SERAL) project. As he noted, the challenges addressed by this project affect the lives of all citizens in California.
“The problem is great,” he said. “The Stanislaus National Forest covers 900,000 acres of public land, and most of that landscape needs some kind of treatment.”
The SERAL project, currently undergoing environmental review, focuses on a 118,000-acre project area, and is identifying the highest risk landscapes for treatments. The project was born through collaborative efforts, including the work of Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, a diverse group of stakeholders focused on the common goal of shared stewardship.
The webinar concluded with Paul Granillo, president and CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Institute, and Glenda Humiston, vice president of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, describing new efforts to partner on wildfire mitigation and economic development opportunities in Southern California.
The complete May 11 webinar and slide deck can be found here.
In a welcome development since this webinar, Governor Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature in April advanced a $536 million early budget action plan to ramp up wildfire prevention activities as quickly as possible. This landmark early funding action was urged by a coalition of cross-sector interests, including CA FWD.