Char Miller on Forests and Water

Having heard much of the Santa Fe and the Denver Water partnerships, it was interesting to get Char’s historical and southern California take in his piece here. I have to note that the former R-2 Regional Forester, Rick Cables, and Harris Sherman were known for speaking about water pretty much incessantly. To the extent that Dave Steinke made a series of clips of just Rick saying the word “water”, that was a hoot. Anyway, it’s good to see the Chief talking about it.

My only comment is that I don’t think the idea of “tight ecological relationship” was maybe what they were thinking back in the 19th century. I don’t think the term was used that way back in the day.

Here’s an excerpt:

No one better understood the power of water to define life in the American west than the 19th-century activists and scientists who articulated the need for the creation of the national forests. They predicated their arguments on a close reading of the land and the tight ecological relationship they believed existed between upstream watersheds and downstream economies.

To sustain healthy forests and clean water was what led George Perkins Marsh, John Wesley Powell, George Bird Grinnell, and Bernhard Fernow — directly and indirectly — to champion a more robust federal regulatory presence on the public domain. Without some form of control exerted over these landscapes and the common (and wet) resource they provided the opportunity to establish communities in this oft-arid terrain would dry up.

This conception was woven into what would become the Forest Service’s organic act, legislation enacted in 1897 that defined how the “forest reserves” were to be organized and administered, and on what basis: “to improve and protect the forest within the reservation…securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”

Note that water took sequential priority to timber, an ordering that leads to a reconceptualization of the significance of the Forest Service’s name: its managerial actions are in support of the ecosystem services its high country woodlands provide, whether in the Rockies, Wasatch, or Cascades, the Appalachian or Alleghenies, the Sierra, Santa Anas, or San Gabriels.

Note, too, that each of these ranges, and the others over which national forests are draped, bear a direct connection to lowland communities dependent on the rivers, streams, and creeks whose sources lie in the mountains above. This is not by happenstance. Residents of those valley cities and basin towns were among the most powerful proponents of the national forests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Worried about the deleterious impact that rapid timber harvests, wildland fires, and grassland overgrazing were having on local potable water supplies, they pushed hard for federal oversight.

This was as true of San Diego’s advocates of the San Jacinto Forest Reserve (now part of the Cleveland National Forest) as for those in San Bernardino and Riverside who promoted what would become the San Bernardino National Forest. They, like their peers in Ashland, Oregon who championed the Rogue River National Forest, and in New England who fought to secure the White Mountain National Forest, appreciated how integral these natural systems were to their daily lives; healthy forests meant healthy humans.

3 thoughts on “Char Miller on Forests and Water”

  1. What a great, timely reminder of what is really important here in the West. Water primarily, and sawlogs second. Too many people never have understood this basic Organic Act mandate. Or understood but do not accept it.
    Pocketbook ecology.

  2. Remember, high intensity wildfires produce erosion in many different ways, with cumulative effects that often produce a kind of erosional synergy, increasing the destructive power of that water. There are many erosion-fighting benefits of careful salvage projects, if done right.

    • Larry, water people in Colorado have paid for fuels reduction treatments so they know from experience with previous fires here’s the rationale from their website…about their program, called “Forests to Faucets”.

      Forest restoration work, such as the thinning, clearing, and creating of fuel breaks, influence how quickly and intensely a wildfire can burn. Smaller, less severe fires also reduce the amount of soil erosion and other impacts to the watershed. Restoration will also help the forests become more resilient and resistant to future insect and disease epidemics, reduce wildfire risks for communities, and improve habitat for fish and wildlife species. More resilient forests also will be more adaptive to the impacts of a changing climate..


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