What if the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan was law, rather than mere policy?

An article that looks at the need to thin forests — not just for increased water flows, but forest health, fire risk reduction, etc.”

“It’s one of the lower-cost options (to increase California’s water supply) … and it also would reduce the probability of big destructive fires,” said Roger Bales, a UC Merced engineering professor who specializes in mountain hydrology. “There could be measurable and significant gains” – a hypothesized 9 percent increase in snowmelt runoff – if the forests are properly thinned.

Modesto Bee article: “Overgrown Sierra forests gulping water that could flow to Valley.

This can’t be done without removing biomass — in other words, reducing the leaf-area index. If the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan were enacted as federal law, this might happen. Otherwise, it’ll never happen on a large scale, as appeals and litigation will continue to restrict forest management in the Sierras.

12 thoughts on “What if the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan was law, rather than mere policy?”

  1. I don’t think that water gains should be a focus of forest management. Yes, over the entire Sierra Nevada, you could cobble together big numbers that really don’t mean that much, when looking at the big picture. Increased water volumes would be smaller than we think, and short-lived, as vegetation grow back.

    However, proper thinning and restoration would also add water to our reservoirs, along with all the other benefits good forest management. The original Sierra Nevada Framework reduced harvests to up to 1/30th of the 80’s volumes, and imposing diameter limits at 20″ dbh (12″ dbh in some areas, too). This would, essentially, eliminate Forest Service timber programs, in most parts of the Sierra Nevada. Yes, the amended Sierra Nevada Framework has been working adequately, due to the vast amounts of acres needing thinning. There has been some rumblings about adjusting or eliminating the diameter limits. I think they could get some traction if the cutting of large diameter trees were closely regulated, needing to meet the strict guidelines that allow a sustainable and ecological approach to “pick and pluck” unhealthy trees, when they are in excess.

  2. Maybe the Sierra doesn’t have these kinds of soils, but here is what is worrisome to Colorado water providers, not “thirsty trees”

    The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire burned 11,900 acres. In 2002, the Hayman Fire charred another 138,000 acres of land. The combination of these two fires, followed by significant rainstorms, resulted in more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment accumulating in Strontia Springs Reservoir. Prior to the wildfires, the reservoir had approximately 250,000 cubic yards of sediment, which had been accumulating since 1983 when the dam was completed. Increased sediment creates operational challenges, causes water quality issues and clogs treatment plants.

    Following the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires, Denver Water has spent more than $26 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, reclamation techniques, and infrastructure projects. Hayman Fire suppression costs for state and federal agencies were more than $42 million. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service has spent $37 million on restoration and stabilization efforts. The Hayman Fire led to a loss of 600 structures, including 132 residences. Total insured private property losses were estimated at $38.7 million. Loss of wildlife habitat, esthetics, tourism and recreation values are invaluable.

    Also, just for “comparison across the west” purposes, “cutting trees for water” is an idea that intermittently surfaced in Wyoming during the time I worked in R-2. I don’t know the studies involved.

  3. Steve, an interesting article. You closed with a reference to appeals and litigation being a near-guaranteed stopper. I think if a new social consensus takes adequate shape, then those levers will be taken away. The trick, then, is to forge that new social consensus. I think the trend is in that direction already.
    I note that in the article the reporter didn’t think to include the views of environmental extremists. Now why is that? hmmm…

    • Bill, you’ve told me before that the tide of public opinion is shifting toward responsible forest management and away from the obstructionist crowd, and I think you’re right. But fast enough, given the conditions (forest health, drought, climate, etc.)?

    • With people like Chad Hanson around, we will never lose the threat of litigation, as it is his life’s work to end all timber sales, everywhere. We need litigation reform. Many of the serial litigators have bought into the policies of not cutting old growth and an end to clearcutting. However, some are looking towards other ways of obstruction and different reasons for ending beneficial thinning projects. They continue to look for short term impacts that Judges, ignoring the long term impacts of “whatever happens”, will shoot down. Some of those are short term erosion, from thinning projects in areas that haven’t seen much management in during the last few decades.

  4. Steve, it’s unclear to me what this means: “If the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan were enacted as federal law, this might happen. Otherwise, it’ll never happen on a large scale, as appeals and litigation will continue to restrict forest management in the Sierras.”

    All Forest Plans already are more “law” than “policy”, since they contain a large number of legal duties, some very specific and some more generalized as goals. Forest Plans themselves aren’t enacted legislatively, but they are developed and approved under the legal guidelines and requirements of NFMA and NEPA. Which is why litigation against the FS usually is based on allegations that the agency is in some way violating those legal duties (you can’t take a simple policy disagreement to court). And when the FS loses a case in federal court, it’s because the judge says the agency didn’t follow the law. So I don’t quite understand the distinction you’re making. thanks, -Guy

    • Pacific Rivers took the Forest Service to court, trying to remove the Sierra Nevada Framework Amendment, which allowed more thinning. I don’t think that SNF has to follow the legalities that individual Forest Plans do. SNF was voluntary but, it does seem to be used in litigation.

      My last District Ranger tried to make an exception for cutting trees over 30″ dbh. The guidelines in GTR-220 (now superseded) advised that it would be a good thing to cut large conifers that were blocking California black oaks from direct sunshine. Everyone tried to advise the DR to drop those plans, and he eventually did, halfway through the prep work. I’m sure that would have triggered multiple lawsuits. As it is, that project was the first in several decades in that part of the Forest. We know that three people filed appeals, throwing a number of issues at “the wall” to see what sticks. All three appeals were tossed out, with explanations. We’ll see if any litigation comes out, as the project is sold.

  5. The Fraser Experimental Station did a study of water yields in the North Platte basin, or in that type of LP forest in the middle/late 1990s. The upshot was, on an acreage basis, open ground retained and yielded 40 percent more water to the surface than a full-house LP stand. The cause was not just water uptake, but the factors of sublimation (direct evaporation of frozen snow) and radiative wet evaporation of snow water on the trees themselves.
    The effect is obvious to any tree skier. I long before noticed that the woods are the last to build a skiable snowpack, and that’s not just because of the junk on the ground compared to an open run. And tree runs closest to the bottom of the mountain are the first to develop brown dirt in the late season.
    So the Fraser people concluded that a 100 year mow and grow rotation would result in a net four percent increase in total yield to streamflows over time. It wasn’t much, but helpful nonetheless, IF it had been implemented in a timely manner before the massive bug kill.
    I’d be interested to know if the Fraser people have gone back into the dead stuff, in a kind of control of the “uptake” issue. Then there would be harder numbers on the sublimation and evaporation.

  6. Steve, not fast enough, of course.
    But sometimes a “tipping point” arrives and you don’t really know it’s there until later.
    I’m not sure but that the tide has already come in more than we know.
    People are looking for solutions and there is a new generation that is looking. The old arguments don’t mean anything to more and more people. Theocratic ideology seemed credible when overall mistrust was high, but we are in new times now.
    That’s what I feel, anyway, and if there’s anything I’ve learned as a forester, it’s that feelings are really important!

  7. Be sure to check out the comments section in the Modesto Bee. We are still seeing where the public doesn’t really know what is going on. One person blames clearcutting for the lack of water. Of course, the Forest Service hasn’t done any clearcutting in the Sierra Nevada since 1993. Another person claims that the Forest Service “are now going to remove our forests and change forever life as we know it.”, while also claiming that there is not a drought, here in California. Another person says that large trees will be removed, along with the thinned smaller trees.

    The Forest Service needs to address these “urban myths” but, all too often, they let people believe the accusations by not defending the facts.

  8. It’s reasonable to suspect that large trees will be ‘logged’ when smaller trees are ‘thinned’ because that appears to be the approach taken in many places to make the economics of timber sales work. If we factor the value of the water into the equation, those who benefit from the water should be willing to pay to make the economics of thinning work without removing large trees (if they can be convinced of the benefit).

    The Sierra Nevada Framework Amendment is an amendment to forest plans and carries the same legal weight as any forest plan – which means that its goals are aspirational and its restrictions are mandatory. If the plan were simply adopted as law, I don’t believe that would change anything. A different law would have to be passed to stop appeals and litigation or to attempt to ‘mandate’ logging.

    • Of course, it depends on your definition of “large trees”. If you compare ALL trees in the Sierra Nevada, I think that a “large tree” would be over 40″ dbh. I have no doubt that there are some people who would like to eliminate the diameter limits but, I haven’t seen that proposed yet. Even with diameter limits, not many of the 20-30″ dbh trees are being cut. Thinning from below means keeping a minimum of crown cover, needed for wildlife, while reducing ladder fuels. IMHO, no “large trees” are being cut under the Sierra Nevada Framework Amendment. Larger trees over 30″ dbh are not needed to make projects work out, economically. These diameter limits have been working since 1993.


Leave a Comment