Trees are dying in the Sierra but the forests aren’t

Occasional blog contributor Char Miller had the following OpEd appear in the LA Times this weekend, which should be of interest to regular blog readers and commenters. – mk

The trees are dying. The forests are not.

This distinction is getting lost in all the angst over the tree die-off in the central Sierra, coastal ranges and other forests of California. Players ranging from the Forest Service to CalFire to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other public officials are ignoring this key fact in their rush to do something, anything, about the dying trees.

Feinstein, in a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urged him to transfer the tidy sum of $38 million to the Forest Service so that it could immediately harvest thousands of red-needled pine and other dead trees in “high hazard” areas in the Sequoia, Sierra and Stanislaus national forests. “After five years of historic drought,” she argued, “which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come.”

And that request is but a drop in the bucket, according to Feinstein. In a previous letter to the Office of Management and Budget, she said federal and state officials calculated that 5.5 million of California’s 66 million dead trees posed “a particular threat to public safety and must be removed as quickly as possible.” The Forest Service’s estimate to harvest just its portion of the threatening trees (3.7 million) was $562 million. There is no way the Obama administration is going to ask for, or that Congress would provide, half-a-billion dollars for such an effort in a single state.

Although the attention-getting figure of 66 million dead trees (or “snags”) — widely publicized this summer — seems like a lot, the figure shrinks when set in its wider, arboreal context. As Doug Bevington of Environment Now has reported, there are 33 million forested acres in the state, meaning that the recent pulse of tree mortality on average has increased the number of dead trees by a mere two snags per acre: “To put that number in perspective,” Bevington wrote, “forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags.” In short, viewed ecologically, California’s forests suffer from a deficit of dead trees, not a surfeit.

Besides, dead trees are not bereft of life. They are essential to the survival of such cavity-nesting species as the endangered California spotted owl and the increasingly rare black-backed woodpecker. Ditto for the little-seen Pacific fisher, a forest-dweller related to the weasel whose diet in part consists of small mammals that take advantage of snag ecosystems. A host of other organisms feast on dead trees upright or fallen, so that what on the surface might seem like a patch of ghost forest in fact is a biodiversity hot spot, a teeming terrain.

While countless living things thrive off the dead trees, fire does not. This seems counter-intuitive, especially when firefighters tell The Times “it’s going to be much harder for us to stop a fire in these dead forests, as opposed to when they were alive.” In fact, fire-ecology research has demonstrated that snags do not burn with a greater intensity than green trees, and their presence does not accelerate the spread of fire. Nor does it increase the chance of wildfire. Even the state’s firefighter-in-chief, CalFire Director Ken Pimlott,agrees with the “emerging body of science that has found dead trees don’t significantly increase the likelihood of wildfires.”

Don’t get me wrong: There are legitimate reasons to log some snags located in portions of the wildland-urban interface to ensure public safety and protect vital infrastructure. It’s entirely possible that Feinstein’s requested $38 million transfer for logging high hazard areas would be a good investment. But slicking off 5.5 million trees — or even just the 3.7 million proposed for harvest in the national forests — cannot be defended in terms of science or policy. And it would break the bank.

Instead, those kinds of harvest numbers sound disconcertingly like political logrolling. In this case, agencies and their allies may be spreading fear of imminent, ecosystemic collapse that can only be averted via a massive infusion of tax dollars that would also prop up the timber and biomass industries. (The latter turns board-feet into kilowatts, a process as inefficient and C02-spewing as coal, accelerating the planet’s warming. Not climate-smart.)

So let’s take nature seriously. Even those who mourn the loss of the iconic, pine-scented uninterrupted sweep of green trees in the Sierra should remember that the “death” we perceive in California’s forests presages their regeneration. John Muir, the troubadour of all things Sierra, said as much in 1878. After years of field research, he concluded that sequoia regrowth depended on natural disturbance. Erosion and floods, “some pawing of squirrel or bear,” and the “fall of old trees” cleared the way for successive generations to flourish. Even fire,“the great destroyer of tree life” prepares “bare virgin ground … one of the conditions essential for [sequoias’] growth from the seed.” Muir’s penetrating insight was controversial in the late 19th century, but it shouldn’t be today.

The trees are dying. The forests are not.

Char Miller is a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College and is the author of the just-published “Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream.”

25 thoughts on “Trees are dying in the Sierra but the forests aren’t”

  1. Matt, According to Glenn Barley, Calif. Tree Mortality Task Force leader and chief of the Cal Fire’s San Bernardino unit, there are about 320,000 trees in Tier 1 high-risk zones that pose a threat to roads, power lines, pipelines, and other infrastructure (as I report in the forthcoming October edition of The Forestry Source). Hundreds of thousands more trees threaten homes and businesses. What do you suggest be done about them?

  2. Here’s a reply to Char’s article that I just posted in the LA Times. Nothing new here, but continued repetition of documented data seems to be needed to counteract continued repetition of ideological-based opinions.
    Char Miller’s “Let nature take its course” philosophy ignores the fact that we have now entered the Anthropocene Epoch in which 7.5 billion human beings with basic survival needs and decreasing resources control the future of our global ecosystem. Prudent husbandry, the careful tending (not neglect) of our natural resources is imperative.

    We are not tending our public forest resources and the results of a quarter century of non-management are revealed in the following statistics (Source: USFS Gen Tech Report WO-91, Oct 2014, tables 33,34,35 ). They demonstrate the differences between private (well-tended) timberlands and national forest (virtually unmanaged) timberlands in California.

    In California, timber stands on national forest land are, on the average, nearly twice the age of those on private land. Per acre mortality on national forest land is 2.5 times that of private land while the timber harvest on national forests is only 12% of the harvest on private timberlands.

    Private landowners harvest about 43% of the gross annual growth; removing weak, over-aged, and unhealthy trees thus preventing mortality. Only 17% of the annual growth dies. In contrast, the Forest Service harvests about 8% of the growth while 56% of the annual growth dies

    The data strongly suggest that prudent harvesting will prevent mortality, increase forest health and resilience, and yield substantial economic and social benefits to the landowner and to society.

  3. Fear based arguments are unpersuasive.

    Don’t confuse tree health and forest health. A healthy forest MUST have abundant dead trees. Over large scales of space and time forest growth should equal mortality. But here Mac complains about 56% mortality. When the system is in balance, it should be 100%. There’s clearly not enough mortality, even on public lands. When practices on public lands, “removing weak, over-aged, and unhealthy trees thus preventing mortality” this is mismanagement.

    Dead trees are perfectly natural. They increase the ecosystem services that flow from our forests – better habitat, better water quality, better soil conservation, greater carbon storage, etc.

  4. Problems decades in the making will not be solved quickly — too many acres, not enough dollars. I feel certain though, having seen much private industry forestry, that emulating their practices on public lands is profoundly wrong. That is pretty much what the FS tried to do on timber lands for several decades after WWII. Managing a public estate primarily for economic reasons, in contravention of numerous public land laws, risks (or makes certain) diminishing far greater ecological values. This is not to say that agencies like the FS should disregard or be foolish as to economies, or disavow commercial activity. But, on public lands established for broad societal goals, economy should serve to further ecological sustainability, not vice versa.

  5. “There are 33 million forested acres in the state, meaning that the recent pulse of tree mortality on average has increased the number of dead trees by a mere two snags per acre.” Prof. Miller seems to thin two snags per acre is no big deal. He’s probably right IF all those snags were evenly distributed across ALL 33 million acres. I suspect that is not the case as some areas have very few snags while other acres have a very high number. His rhetoric sounds good to the public ear but reality is a bit different.

    • OK, I meant as this applies to the Sierra Nevada, and on-topic. Nothing in the article, or in my response mentioned the Tongass. There has not been a clearcut on Sierra Nevada National Forests since 1992. Surely, THAT is not emulating private industry.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. I mention emulating private industrial forestry because this is what the FS did for decades and that legacy is with us TODAY. Some of the dismay/argument I hear seems to suggest that NFs need to be more timber production oriented (again?) than the current (non) management regimes in evidence throughout much of the west.

    Siuslaw NF, with which I’m quite familiar, is definitely being actively managed but not as in the past. Focus is on thinning old CC’s and resetting goals there from producing timber to accelerating OG character. This “era” will necessarily end in about 20 years when they run out of CC’s, but the next era needs to be developed. The Siuslaw NF of 2035 will be dramatically different than it would have been had the Owl Plan of 1994 not intervened to change its history. I’d like to see the FS embark on a new model that fosters timber harvest in support of sustaining mature/OG conditions.

  7. I saw similar extent of lodgepole pine beetle kill in large areas of CO and WY. Research indicated that phenomena was elated to several warmer than average winters that lacked an extended bitter cold period that normally killed most larvae under the bark. My point being that beetle issue was not attributed to lack of management. I think it’s a pretty easy stretch to say that if a landscape has been reduced to young, monoculture plantations, situations like your photo shows are unlikely.

    • It should be all about resilience and restoration. In the Sierra Nevada, I am convinced that having fewer, but larger fire resistant trees in our dry Sierra Nevada forests, they would handle droughts better. Fire suppression has allowed a flammable white fir component to dominate some areas, where pines once grew. The great challenge to marking timber in the Sierra is the ability to provide a diversity of species to match the site. It’s very much like an art form. In the past, I have called myself a “forest sculptor”. Would all of you feel empowered if given a paintgun, and some general rules, and a big block of overcrowded timber? I’ll bet we would agree on 80% of all the trees that should come out.

  8. I think I might get to 80%. The temptation is to remove (for “economic viability”) the very trees that should remain, post-harvest, to create resilience. If it costs money to do it right, I’d rather look at treatment as an investment in the future. I think the intrusion of white fir is usually due to fire exclusion, and fire cannot be safely reintroduced until its been removed. Gotta keep the pine though.

    • The rules include preserving trees over 30″ in diameter. Thinning from below means keeping a viable canopy. There is usually quite a bit of opportunity to keep a better looking tree, and to cut the one that has defects. The real skill is taking an extra 20-29″ tree out, here and there. You often see a ratty white fir, in between better trees but, you have to measure it to make sure it is not too big. One that is 30.1″ is off-limits. For fire resistance, you’re going to want to take out most of the white fir and incense-cedar understory. The average diameter of the cut-trees is about 14-15″.

  9. Having rules to preserve a particular diameter limit is not based on sound forestry or healthy forest management. There are areas in the Sierra Nevada’s where management based on crown form has created stands containing 60″ pine, but has not excluded harvesting of 60″ pine. Stand composition is a result of either mother nature or management, both can have the same results. Our agencies have “ologist” that seem bent on diversity in areas that historically were not as diverse and silviculturist that don’t understand all that they know. it is possible to mimic natural conditions even in fire prone areas without the destruction of “let burn” management or preconceived and arbitrary diameter limits.

    • I feel the same way about that 30″ dbh limit but, I also feel that, for now, it is a necessary problem we need to deal with. Maybe, after thinning projects are completed, in a decade or two, prescriptions taking unhealthy larger trees in well-stocked old growth could happen. For example, it would be a good thing to be able to cut a 32″ mistletoed white fir instead of a nice 28″ dbh pine, growing out from underneath the fir. If we can prove to the public that the thinning has been getting done, maybe they will trust the USFS to thin out some old growth, too.

  10. One trouble with that is finding a use for defective large diameter trees. Many mills want nothing to do with them. I guess you could cut and leave them for large woody debris. The sounds ones should be sold in small timber sales targeting the small manufacturers of big wood. (if there are any). I think diameter limits are useless rules hampering proper management and reducing the value of our timber resources. Ultimately they are harmful to the social and economic health of the local rural communities that are also in need of restoration.

    • If the diameter limits keep the litigants away, then we can get the thinning projects done. Of course, if a nasty fir tree is 67% cull, then it should not be cut. However, many true firs with mistletoe cankers have good wood in them. We do need these diameter limits to help keep the trust of regular tax payers and voters. Of course, some people will continue to cling to a zero-cut policy, too. We don’t need the preservationists but, we do need the silent majority.

  11. Larry is right on – One size fits all micromanagement rules and laws are generally counter productive for a healthy environment. The distrust and lack of allowance for a few mistakes is a net negative as opposed to trusting the professional foresters and their site specific prescriptions within the scope of a long range integrated landscape level management plan for each landscape level unit in our national forests.

    The role for the public and their duly elected officials is to define the objectives for each landscape unit.

    Compliance with the objectives and associated laws, near/midterm term adjustments for exogenous variables and execution should be left to the professional foresters and the consultants/specialists that the foresters know to draw on.

    Compliance should be monitored by regular third party audits.


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