30% of forests in the central/southern Sierra Nevada dead

Headline: California tree carnage: A decade of drought and fire killed a third of Sierra Nevada forests 

The analysis mentioned in the Steel report we’ve been discussing. Excerpt:

California has seen devastating bouts of drought and record-breaking wildfire events in the last several years. From 2011-2020, a combination of fire, drought and drought-related bark beetle infestations killed 30% of forests in the Sierra Nevada mountain range between Lake Tahoe and Kern County, according to the analysis.

On top of the overall decline in total conifer forest in the region, half of mature forest habitat and 85% of high-density mature forests were either wiped out entirely or became low-density forests.

The study also found areas protected as habitat for the California spotted owl, an endangered bird at the center of a historic battle between environmental activists and the timber industry, saw worse declines in tree canopy than non-protected areas.

That finding led the study’s authors to call for a rejection of traditional conservation methods that preserve forests as-is, before the loss of all mature forests in the Sierras. Using fire as a tool for landscape regeneration and removing low-lying vegetation can keep fires from becoming as devastating.

18 thoughts on “30% of forests in the central/southern Sierra Nevada dead”

  1. The history of life on this planet is unlimited extinctions. No logging or stand management cause near extinction of institutional memory and associated labor force and infrastructure for sequestering carbon in buildings for 50 to over 100 years. That ideology is causing extinction of protects species as unintentional consequences and collateral damage. As a result, we have a half century of vitriol and bile
    Resulting in deep divisions in the structural bindings of society. Worse, and it has only gotten worse. The preservation ideology total ignores 4 billion years of reality which is constant, never ending change. You really can’t “go home again” or relive yesterday. Forward thinking today is pension planning and economic missteps by the current leaders grasping for power, not community solutions.

    Tree canopy cover in forests is 30% lost to too many trees trying to survive on too little water. Self solving issue. Only if fire does not take out the dead and alive.
    Oregon now has no single family home zoning statewide. Small older homes are being razed for building multiple unit rental sites on same lot and property footprint where codes demand they be wired for future roof top solar panels and each unit has EV charging capability but no parking, and garages not mandated.
    1000 sq ft home and single car garage and one to several 500 to 1000 sq ft canopies for every tree, are lost and now progressive’s are blaming greedy developers for reducing urban tree canopy. Here, the ambient temps under the tree canopy are 5 degrees F lower than out in the open seasonally. Unintended consequences blamed on fossil fuel use. Thinking persons ask where will the electricity come from to replace LNG, wood stoves, pellet stoves now banned in new construction. How is LNG going to be replaced by electricity in culinary industry? Heating industrial and business buildings? Where are the nuclear plants to provide bridge power when sage hens disallow solar arrays? Or the winds fail to blow timely? Or hydro potential is diverted to grow food, and never makes power at any power house, ever, below the diversion point?

    Forests are the canary we hear about so often. The dead canary.
    Ideology killed the canary. I don’t want to be next.

    • Thanks for your remarks.

      I understand that in California similar duplex or fourplex legislation is in effect, but that developers and economists are saying that replacing single-family homes with duplexes or fourplexes doesn’t pencil out. It’s reported that although the law passed few such replacements have happened.

      Is it different in Oregon?

      You also mention that leftists are blaming developers for reducing the tree canopy for these duplexes.

      I’d welcome any links you can provide where these things are discussed.

      You’re right about a tree canopy holding house and yard temperatures down. Five degrees is about what I’ve observed.

  2. I think it might be a useful exercise to analyze a “No Action” alternative on a much larger scale, solely for public education of the current conditions in the Sierra Nevada. We still need to marginalize extremists from both sides. They are not interested in applicable science.

  3. “The study also found areas protected as habitat for the California spotted owl, an endangered bird at the center of a historic battle between environmental activists and the timber industry, saw worse declines in tree canopy than non-protected areas.”

    Could it be that protected areas have the most canopy to lose because that’s what owls need and that’s why these areas were designated?

    “That finding led the study’s authors to call for a rejection of traditional conservation methods that preserve forests as-is, before the loss of all mature forests in the Sierras.”

    I don’t think this disproves the value of preserves unless it demonstrates that the likelihood that they will burn is high (even if areas outside of the preserves are managed to prevent fire to the preserves) and that owls can be conserved in “non-protected areas” only.

    • How I’d interpret the study is that you need to consciously manage to protect the specific structures of different owl habitat, including strategically placed PODs.

    • The article also doesn’t talk about how the CASPO rules deal with burned PACs. If a burned PAC is no longer functional, replacement acres will be designated. What happens when a fire burns through ALL the owl PACs, like in the Caldor Fire? Are there enough ‘suitable’ acres left? Remember, too, that northern goshawks also need the same nesting habitats as the owls. The ironic reality of this situation is that protected areas might end up being the finished thinning projects that were thinned-from-below.

        • Yosemite also shows us the impacts of humans on ‘protected’ landscapes. Not all of the many annual wildfires in Yosemite are ‘natural’ ignitions. The Rim and A-Rock Fires were human-caused, while the Meadow Fire was an escaped prescribed burn. We need to look at Yosemite with an objective eye, but I don’t support commercial timber sales.

          In the National Forests in the Sierra Nevada, it is not the thinning projects that have failed. It is the lack of pace and scale. We should be measuring resilience within project areas, instead of expecting projects to “prevent wildfires”. Both extremes point at wildfire acres, using the numbers to support their causes. It is also important to know that part of “agenda-based science” is to not study something that is likely to go against your partisan narrative.

  4. From a carbon storage perspective, I wonder how the carbon equation works out once the carbon released to build roads, run equipment, and burn small fuels is considered?

    • This is a very flawed argument. Unless you *only* walk to your grocery store or hardware store or (insert here) store, which only carries locally made products, you have a carbon footprint. Likely a large one.
      To try to make timber harvesting, for profit or for restoration, the evil bad guy based on flawed (and they are all flawed, as they all have assumptions) carbon calculations, implies that what *you* do is ok, but people don’t deserve to have 2×4’s or houses that are affordable or wood products.
      Is there a carbon cost to harvesting? Yes.
      How does it compare to the tens or hundreds of thousands, or millions, of individuals who contribute to carbon inputs via everything else in their life? While harvesting timber is bad b/c carbon?

      • Well, first of all, it isn’t an argument, rather it is a question. And, I’m speaking specifically to the suggestion made in the linked paper about going into protected areas -rather than areas designated for commercial timber production – to thin and do prescribed burns, while leaving the large trees, in order to improve the resiliency of these areas against insects, diseases, drought, and fire. While I agree that the suggestion may indeed increase resiliency, the paper also suggests it would increase carbon storage. In another paper linked and discussed on this forum, it found only a small percentage of the carbon stored in trees goes up in smoke during a fire. So, I think the question is legitimate and it has nothing to do with your point, which focuses more on human consumption rather than carbon storage in reserved forests.

        • In re-burns, which are quite common in the Sierra Nevada, we can be assured much of the remaining carbon will be vaporized. We’ve already seen that in Yosemite’s A-Rock and Meadow Fires. Some parts of the Sierra Nevada see more than 10 fires per century, according to tree core samples.

          • Thanks Larry, that point refers to my question and is a good point. Are you familiar with any studies on re-burns in what were protected areas and their fuel consumption? I don’t say this to challenge your point, but rather in the interest to understand the dynamics.

            • Yosemite provides us with examples of what re-burns bring, as well as showing the intensity of fires that burn where old growth stood, just 33 years ago. Judging from an actual site visit, I saw that even the native brush species were having trouble surviving, due to soils damage. Hey, even the fire-adapted knobcone pines didn’t come back. https://www.google.com/maps/@37.7124137,-119.74932,1163m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

              I find it…. ‘interesting’… that no one has formally studied this situation, which can be applied to much of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a perfect study area, within Yosemite National Park.

        • Are you referring to this paper?

          If so, it’s methods and massive assumptions (which are not based in any practical or proven science) are largely considered a joke. Another piece of agenda driven pseudo science for donations.

          The prevailing argument about carbon storage in forests, ignoring human consumption, is folly. Ever seen a gravel pit or any other kind of non-renewable mineral resource extraction? It is a one time endeavor, never to return in human time scales.

          • A, we aren’t even in the same room. We are talking about two very different topics. I’m very aware of human consumption. Everything we use comes from somewhere – if you don’t grow it, you dig it. No arguments on this point.

        • Mike, I think that the endpoint is “not burning up”. Again, dead trees stop sequestering although not storing. So it’s better for carbon for trees to stay alive so they can do both, sequester and store. So if you start today with one tree it has x storage and y added per year. If it dies, you are stuck with x at that point in time and no more y. If it burns up you have lost all or part of the storage, depending on your assumptions. This is a kind of mechanistic and simple view.

          What some scientists have found in some dry areas say is that trees are more likely to stay alive with thinning and prescribed fire. So they won’t die and will both sequester and store. Which would be better for carbon in the long run.

          That being said, how do people calculate how much carbon goes up in smoke during a fire.? I looked at the California CARB approach and here is what they said p. 3. It appears that a model was used.. so clearly people can disagree.

          “CARB staff developed estimates of GHG emissions from wildfires and prescribed fires that occurred throughout the State in 2000–2019. Estimates were generated using the First Order Fire Effects Model (FOFEM), a computer application developed by the U.S. Forest Service to estimate vegetation fuel consumption, heat output, soil heating, tree mortality, and emissions of particles and gases by wildfires and prescribed fires
          [4]. Users prescribe model inputs according to vegetation types and their associated fuel loadings, fuel configuration (natural versus altered, in piles or post-harvest timber slash residues), and pre-fire fuel conditions (fuel loading and moisture content). The analysis in this report uses the latest version of FOFEM, Version 6.7, which was released in March of 2020.
          Fire emission modeling requires an array of input data about fire locations, extent, timing, fuels and fuel conditions. Inputs to FOFEM include:
          • Fuel loading (tons/acre) information derived by staff from geographic information systems (GIS)-based wildfire “footprints” (perimeters) and
          prescribed fire project boundaries published by CAL FIRE [5];
          • GIS-based vegetation fuel maps produced by the LANDFIRE Fuel
          Characterization Classification System (FCCS) [6, 7] as augmented for CARB by
          the University of California – Berkeley (UC Berkeley) [8]; and
          • GIS-based fuel moisture maps from the Wildland Fire Assessment System
          (WFAS) [9] and the University of Idaho climatology lab [10, 11].”

  5. What does it mean when someone says “30% of forests were killed”? Does that mean 30% of trees in some stands? or complete mortality across 30% of the landscape? or something else?

    When the FS does a thinning that removes 50-80% of stems in a stand, does that kill the forest?


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