California forests give us clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, lumber and recreation. But they are threatened by a maelstrom of environmental drivers of change, which have intensified across four years of drought. Consider just one indicator of forest health: In its most recent survey (May), the US Forest service said more than 12 million trees in California were dead. A scientist using new technology to measure drought stress said this week to the number may soar to 120 million — one-fifth of the state's forests.
We need a new vision for managing our wildlands with policies based on science and acting in the interest of the greatest public good. Horrific recent events should inspire reform of not only wildfire management, but also of our overall forest-health stewardship and governance.
The incentives -- and opportunities -- for real progress have never been greater. Federal agencies (which manage 19 million acres, or 57 percent, of California forests) have a new National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Plan. The U.S. Forest Service is writing nearly 150 new fire plans. The top officials of the departments of Interior and Agriculture and of the White House Office of Management and Budget recently asked Congress to adequately fund the soaring costs of wildfire suppression (an estimated half of the USFS budget in 2015), so that they can stop borrowing from agency budgets for fire prevention, forest research and recreation.
Some of the most urgent questions in California forest management are:
The reality is that we have little choice; the future forests of California will look very different in 100 years than they look now. They look very different now than they did 100 years ago. We have the unfortunate tendency to use personal experience to set our baseline of expectations. We need to let go of our notions of what a “good” forest looks like and embrace this new century of change. We need to work with our public agencies to create a vision of what the future forest could look like. We need to recognize a diverse vision of that future forest. We need to create a different way of living with that future forest. We need to empower our forest managers to help achieve the future forest that allows our incredible diversity of species to survive this century of change.
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