Report: Forest Mismanagement Has Brought ‘Unprecedented Environmental Catastrophe’ To California

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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A California independent oversight committee is recommending that the state revamp its forest management strategies in order to prevent massive fires like those that plagued the state in 2017.

The Little Hoover Commission (LHC) released a report Monday that found a more proactive approach to forest management, like using practices such as thinning and controlled burns, could lessen the impact of wildfires on the environment and the budget.

“A century of mismanaging Sierra Nevada forests has brought an unprecedented environmental catastrophe that impacts all Californians and with it, a rare opportunity for transformational culture change in forest management practices,” LHC Chairman Pedro Nava wrote in a letter to California’s governor and legislature.

Currently, forest management in California is largely nonexistent, aside from reacting to disasters such as wildfires. The lack of active management and suppression of natural managing factors like wildfires has caused a forest ecosystem that is, in fact, markedly less natural than centuries ago when the human imprint in California was much smaller.

“Forests largely restored to the less crowded natural conditions of centuries ago — through greater use of prescribed burning to replace unilateral policies of fire suppression and mechanical thinning to remove buildup of forest fuels — also will improve wildlife habitat, enhance environmental quality and add to the resilience of mountain landscapes amidst the uncertainties of climate change,” Nava’s letter said.

Forests throughout the Sierra Nevada mountain range more than four times thicker than what a normal, healthy forest would look like. Areas where 40 to 90 trees can share one acre are overcrowded with 100 to 400 trees, The Sacramento Bee reports.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that roughly 129 million dead trees were scattered throughout California forests in December, an increase of about 27 million since November 2016. In a little more than a year, those millions of trees were killed by drought and bark beetles, tree-borrowing insects that borrow into the bark to feed and eventually kill their host tree.

Those millions of dead trees create ready kindling for any spark that lands on them. The additional dead fuel, as well as overgrown forests, can turn relatively tame wildfires into infernos. Using a controlled burn to clear forests costs about a quarter of the money spent to fight a wildfire, The Sacramento Bee reports.

October saw the single deadliest week of wildfires in California’s history when blazes destroyed 9,000 structures and killed 44 people. In December and January, the Thomas Fire grew to be the biggest in state history, torching more than 280,000 and priming the landscape for mudslides that killed at least 21.

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