With a little help from the Legislature, family forest landowners can help reduce wildfire

By Tom Martin, Special to CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s wildfire plan is aimed at fire victims and energy providers, and addressing wildfire safety and accountability. But work remains to support the families and individuals who own and care for half the forests most at risk for wildfire.

Two hundred miles north of the Capitol, my friend Gary Hendrix used to conduct prescribed burns to manage the buildup of undergrowth on his family’s Shasta County land. 

The process helped reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire on his and his neighbors’ land. Gary has technical expertise in forest management but many private forest landowners in California do not. Now conditions in the state are so dry that these prescribed burns could spread out of control, largely taking this option off the table.

In California and Oregon, private and family landowners own more land at the highest risk of wildfire than the federal government

Climate change, drought, and insect infestation have fundamentally altered what private forest owners face. 

These family forest owners have a deep love for their forests and a strong sense of duty to responsibly steward the land—which is becoming increasingly difficult as the planet warms. They want to be good citizens—and know what is at stake for them and their communities. 

But the new reality is clear: families cannot take the action required to reduce wildfire risk without assistance.

One proven technique for reducing fire risk is to thin forests by removing the tinder that can feed catastrophic wildfires.

Hand crews—with trucks and heavy equipment—can thin a single acre of dense forest for around $2,500. Whether landowners own 10, 50 or 1,000 acres, those costs are out of reach. 

Much of the debris produced by these efforts is classified as “non-merchantable material,” so market opportunities to recoup costs are scarce. 

Forest landowners would be open to selling timber to offset the costs of forest management, but market forces make that difficult today. Most of California’s mills already have excess supply from recent wildfires.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has worked with organizations such as the American Forest Foundation to develop new programs helping Gary and landowners like him access markets that defray these costs with private sector dollars. 

For example, the My Sierra Woods program connects family forest owners to resources needed to thin property and chip debris, which is then hauled away and put to good use in bioenergy projects part of California’s renewable energy infrastructure. 

To reduce the costs to the landowner and ensure the material can be removed, the program reimburses these forest owners for a portion of their out-of-pocket expenses.

But this type of project is only a start. Landowners need more partners, more resources and greater access to those with technical capabilities to do this work. 

Only private and public investments can fully offset the growing costs of forest management today. We need leaders to bring more human resources to the land to ensure fire risk reduction is effective and performed in a manner that improves the overall condition of the forest. Landowners need a significant reduction in paperwork, and applications, so they can move quickly.

Federal, state, tribal, and industrial lands are important—but much of the highest wildfire risk exists on a patchwork of landownership reliant on the action of families and individuals.

Collaboration around fuel reduction and thinning will make an enormous difference in practicing sustainable forest management. The thinning of debris must be a coordinated process among all forest ownership types. 

Lawmakers this summer acted with urgency. At the American Forest Foundation, we routinely feel that same urgency when working with family forest landowners to reduce risk and ensure healthy, more resilient forests. Those families are too often overlooked. 

We cannot win our collective fight against wildfires if we do not empower Gary and other family forest owners with the resources needed to take action. And we look forward to the day when our forest conditions let us return prescribed fire safely across the region to increase our forest vitality.

 —

Tom Martin is president and chief executive officer of the American Forest Foundation, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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