California forests hold millions of dead trees. With continued dry conditions and wildfires burning hotter and becoming more destructive, forestry leaders say reducing the fuel load in national forests is critical. The U.S. Forest Service announced this year’s timber harvest will be the largest in 20 years.
June 13, 2018 - By Christine Souza - California's national forests face another dry year, continued tree mortality and high potential for more wildfires, so people in the timber business welcomed a recent announcement by the U.S. Forest Service that the agency expects the 2018 timber harvest to be the largest in 20 years.
Steve Brink, vice president of public resources for the California Forestry Association, said the additional harvest would benefit the timber sector, fuels reduction and local economies.
"It appears that the timber target by the Forest Service this year is the highest it has been in two decades," Brink said. "That's going in the right direction, there's no doubt about it."
In 1998, he said, the sold volume was 2.95 billion board-feet, nationwide. This year's target is 3.4 billion board-feet, the highest since then.
Santa Cruz County forester David Van Lennep, chairman of the California Farm Bureau Federation Forestry, Fish and Wildlife and Public Lands Committee, said the Forest Service decision to increase its cut of timber would not directly affect coastal timber operations such as his. But for many timber operators and small businesses in the Sierra Nevada, he said, "the Forest Service's commitment to stepping up harvest, fuel treatment and overall management on federal lands is a positive thing."
"The Forest Service increasing their cut is an increase in work that could be bid on, such as log-hauling jobs for truck drivers and added raw product for sawmills. It could have a profound impact in available jobs, timber to saw and related work that goes along with the industry," Van Lennep said.
Last year, the USFS Pacific Southwest Region 5 sold 250 million board-feet. This year that is expected to increase to 370 million board-feet, Brink said. He called that good news, because it increases the wood supply and means more acres of fuels reduction.
With continued dry conditions and California wildfires burning hotter and becoming more destructive, forestry leaders said reducing the fuel load in the national forests is critical.
"A lot of the federal lands have been neglected and are in a condition of very hazardous fire conditions," Van Lennep said. "With millions of dead trees, that is a consistent fire hazard at a catastrophic level throughout the state."
Even with a ramped-up pace of fuels-reduction projects, Brink said, to return millions of acres of forestland to a resilient condition of 20 to 100 trees per acre will be a challenge.
"As our forests get denser, in the summer those fires are going to be very intense. The forest is not static; it is still growing live trees and getting denser," he said.
During the drought of 2011-16, the Forest Service announced that 66 million trees—mostly pine species—died in the southern Sierra due to bark beetle infestations, drought, wildfire and climate change.
Brink said although the epidemic has subsided to some extent, the destructive beetles remain active.
"While 2017 brought record precipitation in many areas, over 100 million trees killed or weakened by previous drought and bark beetles remain a falling hazard," Brink said. "If we have a dry summer, and the trees get water stressed again, in large part because there are too many trees per acre on the national forest, then the beetles can be successful."
Beetle treatments are often used in residential areas rather than in national forests, but last week, Mendocino National Forest officials announced they will implement a pheromone treatment project to help repel mountain pine beetles.
Calaveras County forester Steve Kafka said a great deal of Forest Service ground needs to be treated due to tree deaths caused by the beetles.
"If the Forest Service was doing more, the timber stands would be in better shape and could be more resilient to the bug effects," Kafka said.
Erin Huston, CFBF federal policy consultant, said the U.S. Senate is marking up its version of the 2018 Farm Bill this week, including a forestry title that addresses programs to help with conservation and combat forest threats such as invasive species and wildfire. The House version of the farm bill is due for a second vote later this month.
In California, Brink said, "We are seeing a significant increase in productivity on the national forest because of the 2014 Farm Bill, with the 3,000-acre categorical exclusion and the use of designation by prescription rather than marking trees with tree-marking paint."
The House version of the new farm bill, Brink said, would broaden the wildfire-related categorical exclusions, including fire salvage, from the National Environmental Policy Act from 3,000 acres to 6,000 acres.
"Being able to do categorical exclusions in 90 days or less versus in a year or so, the Forest Service's overall preparation costs have gone down, so that frees up appropriated dollars for more projects," Brink said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Reprinted with permission: California Farm Bureau Federation