August 27, 2007

California wildlife threatened by mega fires

The Forest Foundation has made a field guide available to help forest enthusiasts appreciate and identify the variety of wildlife that populate various geographical portions of California's 15 million acres of private forestlands. The guide categorizes the wildlife by forest type - generally the age and type of vegetation - with geographic state maps that display where these species are located.

There is also an identification guide that depicts the prevalent types of trees that grow on California forestlands. Not only are the shape profiles provided, but also the leaf and needle designs.

In the first ten pages of the guide are several essays by an esteemed slate of forestry experts. Many point out the severe risks to wildlife and wildlife diversity that are posed by the poor health of our forests. The main causes? Excessive forest tree density (four to ten times historic norms) leading to wildfires and bug infestations. Here are some excerpts:

A Guide to California's Wildlife on Private Forestlands

Enhancing Biodiversity by John Stuart Ph.D

On California’s private forestland, foresters strive to create a mosaic of forest types to support diverse wildlife – just like patches of old and young, dense and open forests that historically covered the West were shaped by seasonal lightning fires and fires set by Native Americans. Harvesting and replanting are carefully planned because everybody needs a home.

California's Historic Forests and Wildlife by Thomas Bonnicksen, Ph.D
Overcrowded forests can fuel catastrophic wildfires and have detrimental effects on wildlife. The plants and animals that need sunny openings get crowded out and are disappearing. Streams are drying up as thickets of trees use all the water. Insect infestation and tree mortality are reaching epic proportions. Catastrophic fire can alter wildlife habitat for centuries.

Habitat in Decline by George Gruell
Wildlife habitat in unmanaged forest ecosystems is collapsing across the West. Overly dense forests block sunlight and intercept precipitation that once reached the forest floor. That begins the collapse. Herbaceous plants and flowering shrubs, denied moisture, sunlight and nutrients, die out and get replaced by litter and coniferous debris. When you lose the grasses and shrubs, you lose critical habitat and wildlife populations suffer. The cumulative effect of hands-off forest management has been less biodiversity and more catastrophic fire. We must actively manage the landscape if we are to sustain the biodiversity we claim to cherish.

Forestry Education Must Prevail by Douglas Pitrio
Some people equate caring for forests with leaving them alone. Doing so ignores the dangerous fuel accumulations that now plague our forests and fails to consider that today’s overgrown forest conditions negatively affect biodiversity. It also dooms California to a cycle of severe fires, deadly mudslides, and devastated communities.

There is no doubt that many of California’s public forests are overcrowded, nor that overcrowding can lead to horrific forest health and fire hazards. Conditions similar to those in Southern California’s forests before they succumbed to beetles and flames in 2003 are increasingly appearing throughout the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe Basin.

Leaving forests alone doesn’t work. Southern California’s firestorm makes clear what professional foresters have known for years: forests need management to be safe and productive.

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