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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August 24, 2007

California's Zaca Fire and Global Warming

Click to enlarge

Here's a question I haven't seen in the press...

What is the impact of public forest wildfires on global warming?

I have seen plenty of inferences that global warming is contributing to the cause of wildfire spread and ferocity but virtually nothing on how the burst of fire temperatures, soot, ash, carbon monoxide, and other toxic emissions impact global warming. No journalists make the connection between the rash of horrific megafires of the last two decades and the precipitous rise in carbon emissions during that same time.

U.S. Senator Pete Domenici recently testified...

When the Hayman Fire burned in Colorado in 2002, NASA scientists estimated that the fire was emitting more carbon dioxide in one day than all the vehicles in the United States emitted in a week.

That fire lasted over a month. The Spring 2007 megafire in Georgia and Northern Florida (the biggest in Georgia history) lasted even longer. The size, length, and ferocity of these fires is not normal - at least not prior to 1980.

Most animal deaths during and after a wildfire are caused by asphyxiation, not the flames themselves. In a sense, the "canary warning" to humans has been given. Now we must act to save not only forest wildlife, but all animals including humans who are in the path of wildfire plumes.

As the huge Zaca fire 9 miles north of bucolic Santa Barbara, California nears completion of its second month of devastation, it is time to ask some environmental questions:

Are we reaping the result of failure to adequately harvest excess forest fuel, reforest past forest acreage, and manage public forests as efficiently as private forests are managed?

Are public perceptions, litigation, and policies designed to protect wildlife diversity having the opposite effect? Stated another way, do efforts to preserve forests actually spell their doom and destroy the habitats of their occupants?

Can the federal and state governments ever be expected to allocate sufficient taxpayer funds to adequately manage the vast public forests under their stewardship?

Here are the latest facts on the Zaca Fire.

Basic Information
Incident Type: Wildland Fire
Cause: Human Caused
Date of Origin: 07/04/2007 at 1053 hrs.
Location: 9 miles north of Santa Barbara

Current Situation
Total Personnel: 2,545
Size: 235,601 acres (1/3 the size of Rhode Island)
Percent Contained: 83%
Estimated Containment Date: 09/07/2007 at hrs.
Fuels Involved: Heavy brush containing a high dead component. Some conifer at higher elevations. Live fuel moistures are at 49% which is well below critical levels. A continuous fuel bed lies ahead of the fire.

Growth Potential: Extreme.
Terrain Difficulty: Extreme.

I toured California in a motor home between Santa Barbara and Yosemite August 9th through 17. Here are some photos I took in Yosemite August 15th (click to enlarge)...

As I was travelling south August 17th on the 99 FWY near Bakersfield, we caught sight of the smoky plume of the Zaca fire which blotted out the sun at 5pm - actual darkness - (click to enlarge)...

This California roadtrip experience left an indelible impression - not the one I was expecting.

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August 20, 2007

Restoration Forestry and 5 Myths about Wildfires

While conducting some research on the catastrophic "megafires" that have been plaguing the U.S. in recent years and their relationship with forest tree density, I ran across a terrific website that offers free downloadable and printable educational materials appropriate for all ages. It is operated by "The Forest Foundation which was created in 1994 to inform the public, specifically Californians, about the relationship between the environment and human needs."

The Forest Foundation is elevating key points in the forest management debate and building valuable relationships with government officials, educators, and community leaders. We bring forest science to today's students and tomorrow's leaders, and develop on-the-ground solutions to improve forest health throughout the state.

Education must be the agent of change that saves California's forests. More than 90 percent of Californians now live in urban settings, meaning most kids growing up here have little or no experience in the state's forests, rangelands, or farms. The next generation will be essentially disconnected from the natural resources they take for granted every day.

One of the concepts that their site successfully gets across is the counterproductive results of modern fire-suppression and restricted timber harvesting. Our forests are much denser than they were natively. Around Lake Tahoe - which has recently suffered a wildfire that destroyed over 250 homes - the forests are four times denser than they were 150 years ago. Beetle infestations from forest density further endangers tree health, wildlife diversity, and provides even more fuel for wildfires.

Timber harvesting on California's public lands is down about 90% since 1990. Yet demand for timber is up and will continue to rise with population increases. I believe it is hypocritical for Californians to enact "tree-hugger" policies that necessitate outsourcing wood harvesting and processing outside the state - particularly since it is counter-productive to the proper stewardship of our public forests. Our forests have become time-bombs in our midst that will cloud our skies with decades worth of particulate matter and greenhouse gases as they burn, rot, and decay.

Here are two sections from a well-researched, downloadable brochure that details techniques for solving the wildfire crisis through restoration forestry.

Protecting Communities and Saving Forests
by Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D

What To Do with the Excess Fuel

There is no doubt that California’s forests are plagued with excess fuels. What remains to be seen is how those fuels are dealt with. We could simply leave it there and watch it burn, we could remove some of it in prescribed burns or we can harvest it and put it to good use.

Clean energy
California’s ongoing energy crunch, goals of deriving more energy from renewable sources, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020 highlight another possible use for excess forest growth: biomass energy.

Biomass energy is produced by burning organic material and converting the heat to electricity or even converting the biomass to fuel for cars. Because trees can be replanted, forest biomass represents a largely untapped source of renewable energy.

Utilizing biomass energy has several advantages, especially when seen in the context of global climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the wildfire threat. Burning fossil fuels to generate energy releases tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Burning biomass to produce energy does not. In fact, biomass energy has a “net zero” carbon impact on the atmosphere.

The more energy we derive from renewable sources like biomass, the less need we have to burn fossil fuels that spew greenhouse gases into the air. Furthermore, the more excess fuels we burn to generate electricity, the less we have to watch burn in catastrophic wildfires.

5 Myths about Forests and Wildfires

It is important to distinguish between fact and fiction regarding certain myths that may advance agendas but block ecologically sound forest management. Those myths include:

Myth #1: We have to live with catastrophic wildfire. No, we don’t. Managing our forests to reduce fuel loads can make them safe again. Catastrophic wildfire was not a frequent occurrence in California’s historic forests; it need not be frequent today.

Myth #2: Fire is natural and good. There is a world of difference between the low-intensity fires that shaped California’s landscape for thousands of years and the mega-fires that now devastate thousands of acres at a time. Low-level fires cleared the forest floor of debris and regenerated forests. But we have suppressed natural fire for more than 100 years. Wildfires can now feast on unnatural fuel loads, decimate wildlife, sterilize soils and erase forests from the landscape for centuries.

Myth #3: Today’s forests are natural forests. Research and photographic evidence show that California’s modern forests are vastly different from historic forests. Today’s forests are far thicker than their historic predecessors, densely packed with up to 10 times as many trees. Forests have become dangerously overgrown, much to the detriment of wildlife and biodiversity.

Myth #4: Escalating firefighting costs are inevitable. It’s true that average firefighting costs have increased by more than $100 million per year since the early 1990s, but the trend does not have to continue. Spending a fraction of what we spend on fighting fires to manage forests so there are fewer dangerous fires in the first place could save taxpayers millions.

Myth #5: Commercial logging denudes hillsides and kills wildlife. Private forestland owners have proven that modern forest management can provide habitat for diverse wildlife and sustain forests for generations. The most productive forestland in California is privately owned, and research confirms that wildlife and fisheries from salmon and owls to deer and songbirds flourish on managed lands.

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August 19, 2007

An educational "Hidden Treasure" on forest stewardship

The National Association of Conservation Districts has announced the renewed availability of printed copies of the educational comic book "The Hidden Treasure: Forests and Woody Biomass."

It highlights the core principles behind current USDA Forest Service and USDI efforts to educate citizens of all ages of the correct relationship between forest density, wildfires, tree health, and emerging woody biomass to energy. It presents "messages that are closely tied to the goals and objectives of the Forest Service's National Fire Plan."

Here is a personal note from Fred Deneke, forestry expert for the 25x'25 Steering Committee:

Please let your field and USDA counterparts know that the NACD woody biomass comic "The Hidden Treasure" is now available for viewing and ordering on the NACD website:

We printed 300,000 copies thanks to the support of Dennis Eagen and Charlie O'Brien of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and further donations from some of their forestry related member companies.

One of the first orders that came in today was from the Riverside RCD in California for 4,000 copies. At that rate the 300,000 won't last long so best get your orders in early!

Here is how the NACD describes their useful educational resource...

Hidden Treasure Comic Book

Money may not grow on trees, but heat, electricity, liquid fuel, and even plastics do. Children can learn how through The Hidden Treasure, an educational comic book from NACD. This teaching tool shows young people and families how woody biomass from our nation's woodlands can provide a wealth of products and energy resources.

The Hidden Treasure helps children understand the real worth of our valuable forest resources, so their treasure can be fully revealed. The Hidden Treasure provides an engaging and educational story for children in late elementary to middle school to help them understand that forest renewal improves the health of forests and provides biomass for many productive uses and how wood biomass will play an important role in our nation's future, including energy security through the production of biofuels, biochemicals, and other sources of energy.

If you would like to preview or print a copy of The Hidden Treasure, click on one of the links below.

High resolution: The Hidden Treasure(6.08 MB)
Low resolution: The Hidden Treasure (1.46 MB)

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