Working towards a healthier forest

Working towards a healthier forest

Sirra Nevada agencies seek to mitigate rising tree mortality issues

Over the past few years, large swaths of the Sierra Nevada’s evergreen western flank have turned a sickly red-brown. An estimated 66 million trees dying since 2010. Some 26 million of those have perished in the last year alone as forests fall victim to prolonged drought, overcrowding and beetle attacks. Likewise, the scale and intensity of wildfires across the state continue to grow, burning more than a half million acres in 2016 and eating up larger and larger portions of budgets for land managers such as the U.S. Forest Service and CAL FIRE. Even with local, state and federal government intervention —Sen. Dianne Feinstein requested $38 million for the Forest Service in September to address the problem, while former California Governor Jerry Brown formed the Tree Mortality Task Force a year earlier—the path forward isn’t clear. With suggestions ranging from the wholesale logging of all dead trees to leaving nature alone to work itself out. [caption id="" align="alignright" width="380"] Photo by Sylas Wrig[/caption]

Hope in the horizon

However, there is hope. In a small corner of the Sierra Nevadas, an unlikely combination of interested parties has quietly worked on the problem for over a decade. Located just north of Truckee, the 8,100-acre Sagehen Experimental Forest serves as a living laboratory for forest management, and offers one potential answer to the growing problems the Sierra Nevadas and other Western forests face. “We wanted to create a science-based approach to help land managers,” says Jeff Brown, station director at the UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station. “In 2005, when we were re-designated as an experimental forest, we decided to be different than all the others. We wanted to understand how the forest works. We wanted to return to as naturally functioning a place as possible. It was a lofty goal.” [caption id="" align="alignright" width="416"] Courtesy of Faerthen Felix/UC-Berkely and Sagehen Creek Field Statiom[/caption]

Creating a multifaceted approach

The project first began by gathering together a range of experts and stakeholders. “We brought everybody from Sierra Pacific Industries [the main timber company in the region] to Sierra Forest Legacy, who would typically litigate these types of projects, and everybody in between, to the table and worked through it,” Brown says. “When something contentious would come up, we would form a group and hash it out.” Scientists worked to gather as much data as possible about current conditions in the experimental forests, tagging 30,000 trees and placing cameras and other scientific monitoring equipment, says Amy Horne. Horne has a PhD in forestry and is among the experts working on the Sagehen Experimental Forest. Compared to more standard forest management practices—uniform thinning of trees regardless of terrain, aspect or other local conditions—the plan at Sagehen entails a mosaic pattern on the landscape with dense patches and thinned openings, Brown says. “Looking at the Sagehen basin as a whole, you need to manage for wildlife, for ecology, for soil issues, for the research station and its researchers—a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” says Michael Cartmill, vegetation management officer with the U.S. Forest Service.
Courtesy of Faerthen Felix/UC, Berkley and Sagehen Creek Field Station

Looking to the future

“I think all the pieces are in place for this to happen in the next couple years,” Brown says. “If it doesn’t happen now, though, it’s a moot point.” Cartmill says other Forest Service districts have expressed interest in the work at Sagehen, which has recently expanded to include prescribed burning. At Lake Tahoe, the West Shore Collaborative is bringing a similarly wide range of stakeholders to the table for an 80,000-acre project following Sagehen’s model, Brown says. “We have a lot of momentum now. We’ve been talking to the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit for six years now about the West Shore, and it’s ready to happen.” Brown says. Saving the West is another project coming out of Sagehen’s model, Brown says. Helmed by artists Newton and Helen Harrison through the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure at UC Santa Cruz, the project takes the collaborative approach used at Sagehen one step further, bringing in artists to help explain both the science at work and the importance of what’s at stake to the greater public. The Harrisons, considered leading pioneers in the eco-art movement, seek to bring these issues to a larger stage, Brown adds. “They said, ‘This is a huge issue effecting the whole United States—we need to make this a big deal,’” Brown says. “The idea is to come up with a thoughtful, holistic forest management as the norm.” To learn more about the work at Sagehen and upcoming projects like Save the West, go to Greyson Howard is a Truckee-based writer. 

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