Finally, a focus on saving the great forests of the Sierra. Is it too late?

Firefighter A.J. Tevis watched flames of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in 2013. The fire released the carbon dioxide equivalent of what 2.3 million cars spew in a year, a recent report says.
Firefighter A.J. Tevis watched flames of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in 2013. The fire released the carbon dioxide equivalent of what 2.3 million cars spew in a year, a recent report says. AP

We Californians take for granted the great forests of the Sierra Nevada. It is where we ski and hike, and breathe fresh air, and it’s the primary source of our water.

It’s all at risk. Drought and bark beetle infestation are the proximate cause of death of more than 100 million trees in California since 2010. But the forests were weakened by climate change, combined with mismanagement that includes well-intentioned wildfire prevention efforts and logging in past decades of old-growth trees, which are most resistant to fire and disease.

“There is an urgent need to reform policy and management to ensure that Californians continue to benefit from these forests for generations to come,” a new Public Policy Institute of California report says.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the Sierra two years ago, citing the massive die-off of trees. In the final days of this legislative session, legislators authorized a statewide vote in 2018 on a $4 billion parks and water bond that includes $142 million-plus to begin restoring forests to some semblance of what they once were.

More immediately, Brown and the Legislature approved another $225 million in cap-and-trade revenue, reserved for the fight against climate change, for forests. That underscored one of California’s inconvenient truths. Like refineries, diesel engines and cars powered by internal combustion, burning and decaying forests spew greenhouse gases.

In April, the Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force reported that the 2013 Rim Fire at Yosemite emitted 12.06 million tons of carbon dioxide, three times more than all the greenhouse gas reductions achieved that year in all other sectors in California. Worse, the detritus decomposing in the burn area will unleash four times that amount of greenhouse gas in coming decades.

In much of the 15 million acres of mountains from Kern to Siskiyou counties, forests are choking with 400 sickly trees per acre, four times the number in healthy forests. Tools to heal the forests are at hand, but forest management is fraught.

The Public Policy Institute report cited the California spotted owl. The species requires dense forest for nesting, but dense forests are subject to massive fire and disease. Without intervention, nearly all the owl habitat could burn in the coming 75 years.

Some environmentalists oppose logging, while some conservative politicians advocate unraveling environmental restrictions to allow for far more logging. Neither extreme is helpful. Flexibility is needed. The Clean Air Act could, for example, allow for the use of prescribed fires.

Reducing forest density could have the side benefit of increasing run-off by as much as 9 percent, filling streams and rivers for the good of fisheries and for residential, agriculture and industrial use, the PPIC report says.

The report says the cost of wise forest management might not be astronomical. In time, it might pay for itself, assuming mills are retooled or built to accommodate smaller and mid-size timber. Such mills could provide jobs in parts of the state where unemployment is chronically high.

Clearly, the current math makes no sense. The Public Policy Institute notes that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service spend $100 million a year on forest management, and $2 billion a year fighting wildfires. Money used to fight fires is money not spent on stewardship.

Complicating it all, tax money flows to where the votes are. Most legislators represent cities, so it’s little surprise that most of the proposed $4 billion parks and water bond headed for the November 2018 ballot would be spent in Southern California.

Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León both are from L.A. It’s a testament to them, Brown and other legislators who voted for the bond authored by de León that any money is heading to the mountains. Most legislators who represent the mountains are Republicans who adhere to their party’s orthodoxy by refusing to vote for bond spending.

“The biggest hurdle is political,” California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird told an editorial board member. “The Sierra is such a big part of the state, but it is sparsely inhabited and it doesn’t have the kind of clout the urban areas have.”

During his days in the Legislature, Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat, and Tim Leslie, a former Republican legislator from the Sierra, authored legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 that created the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

Leslie persuaded a few Republicans to vote for the measure. But three notable legislators from the Class of 2004 who voted against creating the conservancy retain clout today, though they’ve moved to Congress: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Rep. Doug LaMalfa of Richvale, and Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove.

McClintock, who represents much of the Sierra, is unable or unwilling to find common ground, and instead sticks to his lonely position that the solution is to greatly reduce regulation and log more aggressively. Such rigidity hinders wise management.

Our re-engineered state of 40 million people faces many problems. The water delivery system is oversubscribed and antiquated. Billions of dollars should be spent to reinforce California against floods.

But there is cause for optimism. Laird last month announced the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative with other top officials, and some significant environmental groups are joining longtime advocates to focus on Sierra restoration. There is some support in Congress for wiser forest management.

And now comes an infusion of state money, not to be taken for granted, and none too soon.