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This stand in Genesee Valley was mechanically harvested to reduce ladder fuels and stand density to mitigate potential fire behavior and bark beetle outbreaks. This restored forest structure helped facilitate beneficial fire effects in the Dixie fire, improve forest resilience to drought and insect epidemics, while also providing sustainable forest products and local economic opportunities for natural resource-based communities. The sale of forest products makes this restoration and hazardous fuel mitigation possible. Photo by R. Tompkins.

Where We Stand:  Forest management needs to happen at much larger scales

As professionals working passionately to promote forest health and protect communities from wildfire, we are compelled to provide a response to the letter to the editor that was published July 10, 2023 that perpetuates misinformation*. In California, much of this misinformation relies on a small body of agenda-driven science that has been rebutted in many scientific journals (Jones et al. 2022, Jones et al. 2019., Levine et al 2019; Safford and Stevens 2017).  

There is no question that home hardening and defensible space are critical and necessary actions that residents should take to improve home survival in wildfire-prone areas (Quarles et al. 2010; Valachovic et al. 2021) The Plumas County Fire Safe Council has developed and offered programs to promote wildfire preparedness and improve defensible space for residents for 20 years; largely funded with local, private, state, and federal grants. In addition, the Fire Safe Council is working with Plumas County to establish a Home Hardening Incentive program.

However, your home is the last line of defense against a wildfire, and our rural communities are set within forests that will continue to burn. There were homes in Greenville that had impeccable defensible space and home hardening that did not survive extreme high severity fire events during the Dixie Fire. In fact, the 2019-2021 wildfires have resulted in large areas of high severity fire in Plumas County, now dominated by dead trees and resprouting shrubs, which local forest and fire ecologists have shown create novel fuel-loaded conditions that have the potential to reburn at high severity (Coppoletta et al. 2016).

Some wildfire misinformation originates from distilling complex wildfire science into generalizations that rarely apply everywhere. Oversimplification of complex wildfire causes and consequences […] muddies public perceptions of appropriate management. From Jones et al. 2022

The thrust of the misinformation about forest health relies on the concept that “forests that are denser actually burn slower as they hold moisture better and act as windbreaks.”  Dense conifer forests provide continuous fuels from the surface to the tree canopies, contributing to the potential for crown fire. Crown fires are the most difficult and dangerous to suppress, create embers that threaten homes, and – at the scale and severity of the wildfires that we are seeing in recent years – are likely to irreversibly convert forest into shrubland.

In the arid conifer forests of California, and particularly under the effects of a changing climate, wildfires are not the only forest disturbance that has the potential to impact our communities. In 2012-2016, over 129 million trees died in the central and southern Sierra Nevada range due to drought induced bark beetle epidemic which created conditions fueling mass fire behavior the 2021 Creek Fire (Stephens et al 2021). Last year on the Plumas National Forest alone, an estimated 1.6 million trees died  across approximately 110,000 acres of the remaining green forests outside of the wildfire footprints (USDA Forest Service Forest Health 2022). This should be concerning to us all.  In the past decade in the southern Sierra, drought, associated bark beetle epidemic, and wildfires have resulted in a 30% loss of forest cover across the region (Steel et al.2023)  We are on a similar track in the northern Sierra, over the past 5 years 16% of conifer forests have been lost due to wildfires (USDA Forest Service Ecology Program 2022). This is a conservative estimate as it does not include forest loss from past large fires on the Plumas NF like 2000 Storrie, the 2007 Antelope Complex or Moonlight Fires, or the 2012 Chips fire. Much of this forest loss has impacted mature forests whose large diameter trees are the backbone of these dry frequent fire forest ecosystems.

While these trends have been positively linked to climate change induced shifts, the root of these high severity wildfire and tree mortality events are forests that are far too dense due to over a century of fire exclusion. Historic forests, which are thought to be more resilient, were very open in general, had only 20-30 mature trees per acre, and burned far more frequently every 6-7 years – This resilient forest structure was maintained by centuries of repeated and frequent fire. Today’s forests are far denser, have more than 140 – even up to 500 trees per acre, and many haven’t burned for over a century (North et al 2022).  In most cases, simply re-introducing one underburn to these very dense forests will not be effective in creating forest structure resilient (Stephens et al 2021; Steel et al 2021).

Even more concerning is that time is running out: Recent climate research in the Sierra Nevada suggests that by 2040-2069, predicted climate may only be able to sustain 25% of the aboveground live biomass we see today (Bernal et al. 2022) – we will need both mechanical thinning and managed and prescribed fire to build resilience in these forests. There is no time to waste – these forests need to be restored.

Healthy, fire-resilient communities are dependent on healthy fire-resilient forests.  This provides the opportunity not only to mitigate wildfires before they enter communities, but also the opportunity to manage fires for long-term forest restoration and ecological benefit.  Again, local science has shown fuel reduction and forest restoration, including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, are not only effective (Low et al 2023), but also necessary tools to manage forests for ecological and community resilience (North et al. 2021).

As forest and fire ecologists, managers, and practitioners, we recognize that we need “all the tools in the toolbox” including the suite of treatment methods that Plumas National Forest proposes in the Community Protection – Central and West Slope Communities Project. If long term management that significantly incorporates the use of fire is to become a reality, these initial treatments are necessary to increase the opportunity for the use of beneficial fire across the landscape. Locally, the Plumas Underburn Cooperative was founded to engage the public in the safe and effective use of fire and increase support for agencies’ prescribed fire programs. As practitioners engaged in these efforts, we have encountered the level of complexity required to effectively use prescribed fire as a restoration tool. And, as practitioners who value the unique ecological benefits of prescribed fire, not one of us is of the opinion that it could be used exclusively for restoration.

It is well documented that there are unprecedented levels of high severity fire (Williams et al 2023) AND unprecedented levels of drought induced tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada which are contributing to landscape level forest loss across the range (Steel et al. 2023). It is also well documented that forest management at the state and federal level isn’t happening at large enough scale to meet forest restoration goals (Knight et al. 2021). The forest products and fire management industries are both critical partners in accomplishing these much needed restoration treatments.  Mechanical thinning – which includes tree harvesting (ie. Logging) facilitates restoration of forest structure AND reintroduction of fire. Prior to the 2020/2021 fire seasons, and certainly after them, there was more need for restoration by mechanical thinning than there was milling infrastructure to take the trees that need to be removed. Contemporary fuel reduction and forest restoration projects are not a boon for the logging industry, as has been suggested, because the industry has already been grappling with more material than it has had the capacity to process and market. We need growth in both forest products and prescribed and managed fire management to meet our forest restoration needs.

If anything, the Plumas Community Protection – Central and West Slope Communities Project doesn’t treat enough acres, but this represents a much needed first step.

Plumas County is known for its notable history in collaborative forestry and many of us who have dedicated our careers to forest conservation and management recognize the importance of working lands conservation.  Perhaps most disconcerting is that the threats to these forests that we used to write about in concept (e.g. mega-fire behavior, unprecedented drought and tree mortality, and loss of forest ecosystems) are now realities and the impacts of the past few years are clear.  Passive management strategies have been ineffective in protecting forests, and conserving forests in the 21st century will require active forest management at much larger scales – otherwise these forests may transition to other vegetation types and high severity fire regimes within our lifetimes.

We have inherited a landscape in crisis. The scale and scope of the response must be in-line with the magnitude of that crisis. The proposed Forest service project is not the ultimate solution, it is the emergency action required to give us opportunities for resilient, healthy forests and rural communities into the future.

We further encourage the public to provide comments regarding the Community Protection – Central and West Slope Communities Project.

Ryan Tompkins
Forester & Natural Resources Advisor, RPF No. 3108
University of California Cooperative Extension
Plumas, Sierra, and Lassen Counties

Hannah Hepner
Program Director, Plumas County Fire Safe Council

Michael Hall
District Manager, Feather River Resource Conservation District

Trina Cunningham
Mountain Maidu

*“Misinformation is incorrect or misleading evidence or discourse that counters best available science or expert consensus on a topic (Vraga and Bode 2020). Misinformation often includes partial truths, which are central to its successful spread. By obstructing solutions to […] environmental issues, misinformation deters effective policy responses to societal threats. Misinformation confuses people about the causes, contexts, and impacts of wildfire and substantially hinders society’s ability to proactively adapt to and plan for inevitable future fires.”  From Jones et al. 2022

Prior to treatment, the Butterfly Twain project had an average of 725 trees per acre, generally of small size. Historically, the site would have had well below 50 trees per acre, of larger fire-resistant trees. Photo by D. Kinateder

These photos are representative of the forest structure after the Butterfly Twain Fuels Reduction and Landscape Restoration project, which included hand thinning, mechanical treatment, and prescribed fire. Photos by D. Kinateder & H. Hepner
This map shows where the treatments in the Butterfly Twain project interacted with the Dixie Fire. The fire extinguished or moderated at the project boundary, in some cases without any suppression resources present. Many of the prescribed fire projects shown here were facilitated by mechanical thinning treatments that occurred in the past 20 years thanks to the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Pilot Project.
This photo highlights the difference in snowpack accumulation that reaches the ground in untreated (left) and treated (right) forests. In the treated area, snow is able to reach the surface where it melts more slowly and enters the Upper Feather River watershed, whereas in denser untreated areas snow is intercepted in the canopy and evaporates before it has the opportunity to enter the watershed (Hardage 2022, Krogh et al 2020). Photo by D. Kinateder

13 thoughts on “Where We Stand:  Forest management needs to happen at much larger scales

  • We cannot continue with the failed forest “management” practices of the past. It is heartbreaking to see black trunks standing above the scorched earth and the decimation of Greenville. I won’t live long enough to see how Plumas county recovers from the Dixie Fire, but I am certain it will never look like it did prior of 2021, nor should it.

    I support the adoption of the Community Protection – Central and West Slope Communities Project and urge those who love this area to support a toolbox of treatments supported by data, not an either-or approach based on philosophy or politics rather than science.

    • Thank you Ryan for providing thoughtful insight and clarity into the emergency state of our Forest and the options that are available.

      Thank you Plumas News for providing this important space. It is so valuable and will be missed dearly.

  • Thank you, Ryan, for a clear and important explanation of how to preserve forest health. We see virtual “thickets” of small trees clustered all over the Plumas National Forest, none of which are getting sufficient water and nutrients to stay healthy. Gardeners routinely cull their seedlings to insure those that remain grow to healthy maturity. We’ve had frustrating conversations with friends from the city who passionately believe forests should remain “natural.” What has been allowed to take place on the Plumas in the past decades is anything but “natural,” and our community has suffered for it. Do whatever needs to be done to create healthy forests and safe residential areas.

  • Good story with facts! Unlike the July 10th story made up by an eco-terroist who imagines 5G cell towers and microplastics that do not exist in this area.

  • Excellent Ryan! Thank you for clear, sensible information! Well done

  • We further encourage the public to provide comments regarding the Community Protection – Central and West Slope Communities Project. ”

    Link available?

  • Well said Mr. Tompkins! Facts over fiction… and nonsense.

  • Say goodbye to tin-foil hats.

  • I commend Ryan Tompkins for his scientific analysis of the need for more forest treatment to encourage forest community resilience and ecological diversity. Anyone who has spent significant time in the Dixie Fire footprint recognizes the devastating loss of all trees of all ages over thousands of acres. This is a huge loss of forest habitat and carbon storage capacity especially with predictions that many of these areas will become brush dominated landscapes more prone to fire. I hope that Congress provides more funding for forest treatment projects, salaries, and continual follow-up management. I wish Congress and the State legislature would fund Forest Treatment Crews (similar to the firefighting crews) to scientifically manage our forests both for resilience and ecological diversity using thinning, planting and prescribing fire. The proposed Community Protection Project is a good start, but much more is needed soon and long term.

  • Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful rebuttal to the pseudo-science being passed around. Those of us who actually live in the affected lands understand the realities and applaud efforts to reduce excess fuel loading while simultaneously giving the remaining trees a chance to thrive.

  • It should be known that before the Beckwourth complex grew into the record setting monstrosity it was, it COULD HAVE BEEN SNUFFED ON THE WEST SIDE OF THE SUGARLOAF JUST EAST OF BECKWOURTH AIRPORT but those in charge at the time declined to do it. I was a witness to it. All of us in the area wondered “Why aren’t they snuffing this thing out before the wind comes up tomorrow.” Then sure as daylight follows night, the winds came up and blew the thing out of control up the backside of Sugarloaf and the rest is history. You could call it an error of judgement but from the perspective of those of us who saw what happened it sure seemed like taking advantage of a revenue opportunity. There are some who would cry “conspiracy theory” and if you are one then come up with one good reason why a half dozen aircraft could not have snuffed out that fire long before it blew up. You can’t.

    I agree with everything in the article, especially the need for better management and sound reasoning when it comes to environmental factors but even as much as that we as the public need to realize that FIRE IS A BUSINESS and it has as much MORAL HAZARD as any such complex such as that involving homeless, drug use, immigration, gun control, and practically any other problem that only seems to grow in spite of all the resources thrown at it. This is not to take away anything from the good efforts of those on the ground, but they are not the ones making the decisions of deployment, policy and finance. In no small measure those REMFs in their back offices are stabbing their people in the back too.

    The public needs to know that all these problems are solvable but for those that have a huge incentive to to perpetuate them.

    The problem is not scientific; the science will always be argued for more resources and less oversight. The problem is not technological as we have the ability to engage in real-time surveillance of every square meter on earth. The problem is moral and the profit motive is enormous.

    Until we solve the problem of moral hazard, we will continue to be plagued with every one of these otherwise solvable problems.

  • While this is great information regarding forest health it need to be mentioned the infrastructure that runs through the forest. It must be noted that some of the largest fires we’ve recently had have occurred because of neglect of utility lines. Corporations also need to have a fresh approach in dealing with their equipment and response.

    I’m addition the article has the assumption that the reader believes in climate change. I understand you don’t have to believe in climate change for it to be happening but it’s discouraging how many people don’t believe the science.

    Take note of how the work to be performed has been funded through grants. It’s a shame when we have political representation namely Jeff Engel who brags he has never written a grant. This county needs grants money. We need to have better political leadership.

  • Thank you Ryan Tompkins et al. for the clearly researched and proven path forward to save the remaining timbered national forest land and inclusive towns in Plumas County. Too often voices from elsewhere threatening litigation have stymied much needed forest management projects in the past. I urge citizens of Plumas County to voice support for currently proposed national forest projects facilitating removal of excess biomas (trees and brush).

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