Part I: Managing Our Forests
By Paula White
About this series: Transitioning to a functioning and robust green economy will require investing some greenbacks in the labor force that will do this work. The Watershed Project is researching innovative financing and organizational models for paying for maintenance of our green infrastructure projects. This is part 1 in a series of articles that explore this topic.
July 2018 was the hottest ever recorded in the state of California. According to Cal Fire, it was also the most devastating wildfire season on record, with the Camp fire in Butte County earning the top spot as the most destructive fire in state history. 18,800 buildings were destroyed, including 14,000 homes, and at least 85 people lost their lives in the blaze. Thousands of firefighters, including nearly 1500 inmates trained through the Conservation Camp program, heroically battled the flames. Smoke from the Camp fire forced school closures in the Bay Area and The Watershed Project had to cancel a field trip to a local park due to hazardous air quality. 2018 was not an anomaly–in fact, the worst fires in state history have been 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Many commentators claim that climate change is responsible for the golden state’s nearly year-round fires. In fact, California’s ecosystems have long been adapted to seasonal fires. Prior to European settlement of the state, native peoples actively managed the land through repeated controlled burns. Lighting strikes during the summer in mountainous areas were also responsible for seasonal fires. Over time, mostly fire-resistant species evolved creating the unique California landscape. Modern era fire suppression policies coupled with the introduction of non-native annual grass species and highly flammable non-native tree species such as eucalyptus have greatly increased fuel loads in the state. Fire risk is compounded by more people relocating to rural and more heavily forested areas due to high housing costs in urban areas. The town of Paradise, CA, which was nearly completely destroyed by the Camp fire, was populated primarily by retirees and others seeking affordable housing.
Today forestry professionals acknowledge the inevitability of wildfires in California and like its original inhabitants are fighting fire with fire. Cal Fire’s 2018 management plan integrates fire prevention and fire suppression strategies. Controlled burns to reduce fuel are a cornerstone of this approach. Restoring the health of the state’s forests requires thinning out diseased and dead trees and increasing the number of large, healthy trees which are more fire resistant, sequester the most carbon, and provide better habitat. Urban forestry projects can be part of the solution to mitigating climate change impacts. Cal Releaf awarded a grant to The Watershed Project to plant 50 trees in North Richmond. These trees will help put the brakes on climate change and will also provide shade for residents, filter air pollutants, and soak up stormwater. Successful management of these urban trees will be a team effort. We are counting on residents, city and county staff and tree experts to help us find suitable sites for the trees. With the help of community partners and volunteers, residents will plant and care for their new trees.
The Watershed Project has relied heavily over the years on volunteer labor. This model continues to serve us well when it comes to building new bioswales, planting trees, and for large marine debris awareness events such as Coastal Cleanup Day. As our green inventory increases, more labor will be needed to maintain it. One local model for managing green infrastructure is to create a public private partnership called a green benefit district. This would operate like a public utility, with local businesses contributing to a green benefit fund. These revenues would be spent on maintenance of green infrastructure, providing local jobs. Could this model be scaled up to manage the millions of acres of forests in the state? PG&E’s downed power lines sparked a few of the state’s most devastating and costly fires. What if PG&E contributed to a mitigation fund for maintenance of the lands near its transformers and other facilities to minimize wildfire risk? Funds could be directed to the California Conservation Corps, which provides employment and training in the natural resources sector to youth ages 18-25. Corps members enroll for one year. According to a Feb. 2018 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, little is known about Corps members’ employment and educational outcomes following their year of service. The website’s recruiting slogan is HARD WORK, LOW PAY, MISERABLE CONDITIONS, AND MORE! This slogan projects a negative image of conservation work. To build a green economy, we need to value the people who do the work, we need to invest more money to do the work, and we need to get creative about financing.