Restoring the forest: Experts discuss economic strategy to encourage businesses toward sustainable stewardship

Experts discuss economic strategy to encourage businesses toward sustainable stewardship

Environmental leaders this week discussed ways to shift the Sierra Foothills’ economy toward restoration — as opposed to extraction — during a summit hosted by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

Experts in forest restoration and community development discussed the details of drafting and passing legislation necessary to encourage private corporations toward sustainable stewardship.

Elliot Vander Kolk, a regional forester at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, said Monday’s summit is part of a larger, ongoing conversation about the fallout of the 2020 wildfire season and the future of forest management.

Vander Kolk said there is a $1 billion proposal focused specifically on coordinated forest health and fire prevention in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 budget, which totals $227.2 billion.

A portion of the proposed funds will go to firefighters, but the additional resources will ensure that the related workforce is properly trained to protect, prevent and control fires.

Angela Avery, the executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, said shifting the extraction-based economy to a restorative one requires a culture shift.

“What types and kinds of economic activity can be supported from the forest’s resources?” Avery asked, adding that these are the complicated questions legislators need to consider. “How can these industries in turn support the forest restoration work we knows needs to be done across the Sierra Nevada?”

Vander Kolk said the Sierra Nevada communities were first structured around timber extraction 180 years ago. The timber processing company was usually the largest employer in rural, forested areas.

“We want to create the right economic conditions to build that (restorative) sector,” Vander Kolk said. “In order to have community and economic development, we need to know what happens in the forest.”

Nils Christoffersen, the executive director of Wallowa Resources, said the summit’s mission is possible through land stewardship, education and job creation.

Avery said the conservancy’s team believes multi-pronged legislation can reduce wildfire risk and enhance climate benefits of agricultural and natural land, “while raising all economic boats.”

“The process of re-imagining a timber industry as a restorative industry whose primary product could be measured in acres of ecologically resilient and forested landscape and sustainable communities, as opposed to feed and lumber, won’t be easy,” Avery said.


Vander Kolk said local solutions generated by the local workforce will help maintain focus while targeting what could be a lofty goal. Vander Kolk and Avery said the Sierra Foothills economies are particularly vulnerable in crises — fire, pandemic or otherwise — because a large portion of the industry is dependent on tourism.

There are many stakeholders whose financial and physical health depend on a more sustainable form of forest management, but those who live in the Sierra Foothills stand to gain the most from thorough legislation.

“In 2020, it didn’t matter where you lived in California, when the state is on fire like it was there are folks all over that are impacted and potentially benefit from this forest health and restoration-based economy model,” Vander Kolk said.

Vander Kolk said 60% of the state’s water supply comes from the Sierra, and the forest impacts how the water moves and is stored throughout the watershed. When fires burn “uncharacteristically hot,” it can actually scar the soil beneath, causing it to become hydrophobic.

Isaac Silverman, the communications manager for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, said the summit was not focused on ecology, but instead the policy and finances required to protect ecology.

“This summit, we’re trying to narrow in on how to create the conditions, policies, the organizational capacity and the the workforce capacity as a state to really set loose private companies (that suffered) when timber extraction fell off,” Silverman said. “Whether you care about air quality or water supply being able to get out and do work in the woods, there’s this new project of restoring the forest — how do we create the conditions to allow private industry to apply their tools, their finances, their energy toward that same goal?”

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union. She can be reached at

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