My Turn: Better forest management in the Sierra Nevada is a necessity
California’s forests contain a great deal of unrealized potential for environmental improvement, economic growth and energy production. In light of the devastating fires that ravaged California this year, new statewide greenhouse gas emissions standards and the growing need for energy production in the state, we must reform our state’s forest management practices now. The current “hands-off” approach has cost too much money, lives, safety, property and has ultimately sacrificed the health of our forests.According to the California Air Resources Board, this year’s catastrophic wildfires in Southern California released two million metric tons of carbon dioxide and 200,000 tons of methane and nitrous oxide; equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas 440,000 cars produce in a year. Based on that calculation, we can safely estimate that the Antelope and Moonlight Fires, which burned 88,000 acres in Plumas County this year, produced at least the amount of greenhouse gas as 75,000 cars produce in a year more than the population of Plumas, Lassen and Sierra counties combined.Furthermore, the suppression costs for the Moonlight Fire totaled over $31 million. This is staggering, especially considering that this was not even a large or destructive fire in comparison to the ones that ravaged Southern California this fall.Consider this: Between 2000 and 2005, the state spent nearly one billion dollars in wildland fire suppression, incurred over $1.4 billion in property damages from wildland fires and burned over 84,000 acres of commercial timberland in state jurisdiction alone. Given these statistics, it makes no sense to continue our obstructionist forest management policies. By bringing some common sense to our forest management practices, we can not only save costs but actually generate revenue.When a high-intensity conflagration burns through a forest, the timber stand is often burned so badly that the tree dies. Burned timber degrades rapidly and must be harvested quickly to be of any use. But rather than salvage the damaged timber, bureaucratic red tape and injunctions filed by environmental activities often prevent anyone from making use of this resource. Instead, the dead timber rots and prevents new trees from growing efficiently. One forestry expert estimates that from the 65,000 acres burned in the Moonlight Fire, there could be up to 360 million board feet of salvageable timber. With the soaring costs of lumber today, this could result in up to $324 million in revenue, of which Plumas and Lassen County schools and roads would receive $41 million each. The remaining money could go to re-planting efforts and vegetation management.Forest management policies that prevent timber harvesting can actually damage the health of our forests. The California Forestry Association notes that on some public forestlands today, there stand more than 500 trees per acre where fewer than 80 per acre stood historically. With the drier conditions California has been experiencing in recent years, overcrowded timber stands force trees to compete for water and nutrients, prohibiting healthy trees from growing and maximizing carbon absorption. This in turn promotes the spread of diseases and insect infestations like the bark beetle, which has killed thousands of acres of trees in Southern California, thus increasing fire danger.Preventive measures like fuel management can also save and even generate money. By harvesting excess timber for wood products, we can sequester more carbon, a key priority for the State. Furthermore, we can use the excess vegetation for biomass plants to produce energy throughout the state. Under AB 32, California has mandated that private utility companies must produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources; biomass plants would help them achieve this coal. Currently, biomass contributes less than two percent of California’s energy.Some critics claim that biomass energy plants are not cost effective; however, the money saved from fire suppression costs and property damage must be calculated into the total cost of production. Additionally, it is worth nothing that Sierra Pacific Industries recently signed a ten year contract to sell energy to Sacramento Municipal Utility District from its biomass plant in Washington. PGandamp;E also signed a ten year contract to buy energy from a biomass plant in Oregon that isn’t even operational yet. If these companies can afford to import biomass energy from out of state, then certainly there must be enough of an economic incentive to open plants here in California.The U.S. Forest Service reports that 7.5 million acres of forestland in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range alone are highly susceptible to wildfire risk; not to mention the millions of acres in Southern California prone to destructive wildfires. We must re-think our wildland management practices; it is imperative to our economy, our environment and our safety. In fact, we can’t afford not to. Rick Keene represents the 3rd Assembly district in Northern California, which includes Truckee and eastern Nevada County.