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What’s the Latest with Western Fire Resilience Efforts? The California Situation

What’s the Latest with Western Fire Resilience Efforts? The California Situation

Claire McAdams, California Forest Conservation Foundation and Forest Landowners of California
June 13, 2022

There are more than 87,000 discrete small forest landowners throughout California. The state’s main policy focus is to “increase pace and scale:” to mitigate catastrophic wildfires by treating landscape- or watershed-scale parcels. Unfortunately, this focus on larger scale lessens direct aid opportunities for thousands of scattered small private-owned forestlands.

NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as the American Forest Foundation have conducted well-funded initiatives to educate small forest landowners and link them with consulting foresters to begin creating the management plans, the first step in obtaining state approvals for fuel hazard reduction work as well as commercial timber harvest work. Yet the bulk of small landowners still lack those plans, despite a long history of CalFire’s California Forest Improvement Program (CFIP) and USDA’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Improvement Program) partial reimbursement programs.

The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in 2011 presciently studied land conservation implementation by surveying a stratified random sample of 1,730 landowners listed in the 2003 statewide land parcel database created by CDFFP [CalFire], from one county of each of 8 of the 10 bioregions of California.

“Limitations in available funding and the high transaction costs per project make these programs inaccessible to the vast majority of landowners. Programs for large properties can preserve the greatest number of acres with the least logistical overhead. Still, with continuing fragmentation in California’s forests and rangelands, it will become increasing important to consider the ecosystem services provided by moderate- to small-sized properties and adopt more comprehensive strategies to preserve these services” (Ferranto, et al, 2011: 189).

In a later UCCE study, two-thirds of landowners made personal use of the resources on their lands, and only one-half of the larger owners (who had at least 500 acres) harvested timber for income (Ferranto et al, 2011: 187). Fuel hazard reduction and defensible space clearing is costly, and project income is typically lacking. But:

“Almost all respondents regularly inspected the condition of their land. Over half…cleared defensible space to reduce fire risk; pruned or cut trees to reduce fire risk or improve forest health [among a list of environmental improvements]….Practices such as clearing defensible space or pruning or cutting down trees to reduce fire risk were as common on small properties as they were on large ones” (Ferranto et al, 2011: 188).

Ongoing diligent stewardship by landowners has often been self-funded. Today, those who need fuel hazard reduction often cannot access funding assistance for it. Why?

  1. State funding is grant-based, disadvantaging individual landowners and rural areas whose governments and NGOs are less well staffed and funded.
  2. Individual landowners are directly eligible for only for a few programs: CFIP, EQIP and USDA’s Conservation Partners. CFIP is not available to owners of less than 20 acres.
  3. Even if eligible, funding is partial and mainly after the fact. Steep and unknown upfront costs of professional grant application/project planning/permitting prevent some landowners from seeking help.
  4. The competition for grants puts well-heeled NGOs first in line for funding, at the expense of small/rural communities and individual forest landowners, because the latter two groups are not pre-organized to deliver the “landscape- or watershed-scale project scope” that California policy favors.
  5. As State agencies attempt to spend the massive California funding within their budget years, their limited staffs can more easily administer well-established NGOs who do conservation easements over large landscapes, than they could for the potentially thousands of individual landowner grant-funded projects.
  6. No one can predict how long California will have a budget surplus with which to maintain massive fuel hazard reduction programs. Irregular funding has long been a bane for CalFire programs and those of other agencies.

The California Governor’s 2022 budget is working its way through the legislature, then back to the Governor for signing by end of September. Small private landowners can expect tweaking of the massive wildfire resilience funding of 2021 (White, 2022: 5). One can but hope that the needs of small private forest landowners will be better recognized and funded.

Emerging Wisdom Concerning Post-Fire Recovery
Collins Pine hosted a field tour for the Forest Landowners of California Annual Meeting near Chester, and shared some lessons learned from the wildfires, which destroyed much of their vast timberlands east of Redding. My interpretation of what their wildfire experience is that the firefighting world is very different from forestry world: some environmental protective aspects of the California Forest Practice Act rules function to heighten the spread of megafire. And some firefighting practices fly in the face of forest management needs. Here are a few examples:

  1. The WLPZ (streamside water quality protection zone) works like a giant wick, sending fire up creeks across the landscape, spreading fire.
  2. Backburning in fire mop-up operations destroys the unburnt and less burnt trees, which would have re-seeded the forest if they had been left green. This undoes the possibility of “leave trees” regenerating the land post-fire.
  3. Firefighting cooperation across the nation brings firefighters who don’t know each private forest’s management/fire recovery goals or the rules of extant state-required management plans on forested properties.
  4. Firefighters’ rapid speed of response across ever-changing locations makes them unaware of and unresponsive to private landowners’ knowledge of terrain and local diurnal wind patterns that could allow more pro-active and targeted defense of managed forestland. This puts firefighters in unnecessary danger.
  5. The fact that firefighters have some limited liability protection, while necessary to allow them to act, removes any incentive they would otherwise have to protect forest health on the private property on which they are fighting fire.

This list is not exhaustive, but does suggest how important and how difficult is real-time communication between firefighting leaders and the foresters and other woods workers who work on and intimately know part of the forested areas threatened by fire.

How can government best aid post-fire recovery? State fire resilience grant eligibility criteria favors ‘high-fire-severity’ areas, despite catastrophic wildfire recently occurring in lesser fire severity tier locations. Unlike inland California, the North Coast has very high vegetation growth rates due to its temperate climate and ocean-based high rain patterns. Underbrush and ladder fuels are so fast growing and dense that more labor is needed to achieve the same acreage of fuel hazard reduction, as in drier inland areas. Yet coastal areas are rated lower fire severity index, thus are lower ranked for forest fuel reduction grants from the state grants. And CFIP grant caps on reimbursements is less adequate to cover actual cost in the most dense vegetated areas such as the North Coast.

Even in coastal counties, fire does occur. When it does, fire recovery assistance is sorely needed. Federal fire recovery assistance is hampered because USDA Washington DC office will not cover some money-saving activities that are common in the West but not in the Eastern US. For instance, the USDA will not cover purchase of a small mill for post-fire recovery, so that the landowner can use his or her “black wood” (trees that burned but survived) to make fence posts and rails to rebuild boundary fencing and livestock fencing quickly and cheaply (California Forest Conservation Foundation, 2022).

The state is very aware that small forest landowners need financial help with fuel hazard reduction. The California Natural Resources Agency is finalizing a report, “Implementation Strategy to Improve Assistance to Small Private Landowners.”

Its findings call for state agencies to partner with NGOs such as Fire Safe Councils, local Resource Conservation Districts, and groups such as American Forest Foundation, Forest Landowners of California, and the newly-created California Forest Conservation Foundation. The State is in process of creating the first comprehensive database of small forest landowners, and there is interest by more than one private sector tech firm in bidding on a database creation contract (Patrick Wright, verbal communication in PLO Assistance Work Group: June 8). That future statewide forest landowner database should help agencies with outreach as they seek landowners willing to perform fuel reduction/defensible space work.

However, the planning and permitting of such projects remains complex and expensive, with one to three years of work needed before projects are shovel-ready. Valachovic et al (2022) produced a highly useful guide with flowchart of permits/criteria needed for pre-fire fuel reduction funding and post-fire fire recovery funding. They note that, for the projects led by community groups or other entities that can treat landscape- or watershed-scale lands (the scale favored by the governor’s top regulators):

“Organizations that serve local communities can seek funds to implement multi-ownership projects that benefit private and governmental landowners (for example, resource conservation districts, nonprofit organizations, fire districts, volunteer fire departments, and road or neighborhood associations). These types of project require transparency and a high degree of communication between stakeholders. It is a good idea for project proponents to work with a Registered Professional Forester when developing forest management projects to ensure the final project design includes explicit consideration of permitting feasibility.” (Valachovic, 2022: 5).

In short, upfront pre-application costs put most state fire resilience funding out of reach for individual forest landowners. They are being encouraged to join community services organizations to access multi-owner grants. In many small communities these organizations are new and have great enthusiasm, but lack capacity and/or experience, and are being expected to compete in complex, slow, expensive, risky grant application processes with more experienced and better funded NGOs. This lowers the chances that small private forest landowners will receive financial support enabling them to do wildfire mitigation, if their lands are located in areas whose NGOs are weak or nonexistent.

2022 is the fifth year of catastrophic wildfires in California and its northern neighbors, and while fires still threaten as strongly in the ongoing drought, they now share headlines and political primacy with homelessness/housing, the pandemic, war in Ukraine, inflation and other issues. Wildfire resilience funding that is generous, steady and directly accessible for individual landowners, as well as non-competitive predictable funding for community organizations, would be very welcomed by small private forest landowners as they attempt to adapt their forestry practices in hopes of saving their forestlands from the ravages of wildfire or tackling post-fire recovery.

California Forest Conservation Foundation
2022 | Minutes of California Forest Conservation Foundation, board of directors. March 16.

Ferranto, Shasta, Lynn Huntsinger, Christy Getz, Gary Nakamura, William Stewart, Sabrina Drill, Yana Valachovic, Machael DeLasaux and Maggi Kelly
2011 | “Forest and rangeland owners value land for natural amenities and as financial investment.”
California Agriculture: Volume 65, Number 4: 184-191.

Valachovic, Yana, Jared Gerstein, and Brita Goldstein
2022 | “Planning and permitting forest fuel-reduction projects on private lands in California.”
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources; UCANR Publication 8716: June.

White, Brian for KP Public Affairs
2022 | “Governor Newsom’s revised budget increases funds for wildfire, climate investments and energy reliability.” Family Forest News (the magazine of Forest Landowners of California): Volume 57: Spring 2022: 2-6.

Wright, Patrick
2022 | Verbal communication in Private Landowner Assistance Work Group, of California Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force. June 8.

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