By James Steinbauer
The secret to fewer fires may be having more people in the state who can start them.
Scientists and land managers almost universally agree that prescribed fire is the single best tool available to help mitigate wildfire risk. Landowners in the American Southeast use more prescribed fire than in any other part of the country. But across much of the American West—which has captured an outsize proportion of the public imagination around wildfire—scientists say land management agencies aren’t using fire nearly enough.
In 2017, federal and state forest managers, ranchers, and private property owners in Florida, which many fire scientists consider the prescribed fire capital of the country, burned more than 2 million acres, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Climate Central. That same year, California—which is twice the size of Florida and has six times more acres in public land—burned less than 50,000 acres. Oregon burned 48,000, Idaho 33,000, Montana 24,000, and Nevada 5,000.
Like in Florida, Native American cultures throughout the United States used fire to manage the land. But in the West, much of the land taken from Indigenous groups was redrawn as public “forest preserves.” In the absence of Native American land management, many of the places where they had previously used fire to clear the landscape became dense and overgrown. In 1910, a series of wildfires burned more than 3 million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Known collectively as the Big Blowup, the blazes spooked the nascent US Forest Service into adopting a policy that demanded all fires be put out by 10 A.M. the day after they were reported. Because much of this land was publicly owned, federal land management agencies could efficiently enforce this policy of suppression.
In southeastern states, such as Florida, where most forestland is privately owned, people simply never stopped burning it. Even the US Forest Service in the Southeast dabbled with prescribed fire—the first-ever lit on federal land was in Osceola National Forest in 1943.
By Kat Kerlin
CCalifornia’s drought and bark-beetle infestation killed more than 129 million trees between 2012 and 2016 in the Sierra Nevada. But amid the devastation stood some survivors.
At the time, UC Davis biologist Patricia Maloney and a team of researchers entered the forest to collect seeds from 100 surviving sugar pine trees. Alongside other parched sugar pines etched with the tell-tale tunnel marks of bark beetles, were green, healthy trees. The researchers spent the past two years raising 10,000 seedlings from 100 surviving mother trees around the Lake Tahoe Basin. They were first cultivated at the USDA Forest Service’s Placerville Nursery and then moved to the UC Davis Tahoe City Field Station.
This week, between 4,000 and 5,000 of the seedlings are being planted around Lake Tahoe’s North Shore as part of a restoration project funded by the Tahoe Fund and the California Tahoe Conservancy. About 1,500 will be used to study and identify important adaptive traits, and the remainder will be given to private landowners to plant.
f the seedlings turn out to be as genetically resilient as Maloney thinks and hopes they will be, these trees could represent the future forest, one better able to withstand the threats of climate change, including more droughts and bark beetle outbreaks.
“These survivors matter,” said Maloney, a scientist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology and Tahoe Environmental Research Center. “Essentially, these are the offspring of drought survivors. This is hopefully the genetic stock of the future.”
By Peter Fimrite
It is the forgotten killer when compared to our increasingly frequent climate calamities, but the virulent pathogen known as sudden oak death remains active and is spreading death so fast it could destroy California’s coastal forest ecosystem, UC Berkeley scientists reported Thursday.
The deadly microbe has now established itself throughout the Bay Area and has spread along the coast from Monterey to Humboldt County, according to a study of 16,227 trees in 16 counties in Northern California.
Millions of coast live oak and tan oak trees have withered and died over the past quarter century, leaving acres of kindling for wildfires, but the outbreak this year was one of the worst. Oak trees have historically been abundant in California and southwestern Oregon, with hundreds of millions of them stretching all the way to Baja California.
The rate of trees infected almost doubled in 2019 — from 3.5% to 5.9% — and was 10 times higher in some places compared with the 2018 survey, said Matteo Garbelotto, the director of the UC Berkeley Forest Pathology and Mycology Laboratory, which tested leaf samples taken by 422 volunteers.
Infections were found in all the well-known hotbeds, like Marin and Sonoma counties, the East Bay, Big Sur and the Santa Cruz mountains. But the 12th annual survey detected more of the pathogen this year in virtually every location. That’s mainly because the disease spreads faster in the kind of wet weather that hit California last winter, Garbelotto said.
“There was a significant increase in infection rates over last year, but that’s not totally surprising because we had a lot more rainfall,” Garbelotto said. “But it was a surprise to see them all at once. It’s telling us we are entering a different phase of the disease, where the organism isn’t really establishing itself in new areas, but is showing itself more when weather conditions are favorable.”
Sudden oak death is an exotic disease that was discovered in Mill Valley in 1995. It now exists in forests and wildlands in 14 California counties and in Curry County, Ore., just across the state border.
It kills oak trees, including California’s signature tree — the live oak — and there are 107 susceptible host plants, including such common garden ornamentals as camellias and rhododendrons. Although some hosts are sickened, they do not always die from the fungus-like ailment. Instead, these plants, bushes and trees help spread the deadly spores.
By Dan Kraker
Programs that pay landowners to keep carbon sequestered in forests are beginning to spread, now that California has a cap and trade system designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some say Minnesota should be a bigger player in the carbon offset market.
Money may not grow on trees — but the carbon that trees store could be worth millions, as consumers, companies and governments ramp up efforts to fight climate change.
Earlier this week, a group of land managers and scientists from around Minnesota came together in Duluth to start a conversation about how the state can join in the growing marketplace that pays to keep carbon sequestered in forests.
Minnesota’s climate change-fighting efforts so far have focused largely on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by moving away from coal power and towards cleaner energy like wind and solar.
But there’s been a lot less focus on the other side of the carbon equation: What to do with those greenhouse gases that continue to be emitted into the atmosphere, the heat-trapping culprits that cause global warming?
California is one of the few states that has taken the lead on incentivizing practices that lead to carbon sequestration, and established an official statewide cap and trade system in 2013. Dozens of forestry projects around the country are part of the program, including many on tribal lands.
But none of the carbon sequestration projects that are involved in California’s marketplace are based in Minnesota — at least, not yet. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is exploring the possibility of creating a forest carbon offset program on 14,000 acres of its reservation in northern Minnesota, and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is exploring a 9,000-acre program on its land near Cloquet.
The idea is that polluters in California or elsewhere could then purchase offsets from those programs, as a way to counterbalance their own greenhouse gas emissions.
In Minnesota, land managers and forestry experts are looking for ways to encourage landowners to manage their forests in such a way that sucks more carbon out of the atmosphere.
By Paul Rogers
TULARE COUNTY — A Bay Area conservation group has signed a deal to purchase the world’s largest privately owned giant sequoia forest, a primeval landscape in California’s Southern Sierra Nevada with massive trees that soar 250 feet tall, span up to 80 feet around at their trunks and live for more than 2,000 years.
The 530-acre property, known as the Alder Creek, is roughly the same size as Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County. Located in Tulare County 10 miles south of Sequoia National Park, it is home to 483 massive trees that are larger than six feet in diameter — four more trees than the famed Mariposa Grove at Yosemite National Park.
“This is probably the most-coveted sequoia conservation opportunity in a generation,” said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League, a non-profit group based in San Francisco that has agreed to pay $15.6 million to purchase the property.
“It’s not any single tree,” he said of the landscape, which eventually will be open to the public. “This is an alpine landscape covered with iconic, breathtaking, cinnamon-barked trees that are surrounded by pastures. It is such a superlative representation of nature. This is the prize. This is the best of what’s left. It’s a very special place.”
The league, founded in 1918, signed a purchase agreement with the Rouch family, who has owned it since the 1940s. The family’s patriarch, Claude Albert, bought the land for its logging potential just before World War II, said his grandson, Mike Rouch, of Fresno.
“When they bought the property there was not even a road to it,” he said. “They had to ride horses.”
Over the generations, the family cut down sugar pine, white fir, red fir and other trees to make framing lumber for houses and other products. But they left the massive sequoias largely untouched.
By Nicola Twilley
Throughout the twentieth century, federal policy focussed on putting out fires as quickly as possible, but preventing megafires requires a different approach.
Six of the ten worst fires in California’s history have occurred in the past eighteen months, and last year’s fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than a hundred people were killed, and more than seventeen thousand homes destroyed. Experts have warned that this year’s fire season could be even worse, in part because record-breaking rains early this year spurred the growth of brush and grasses, which have since dried out, creating more fuel. Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a wildfire state of emergency in March, months before fire season would normally begin.
The tools and techniques capable of stopping megafires remain elusive, but in the past few decades a scientific consensus has emerged on how to prevent them: prescribed burns. When flames are kept small and close to the ground, they clear the leaf litter, pine needles, and scrub that fuel wildfire, and consume saplings and low-level branches that would otherwise act as a ladder conveying fire to the canopy. With the competing vegetation cleared out, the remaining trees grow larger, developing a layer of bark thick enough to shield them from all but the hottest blazes. California’s state legislature recently passed a bill earmarking thirty-five million dollars a year for fuel-reduction projects.
“And yet no one is actually burning,” Jeff Brown, the manager of a field station in the Tahoe National Forest, told me when I visited him there recently. Although prescribed burns have been part of federal fire policy since 1995, last year the Forest Service performed them on just one per cent—some sixty thousand acres—of its land in the Sierra Nevada. “We need to be burning close to a million acres each year, just in the Sierras, or it’s over,” Brown said. The shortfall has several causes, but, some fifteen years ago, Brown set himself the almost impossible task of devising a plan for the forest he helps maintain that would be sophisticated enough to overcome all obstacles. Now he is coördinating an urgent effort to replicate his template across the Sierra Nevada.
By Emily Cadei
The Trump administration’s wildfire plan would ease environmental restrictions in national forests to speed clearing, thinning and the removal of dead trees. He’s chided California for its forest management.
The Trump administration is proposing new regulations it argues could help prevent wildfires — but could also open up more federal land to logging and mineral exploration.
The U.S. Forest Service released proposed regulatory changes Wednesday that would exempt several new types of forest management projects from the typical review process under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.
The changes are part of an ongoing push by the Trump administration to speed forest management projects — things like clearing brush, removing dead trees and thinning smaller trees from overgrown forests.
As three major fires blaze in California, we consider some of their causes, both human and meteorological. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been filming a NOVA documentary on megafires and witnessed the Camp Fire not long after it began. He joins William Brangham to describe that stunning experience, along with the broader scientific context around these destructive phenomena.
By Guy Kovner
Sudden oak death has killed up to 50 million trees and 100 million more may be infeceted, according to new research.
A dry winter curtailed the presence of a deadly forest pathogen this year in Sonoma County and 13 other Northern and Central California counties, but experts still expect the oak-killing disease to spread and warned landowners to be vigilant.
Since the mid-1990s, sudden oak death has killed up to 50 million trees from Big Sur to southwest Oregon and is entrenched in the woodlands, spreading rapidly after wet winters and slower during dry years.
“It’s constant, it’s emerging,” said Richard Cobb, an assistant professor of forest health at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “It’s probably going to get a lot worse.”
Cobb said Monday he’s about to publish his estimate of tree mortality, 90 percent of which are tanoaks and most of the rest coast live oaks. Another 100 million trees may be infected by the insidious pathogen that typically takes one or two years to produce symptoms in the infected trees, he said.
The pathogen can be spread by human footprints and nursery plants, but in nature it rides on water droplets blown from the leaves of bay laurel trees, a host species that abounds among the oak and tanoak trees susceptible to the disease.
“We know there’s a lot of disease out there,” said Matteo Garbelotto, director of the forest pathology and mycology laboratory at UC Berkeley, which has organized annual sudden oak death surveys, known as the SOD Blitz, since 2008.
This year’s survey found the estimated rate of infection — based on lab analysis of leaves collected from bay laurels and tanoaks — at 3.5 percent throughout the 14-county region, a marked decline from 12.8 percent last year.
Sonoma County, divided into three areas, also showed sharp declines, which Garbelotto said were anticipated because the 2017 survey, conducted in the wake of two straight wet winters, found the highest infection rate ever recorded in 11 years.
But the survey conducted in May found another consequence — the presence of oaks showing symptoms of infection had increased to 12.2 percent throughout the region, up from 9.4 percent last year.
Next year’s rate should be higher, Garbelotto said, coming two years after the 2017 rains and matching the time it takes for symptoms, such as bleeding cankers in oak tree bark, to appear.
By Thomas Fuller
After a three-year restoration project, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park has reopened, with less asphalt and more concern for the health of the trees.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — John Muir, the naturalist who was most at home sleeping outdoors on a bed of pine needles in the Sierra Nevada, called giant sequoias the “noblest of God’s trees.”
For three years, some of the most striking examples of these towering marvels were off limits to visitors in Yosemite National Park. After a $40 million renovation — the largest restoration project in the park’s history — the Mariposa Grove, a collection of around 500 mature giant sequoias, reopened last week.
What Muir called a “forest masterpiece” is now back on display.
The renovation addressed a problem that the park has struggled with for years. On the busiest summer days, more than 7,000 cars may converge on the park, which is about a four-hour drive from San Francisco. The gridlock they create amid the stunning chutes of water running down the steep granite slopes of Yosemite’s glacier-carved valley results in a kind of drive-by naturalism that frustrates many.