By Tom Frantz
Residents of the San Joaquin Valley reside in a polluted and sterile world. We breathe air saturated with dust, exhaust, smoke, ammonia and pesticides. We tread on concrete and asphalt. We exterminate all insects. No worms are found in our hard, bermuda covered soils. Severely pruned trees and shrubs eliminate bird habitat.
Wildness exists only with feral cats. The only sounds of nature are the monotonous calls of the non-native Eurasian collared dove. Agriculture consists of multiple sections of mono-culture. Nothing survives in pristine orchards that doesn’t improve immediate profit.
Filthy Holsteins match the human population in numbers but produce polluting untreated waste equal to half a billion people. Gone are the elk, antelope, deer, foxes, grizzly bears and rattlesnakes. Gone are the perennial grasses and coyote bush.
The nearby hills are covered in imported foxtails and star thistle. Our response is poor health, both physically and mentally, as we drive our cars to low-paying jobs, over-eat and watch ads on TV.
In contrast to the valley floor stand our nearby forests. The Sierras are not being sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. Wild animals, such as bears and lions, live there. A diverse, interdependent ecosystem thrives in these forests. Small mammals, reptiles, trees, plants, roots, fungi and carbon-rich soil abounds. The Sierras represent an area of rich biodiversity less than 50 miles from our dead zone below.
Most of the soil on the valley floor is the result of slow mountain erosion. Our water, which gives the valley life, comes from the forests that create atmospheric conditions sucking in clouds. Water trickles through roots and soil into meadows and streams, coming to us by gravity in clean, clear rivers.
If hunters had not exterminated the beaver from these forests, the runoff would be even more soft and prolonged. Removing the cows, who trample meadows and streams into muddy messes each summer, would improve the quality of the runoff today.
The oxygen-producing Sierra forests have evolved to benefit from fire. Fire, started deep in a forest by lightning, burns at high, medium and low intensities, depending on the wind and the terrain. Thicker stands of trees normally slow down a fire. Dead trees do not add to fire intensity. Once the needles have dropped, a dead tree burns less intensely than a live one, which is still full of flammable sap and small branches and needles.
Contrary to popular claims, most of the carbon in the forest is not lost as CO2 during a forest fire. The percentage of wood destroyed by a fire is around 10%. The new life springing from an undisturbed area of recent fire recaptures this lost carbon in about five years.
After a fire, wildlife in the area rejoices. Black-backed woodpeckers drill holes in blackened trees. Most of these holes are soon occupied by smaller birds and flying squirrels. Spotted owls thrive hunting in recently burned forests. The same with the rare and beautiful Pacific fisher, a type of weasel nearly hunted to extinction for its fur.
A healthy forest is a valued store of biological diversity. Why do people seem to love the forest? Perhaps it is the rich smell that contains gases released from trees, one of which opens the air passages. This chemical has actually been synthesized and put into inhalers for asthmatics. We have little knowledge about what else in the natural forest can be of benefit to humans, but it must be protected.
The biggest threat to our forests is from the logging industry. Sierra Pacific Industries is one example. It is given burned areas of forests to remove the dead trees in the name of rehabilitation. Everything is disturbed and destroyed with heavy equipment for a few useful timber trees.
The forest does not recover quickly in these disturbed areas. Some trees are replanted, but most do not survive. The undisturbed soil and shade needed by young trees is gone. Meanwhile, untouched sections of recently burned forests thrive with naturally sprouted trees of a rich variety.
There are some who say it is scientifically proven that thinning the forest will allow more water to come down to the valley floor for agriculture. Unfortunately, thinning the forest is actually not healthy for the forest and any extra water is only in very wet years. Farmers cannot afford to thin the forests so they want loggers, with taxpayer subsidies, to do it for them justified by the false promise of a healthier forest.
The bottom line is that dead trees should not be removed from the Sierra forests. They die from valley air pollution, bark beetle, drought and fire, but they should all be left standing unless they present an immediate danger to structures. The forest always has had dead trees, or snags, and they are important to the ecosystem. Recent tree deaths and fires are not abnormal. The forest is not too thick.
Recent fires at lower elevations, which have destroyed communities such as Paradise, were not true forest fires. The Camp Fire roared through a previously burned area that had been logged heavily around 10 years earlier. It was a zone full of small flammable material that had no chance to slow the fire and protect the town below.
Moreover, the way Paradise was built with flammable walls and roofs plus no enforced rules for adequate cleared space around homes also contributed to the destruction. Lack of a warning system and a dearth of escape routes led to most of the deaths. We can’t use that fire, or the fire that roared out of grassland into Santa Rosa, be an excuse for logging and thinning our Sierra forests.
We definitely need to place more value on protecting this nearby area of rich biodiversity in as natural a state as possible. For more information, visit http://johnmuirproject.org/.
Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.