By Vic Bedoian
Scientists and land stewards in Sierra Nevada pine forests are alarmed about the changing conditions inflaming the frequency and ferocity of mountain wildfires in recent years. Drought, insects and climate warming are threatening millions of acres of mainly national forest lands. One man, Jemmy Bluestein, has a plan for saving that landscape, one piece at a time. A tree expert of the Forest Service agrees it could work across the broader landscape.
Raging wildfires in forests across the western states are an indicator of the coming catastrophe that awaits the Sierra’s forests and parks. Drought, bugs, fire suppression and climate change have converged as a possibly mortal threat to wide swaths of forest land in the state. Best known as a musician, Bluestein has been a forest worker and advocate most of his life. Now, as he drives his pickup over the rough roads across the small piece of forest he’s working to save, Bluestein visualizes the way it once was, “This used to be primo climax community sugar pine and yellow pine forest, some of the best anywhere on the planet.”
Now, millions of acres of midlevel forest lands have become choked with trees and brush creating fuel for the next wildfire. Bluestein attributes this to a century of abuse that has changed the 134 acres he manages for the Sierra Music and Arts Institute, “The removal of the forest canopy multiple times and the disturbance and massive planting of the shrubs and thickets caused this place and the subsequent suppression of fires for, I don’t know, a hundred years has caused this out of control fuel buildup.”
Carolyn Ballard is a fuels and fire specialist for Sierra National Forest. She reveals it’s a condition Sierra-wide but is especially acute in the southern Sierra. “We’re actually under a very dynamic and quickly changing situation due to the forest being pushed over its resilience threshold, and part of this is due to some of the climate changes. We’re seeing on the lower elevation ponderosa pine forest in a state of collapse in the southern Sierras in what scientists are describing as mega-disturbances, particularly in light of the extreme drought.”
In addition to the other stresses, pine forests are being ravaged by the pine bark beetle. Ballard says the effects are devastating, especially in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests. “Last year, we saw about 300,000 bug-killed dead trees. This year we’re seeing five, eight, possibly as many as 10 million as the bugs continue to reemerge and reproduce. And so we’re seeing millions of dead trees particularly ponderosa pine, large ponderosa pine.”
Forest scientists have been measuring temperature in the forest rising by 3 to 4 degrees a year. Ballard states that the combined effects are creating historic conditions for wildfire and disease, outpacing expectations, “Small levels of disturbances are natural. This is at a scale that is hardly predictable and out-scales even what science thought would happen.”
If nothing is done, scientists predict the very nature of the landscape will change and on a massive scale, according to Ballard, “We are expecting that we will see our pine forests actually transition to chaparral and eventually in the long run, especially if we have return fire intervals, where you don’t see timber able to regenerate and sustain itself, to eventually a more oak woodland forest.”
Bluestein and his crews have created a model of forest thinning that will save it from large wildfires in the future and restore forest health, “Soon this is going to be a healthy, beautiful, fire-safe, ecologically-balanced forest again.”
Ballard agrees with Bluestein’s techniques and thinks they should be happening Sierra-wide, “What he is doing actually will do some good. He’s doing it at a very small scale and would like to be able to do it more. We’re seeing what he’s seeing. Where you do some understory thinning, and where you reduce the competition by removing the brush from the understory which actually provides some resilience for the trees. It’s not competing for nutrients, that it is providing some resilience for the trees onsite so they get an adequate [amount] of sunlight, nutrients, water particularly. He does this on a very fine scale on his property and it’s actually proving to be very resilient. We see that in other places in the forest.”
Bluestein’s plan is to use many small crews using hand tools and small equipment to create open space, minimize habitat destruction and streamline regulatory compliance, “The prescription for the forest is under 10 inches in diameter for the most part it needs to be drastically thinned. That means thickets of trees and brush. That material and the fuel lying around needs to be chipped or burned or removed in the best way that you can.”
Ballard is hopeful that overcoming all the challenges, the Bluestein project is a model that could work widely, “The forestry practices that he’s doing on his piece of land are things that we need to be doing at that elevation in our pine and mixed conifer forests all across the western part of the Sierras. We know that it’s starting to provide some resiliency in long-term forest health.”
Something must be done with the trees that are cut or bug-killed. Bluestein suggests one way is small-scale electrical power, using solar panel arrays and small wood-burning co-generation plants. Power would be distributed to local communities or the grid. That and other ideas done statewide will require an enormous public investment and cooperation with regulatory agencies and environmental groups. A more open forest also enhances underground and surface water. It would also be an enormous boon for job creation and local economies. Bluestein says it will require a massive public commitment, “The co-gen obviously is not going to pencil out on its own, but what I’m trying to say is that if you pull the various interests and agencies and funding streams into this project to make it work.”
Another idea is to bring in small, portable mills to turn salvage trees into lumber. Ballard approves emphasizing the urgency of the situation, “What Jem thinks of in terms of small logging mills is actually very good. Except in bug-killed material in about a year it will no longer be merchantable for lumber, it becomes too soft and rotten.”
Bluestein observes that, above all, forests are critical to our carbon balance and survival, “In the survival sense not only does it pencil out but it is critical, it is necessary that we save and plant forests if we’re going to survive as humans on this planet.”
Bluestein is currently working on a proposal to inform and convince state and federal decision makers about the enormity of the problem and the need for action before it’s too late. Inaction now means billions spent fighting wildfires into the future.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@ gmail.com.