By Jemmy Bluestein
This is an urgent proposal regarding the protection of forests in California and beyond based on my own 50 years of forestry experience.
Since the killing/removal of the native human caretakers of the land, we have established practices exactly contrary to sustainable operation. Mature canopy trees were mowed down, and this process was repeated with the regrowth of the successive generations of trees. This caused damage to the soils and watersheds and led to choking regrowth of brush and tree thicket.
Combined with a century of suppression of natural fire occurrence (which previously had resulted in frequent “cool” fires and the safe reduction of forest fuels), these activities led to fuel loads and growth densities of unprecedented magnitude. Mix with rising temperatures and declining rainfall totals, and we have now arrived at the serious ongoing losses that have been predicted in connection with climate disruption. The following is a prescription for turning around this cataclysm and reaping great benefits of sustainable forestry for future generations.
The prescription: The typical position of the “tree hugger” faction has been represented as “hands off,” or no cutting or thinning permitted. The typical position of the loggers has been more along the lines of “Sure, we’ll thin the forest, but we’ll cut down any big trees for lumber in order to pay for the thinning.” Both positions contribute to the problem.
The necessary prescription at this point is that most of the trees and brush of less than 10” in diameter must be thinned (removed) as well as the huge amount of fuel on the ground (dead material) and all remaining trees limbed up to 16’ feet of hanging dead branches. This eliminates what is referred to as the “fuel ladder,” which otherwise transfers the fire from a slow, creeping tidying affair on the ground to a destructive crown fire or fire tornado.
The former will clear the ground, allow diverse species to grow, wildlife to move about, and does not harm maturing trees, sequestering great amounts of carbon in soil and forest. It encourages genetic diversity, which in turn leads to ecosystem stability. The latter destroys all in its path, releases carbon into the atmosphere, and destroys carbon capturing capability, which is what mature forests do best.
The negative feedback relationship of carbon imbalance feeding climate shift, causing accelerating carbon release (e.g., from forest fires, permafrost/polar ice melt methane release, oceanic carbon absorption decline due to temperature rise), is clearly racing several steps ahead of our detection or understanding; at any given moment, our predicament is probably more serious than we know. Every region must manage and restore its carbon balance.
Prior to the recent bark-beetle pine tree die-offs in the central Sierra Nevada, government agencies were becoming aware of the disastrous condition that the last century of upside-down forestry has wrought. Panic had set in with no plan or budget to address it. Climate shift has brought almost a decade of mild winters allowing beetle populations to thrive unchecked and decimate uncontrollably.
The die-offs, the kiln-dry conditions, the choking overgrowth and fuel accumulations are now flaming out of control in an ever-accelerating cycle. Here is how to immediately turn around the situation with maximum benefit to economy and world humanity.
We have to create many small conservation crews. (I will be somewhat specific in some of these descriptions, yet step one is immediate pilot contracts to dial in best hardware and practices for ramping-up of magnitude and then global export of the complete protocol.)
Crews will move through the forests with light mechanical backup. They will be small and many to lighten impact on natural systems and expedite compliance with all restrictions. Large-tired vehicles and light crawlers minimize disturbance and maximize access. Hand/chainsaw crews maximize employment and decrease reliance on big equipment purchase/maintenance and fuel costs.
Combined with small excavator crawlers with a masticator head, and grapples with a tub grinder, all thick terrains can be thinned and weeded like grandma’s rose bed. Compared to a larger mechanical approach, this crew is trained to encourage maximum species diversity by selecting species to be left growing in optimal density and location. (This benefit alone is huge, compared to the big outlay and high fail rate of replanting efforts after fire or major mechanical thinning or logging.)
The crew also brings biomass/fuel conversion into the forest; Portable pyrolysis or other cogeneration equipment will create virtually endless supplies of green fuel from forest product, chipped and converted onsite. This maximizes value and minimizes transport of raw material.
Fuels can be used by project equipment directly or transported in liquid or other form (electricity, even hydrogen, has some tie-in possibilities) to communities or the nearest grid connection. Although the prescription calls for leaving most maturing trees to grow (as we need to recover our forest canopy for the best possible atmospheric carbon absorption), the crew will also carry portable mobile dimension sawmills to produce building materials salvaged from the unimaginable existing quantity of dead trees.
The clean capture of this perpetual source of energy (chipped forest debris harvested on an ongoing basis in perpetuity) can be made into hydrogen, bagged up and tethered to units of milled lumber or other forest product so as to be lifted and floated out of the forest and into town where the lumber builds shelter for the homeless and the hydrogen enters the growing hydrogen stream for fuel cell or vehicular use. Roads in the forest would not be required to move people, equipment or materials.
The pyrolysis conversion process yields fuels and bio-char, a stable and concentrated form of carbon considered valuable (marketable) for farm and forest soils. The hundreds or thousands of crews will also have fire response capability.
The spread of this substantial crew activity throughout the region (and beyond) will protect and restore our forests and their ability to absorb and sequester carbon while decreasing wildfires and carbon producing petro-based activities. It will also produce great volumes of water downstream through processes that are becoming increasingly appreciated. Deliverables clearly would include employment opportunities in labor, training, sciences, education, operators, engineering, transport, energy, water, infrastructure and building.
To immediately finance this WPA-scaled initiative, consider first the current explosive costs of wildfire response and the ultimate losses of economy and human life and suffering. Next, look to the billions currently sequestered in the state surplus from the carbon trading program. Add all the income-generating aspects described above and then compare with the inconceivable cost of not responding quickly and effectively. The advantages in physical and emotional health from working in the forest are significant and currently subject to much rediscovery.
The goal of having whole segments of our society trained and devoted to sustainable, beneficial interaction with nature for generations into the future cannot be overstated. As Robin Kimmerer points out in her brilliant Braiding Sweetgrass, “Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land. Therefore, reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants. It is medicine for the earth.” And I would add, for us humans as well.
Jemmy Bluestein is a lifelong forester, folk musician and massage therapist. This update was written to forward to Rep. Jim Costa in hopes of getting the message to Governor Jerry Brown for immediate action.