Wildfire Preparedness and Forest Management

May 20, 2020

Governor Newsom updated Californians last week on the state’s wildfire preparedness amid the Covid-19 pandemic and expected revenue shortfalls. Newsom announced that – conditions permitting – the state would soon complete the last of 35 priority forest management projects ordered in the governor’s March 2019 emergency proclamation for wildfire. These 35 priority projects treated approximately 90,000 acres of forestland and protected 200 communities.

In its 2018 report, Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada, the Little Hoover Commission urged the state to increase the pace and scale of forest management. At the time of the report’s publication, the backlog of forestland needing treatment in the Sierra Nevada alone was approximately six million acres, according to an estimate the Sierra Nevada Conservancy put together for Commission staff. The report also acknowledged, however, that resources were finite. A lawmaker told staff that even if the entire state budget were spent solely on forest management, it still wouldn’t be enough to fund treatment of all the state’s overgrown forests.

Newsom also announced that combined state, federal, and local efforts are keeping the state on track to treat 450,000 acres of forestland this year as part of the California Forest Carbon Plan. In its report, the Commission lauded the goals of the California Forest Carbon Plan, and, while acknowledging that some goals were aspirational, encouraged the state to push toward meeting them anyway. Toward that end, the Commission asked leaders across all state agencies with a role in forest management to determine what resources they would need in order to meet those ambitious goals. The Commission recommended the development by CAL FIRE, local air districts, and other affected agencies of a list of positions needed to meet the Forest Carbon Plan goals of treating 500,000 acres of nonfederal land per year, 500,000 acres of USDA Forest Service land per year, and 10,000 to 15,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land per year. The Commission said that state agencies should assume that at least part of the federal acreage treated will be handled by state employees working under the Good Neighbor Authority, and predict their staffing needs accordingly. Shortly afterward, the Governor created the Forest Management Task Force to implement the California Forest Carbon Plan and other wildfire and climate protections. At the time, roughly 275,000 acres of forestland were being treated per year, and thus the state has increased that amount by nearly 200,000 acres in just two and a half years.

The Commission also recommended a variety of other steps toward improved long-term forest management, such as a policy shift toward using fire as a tool, the use of more technology to mitigate smoke impacts from prescribed burns on nearby communities, and a multi-pronged forest health campaign aimed at the public.

Given current economic conditions, the state may have to prepare itself for slower progress than originally anticipated, but policymakers would be well-served by knowing what resources are necessary to create and maintain forest resilience so California can have a plan in place for better times.

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