How to Save California’s Forests

For about twenty million years, California’s forests endured countless droughts, some lasting over a century. Natural fires, started by lightening and very frequent in the Sierras, were essential to keep forest ecosystems healthy. In Yosemite, for example, meadows used to cover most of the valley floor, because while forests constantly encroached, fires would periodically wipe them out, allowing the meadows to return. Across millennia, fire driven successions of this sort played out in cycles throughout California’s ecosystems.

Also for the last twenty million years or so, climate change has been the norm. To put this century’s warming into some sort of context, Giant Sequoias once grew on the shores of Mono Lake. For at least the past few centuries, forest ecosystems have been marching into higher latitudes because of gradual warming. In the Sierra Foothills, oaks have invaded pine habitat, and pine have in-turn invaded the higher elevation stands of fir. Today, it is mismanagement, not climate change, that is the primary threat to California’s forests. This can be corrected.

In a speech before the U.S. Congress last September, Republican Tom McClintock summarized the series of policy mistakes that are destroying California’s forests. McClintock’s sprawling 4th Congressional District covers 12,800 square miles, and encompasses most of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountain range. His constituency bears the brunt of the misguided green tyranny emanating from Washington DC and Sacramento. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:

“Excess timber comes out of the forest in only two ways – it is either carried out or it burns out. For most of the 20th Century, we carried it out. It’s called ‘logging.’ Every year, US Forest Service foresters would mark off excess timber and then we auctioned it off to lumber companies who paid us to remove it, funding both local communities and the forest service. We auctioned grazing contracts on our grasslands. The result: healthy forests, fewer fires and a thriving economy. But beginning in the 1970’s, we began imposing environmental laws that have made the management of our lands all but impossible. Draconian restrictions on logging, grazing, prescribed burns and herbicide use on public lands have made modern land management endlessly time consuming and ultimately cost prohibitive. A single tree thinning plan typically takes four years and more than 800 pages of analysis. The costs of this process exceed the value of timber – turning land maintenance from a revenue-generating activity to a revenue-consuming one.”

When it comes to carrying out timber, California used to do a pretty good job. In the 1950s the average timber harvest in California was around 6.0 billion board feet per year. The precipitous drop in harvest volume came in the 1990s. The industry started that decade taking out not quite 5.0 billion board feet, and by 2000 the annual harvest had dropped to just over 2.0 billion board feet. Today, only about 1.5 billion board feet per year come out of California’s forests as harvested timber.

Expand the Timber Industry

What Congressman McClintock describes as a working balance up until the 1990s needs to be restored. In order to achieve a sustainable balance between natural growth and timber removals, California’s timber industry needs to triple in size. If federal legislation were to guarantee a long-term right for timber companies to harvest trees on federal land, investment would follow.

Today only 29 sawmills remain in California, along with eight sawmills that are still standing but inactive. In addition, there are 112 sites in California where sawmills once operated. In most cases, these vacant sites of former mills are located in ideal areas to rebuild a mill and resume operations.

The economics of reviving California’s timber industry are compelling. A modern sawmill with a capacity of 100 million board feet per year requires an investment of $100 million. Operating at a profit, it would create 640 full time jobs. Constructing 30 of these sawmills would create roughly 20,000 jobs in direct employment of loggers, haulers and mill workers, along with thousands of additional jobs in the communities where they are located.

The ecological impact of logging again in California’s state and federal forests will not become the catastrophe that environmentalists and regulators once used as the pretext to all but destroy the logging industry. Especially now, with decades of accumulated experience, logging does more good than harm to forest ecosystems. There is evidence to prove this.

In forests managed by Sierra Pacific, for example, owl counts are higher than in California’s federally managed forests. Even clear cutting, because it is done on a 60 to 100 year cycle, does more good than harm to the forests. By converting one or two percent of the forest back into meadow each year, area is opened up where it is easier for owls to hunt prey. Also, during a clear cut, the needles and branches are stripped off the trees and left to rejuvenate the soil. The runoff is managed as well, via contour tilling which follows the topography of the hillsides. Rain percolates into the furrows, which is also where the replacement trees are planted.

While clear cutting will not destroy most ecosystems, since it is only performed on one to two percent of the land in any given year, there are other types of logging that can be used in areas deemed more ecologically sensitive. Southern California Edison owns 20,000 acres of forest around Shaver Lake in Southern California where they practice what is referred to as total ecosystem management.

Earlier this year, when the Creek Fire burned an almost unthinkable 550 square miles in Southern California, the 30 square mile island of SCE managed forest around Shaver Lake was unscathed. This is because for decades, SCE has been engaged in timber operations they define as “uneven age management, single tree selection,” whereby the trees to be harvested are individually designated in advance, in what remains a profitable logging enterprise. Controlled burns are also an essential part of SCE’s total ecosystem management, but these burns are only safe when the areas to be burned are caught up on logging and thinning.

The practice of uneven age management could be utilized in riparian canyons, or in areas where valuable stands of old growth merit preservation. The alternative, a policy of hands-off preservation, has been disastrous. Tree density in the Sierra Nevada is currently around 300 per acre, whereas historically, a healthy forest would only have had around 60 trees per acre. Clearly this number varies depending on forest type, altitude and other factors, but overall, California’s forests, especially on federal lands, contain about five times the normal tree density. The result are trees that cannot compete for adequate moisture and nutrients, far less rain percolating into springs and aquifers, disease and infestation of the weakened trees, and fire.

This alternative – manage the forest or suffer fires that destroy the forest entirely – cannot be emphasized enough. In the Feather River Canyon, along with many other canyons along the Sierra Nevada, the east-west topography turned them into wind tunnels that drove fires rapidly up and down the watershed. Yet these riparian areas have been among the most fiercely defended against any logging, which made those fires all the worse. The choice going forward should not be difficult. Logging and forest thinning cannot possibly harm a watershed as much as parched forests burning down to the soil, wiping out everything.

Expand the Biomass Power Industry

If removing trees with timber operations is essential to return California’s forests to a sustainable, lower density of trees per acre, mechanical removal of shrub and undergrowth is an essential corollary, especially in areas that are not clear cut. Fortunately, California has already developed the infrastructure to do this. In fact, California’s biomass industry used to be bigger than it is today, and can be quickly expanded.

Today there are 22 active biomass power plants in California, generating just over a half-gigawatt of continuous electric power. That’s one percent of California’s electricity draw at peak demand; not a lot, but enough to matter. Mostly built in the 1980s and ’90s, at peak there were 60 biomass power plants in California, but with the advent of cheaper natural gas and cheaper solar power, most of them were shut down. These clean burning plants should be opened back up to use forest trimmings, as well as agricultural waste and urban waste as fuel.

At a fully amortized wholesale cost estimated somewhere between 12 cents and 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, biomass power plants cannot compete with most other forms of energy. But this price is not so far out of reach that it could not be subsidized using funds currently being allocated to other forms of renewables infrastructure or climate change mitigation. Moreover, this kilowatt-hour price necessarily includes the labor intensive task of going into the forests and extracting the biomass, creating thousands of good paying jobs. The numbers could work.

If, for example, biomass power capacity in California were roughly doubled to 1.0 gigawatt of continuous output, a six cents per kilowatt-hour subsidy would cost about $500 million per year. This must be compared to the annual cost of wildfires in California, which easily exceeds a billion per year. It also must be compared to the amount of money being thrown around on projects far less urgent than rescuing California’s forest ecosystems, such as the California High Speed Rail project, which has already consumed billions. And if this entire subsidy of $500M per year were spread into the utility bills of all Californians, it would only amount to about a 1.5 percent increase.

Will Politicians Do the Right Thing?

The logic of these steps seems impeccable. Thin the forests. Restore them to ecological health. Adopt time tested modern logging practices and revive the timber industry. Build biomass power plants on the perimeter of the forests. Reissue grazing permits for additional cost-effective brush thinning. Prevent ridiculous, costly, horrific, tragic wildfires. Help the economy.

But these steps have been known for decades, and nothing was done. Every time policymakers were close to a consensus on forest thinning, government bureaucrats obstructed the process and the environmentalists sued to stop the process. And they won. Time and time again. And now we have this: millions of acres of scorched earth, air so foul that people couldn’t leave their homes for weeks, and wildlife habitat that in some cases will never recover. If this failure in policy doesn’t leave Californians livid, nothing will.

The forest management policies adopted in California have decimated California’s timber industry, neglected its biomass industry, turned millions of acres of forest into scorched earth, and are systematically turning mountain communities into ghost towns. This is tyranny, and perhaps even worse, it is tyranny that lacks either benevolence or wisdom.

If the goal was to have a healthy forest ecosystem, that was violated, as these forests burned to the ground and what remains is dying. If the goal was do anything in the name of fighting climate change and its impact on the forests, and do it with urgency, that too was violated, because everything they did was wrong. Even now, instead of urgent and far reaching changes to forest management policies, we get more electric car mandates. That was the urgent response.

California’s ruling elites, starting with Gavin Newsom among the politicians, and Ramon Cruz, the Sierra Club’s new president, may prove they care about the environment by sitting down with representatives from California’s timber, biomass energy, and cattle industries, along with federal regulators, and come up with a plan. They might apply to this plan the same scope and urgency with which they so cavalierly transform our entire energy and transportation sectors, but perhaps with more immediate practical benefits both to people and ecosystems.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.


  1. The perfect storm for fire “fuel” in CA:
    • California forests get the least rain, with generally 7 to 8 months of summer weather without rain.
    • The bark beetle has killer almost 150 million trees during the last decade, which is a huge supply of “fuel” for that next fire..

  2. That’s an easy one: Recall Supreme Commander Newsance at:

  3. Truthseeker says

    This analysis is so right on. Newsom, driven by environmentalists, has made one bad policy move after another, taking away jobs, a money generating federal entity, and a renewable resource–save trees, use plastic bags and straws instead of paper–now we have them all over the landscape and killing sea creatures–and forest fires so intense that firemen are suffering PTSD. These fires wipe out years worth of emissions savings by smog checks and using electric cars. Thanks to Tom McClintock who is really worth his salt in communicating facts to his constituents.

  4. While I agree wholeheartedly with the analysis and the need for very different measures to limit the extent of forest fires in California, in fact more than 50% of the State’s forested land is not owned by California but father is owned by the Federal government. Thus, Federal action could have been taken regarding those lands, but has not been taken. President Trump appointed the Department of the Interior head but I don’t know whether the DOI has the ability to override all the restrictions issued by California’s progressive politicians supported by the majority of residents who continuously elect Democrats.

    • Carrie, your correct……Observe a map of Federal Government land ownership and you will see that just about 90% of the land West of the Continental Divide is Federally controled.

      The question remains:……To whom does land control belong.?

    • The problem is every time the feds try to pass a bill to do something about it the environmentalist lobby shut it down or they sue to stop it from happening. Any time they sue to stop it they stop it from getting anything done until they get to court which takes years to do anything

  5. Richard Cathcart says

    Every time sensibleness comes to Federal regulation of CA’s forest and other public lands, the Greenies and Sacramento’s mindless but greedy authoritarians SUE in Court, suits taking years to resolve by slow-moving jurists and Environmentalist lawyers, all of whom are backed by 50 years of bad CA legislation and regulation that must be accommodated in the thinking and planning of sensible people. We have wealthy urbanites who care not the least about rural CA, its landscapes or its workers. It is obvious that urban realtors and our ruling Elites see rural and wild lands in CA as merely more opportunities for profit-making development–fill the southern Central Valley with poor people’s-housing, cheaply built suburban “homes and apartments”, “affordable” residences for High-Speed Rail commuting urban slaves serving a Covid-19 cleansed city such as San Francisco. Elitist urbanites still love the CA Coast (“oh, the views”) but dislike the present-day too visible urban riff-raff, druggies and poopers. Get rid of them by some deft means, and such places are restored to “livability” for Elites! Of course, Elitists will re-purchase their cityscapes at lower prices since Covid-19 and reduced real-estate prices and even rents in San Francisco already. Always they benefit. Imagine a near-term future “gated community” in San Francisco: defund the police now because Elitists will hire killer private security firms!

  6. It is true that the federal government owns the major portion of the forestry land in California. However, the operations to take care of it are constantly blocked by environmentalist and state government and not by President Trump.

    • ALL, Of this is open and worthy testimony. As a kid and hired on to the calif. div. of forestry (CDF) as a seasonal employee in 1958 at lockwood, monterey county and working for foreman: Richard Gillette and assistant ranger Carl Nicolson I can say those 5 gal steel indian backpumps were a real pain in the _ss.

      The Lake Tahoe basin instituted a forest management plan a couple of years ago to prevent crowning which has been a huge success. (fire crowning on high places spreads wild fires),

      This said, they had no huge fires this year 2020.

      This strategy (crowning) is only one of many known to mitigate uncontrolled wildfires.

      There are lessons learned here which are not at all distant from our indigenous people’s methods of forest /combustible materials management.

      These indigenous people who lived in these forests and derived their existence there knew how to selectively manage burning.
      They still do it in humboldt.

      Just Saying. Listen to the people.

      Of course you know that sacramento will not listen.

      Neither will the Great White Father Person.

      Only the state of Jefferson to listens with their own.

  7. Stan Sexton says

    My hope is that this new policy would also reduce Pyroterrorism But most fires are man-made and Pyroterrorism is political.Please look up Pyroterrorism on Google. The U.S. Forest Service had a Conference addressing this subject, but the Press will not even mention it. Not PC.

  8. If we don’t log and maintain our forest floor, Mother Nature will and she is ruthless. I sure hope “someone” is paying attention.

  9. Kirsten Anker says

    The credibility of this article is immediately called into question by the comment that “climate change has been the norm” over the last 20 million years. Sure, the climate has changed, and natural systems have adapted. But the current warming event that we are experiencing is advancing much faster than those Mr Ring is referring to, so there is no time to adapt and no place the great Californian forests can move to, in search of wetter and cooler conditions. To protect the existing forests, we need to support them, as they use natural mechanisms to survive. The first step in protecting them is understanding them. Senator McClintock reveals his considerable lack of understanding when he speaks about “excess timber” and the need to “manage” the forest for its own health. These forests have been thriving by using this “excess timber” in its natural cycles, for tens of thousands of years before humans appeared on the continent. What Mr Ring and Senator McClintock are saying is that they want to use the forest as a resource and they believe they can do so without harming it.
    In Europe, timber is harvested tree by tree, not by the vandalous practice of clear-felling.Still, after thousands of years of farming timber, there are no forests left that can even begin to compare with the great forests in the US. This is a message to us – timber getting from wild forests is not sustainable.
    To protect the forests, we need to find other sources for building materials – cultivated timber, bamboo, artificial materials including fire retardant materials – all areas in which there are huge opportunities for employment, not only in harvesting the materials but also in creating them.. We then need to urgently work to stop global warming, so that the forests don’t suffer the long droughts that stress the trees and make them more susceptible to fire. (More opportunities for jobs in the fast-growing renewable energy sector). And finally, we need to have a conversation with indigenous peoples about how they managed the forests for the thousands of years they have lived here. Again, this is an opportunity for employment of indigenous peoples and others to work WITH the forest to support it as it struggles to survive for our children and grandchildren and others far into he future, to enjoy as we have.

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