The problem isn’t new. Over the past decade, we have seen seven of the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s history. Since 2001, California’s National Forests have lost 558,000 acres per year to wildfire. At the same time, seventy-six percent of California’s forested lands are considered to be in unhealthy condition. We now have over 129 million dead trees in the state, and Cal Fire estimates that two-thirds of these dead trees are located on our unmanaged and overgrown national forest lands.
California’s national forests naturally grow approximately 3.7 billion board feet every year. Yet the Forest Service in California has failed to harvest timber and thin their dangerously overgrown stands. On average, between 2000 and 2014, the U.S. Forest Service only sold 317 million board feet. That is just 8.5 percent of annual growth and, alarmingly, 37.6 percent of annual mortality.
What is driving this mortality? The Forest Service Inventory and Analysis program found that, on average, there are 321 softwood trees per acre on our national forests. Historically, these forests had around 20-100 trees per acre. The overgrowth contributes to intense competition among trees for soil and nutrients, resulting in tree stands that are less resilient to natural disturbances such as fire, disease and insect infestations. Once a fire is ignited, the accumulation of ground and ladder fuels result in crown fires that devastate the landscape, sterilize the soil, threaten our water supplies, and threaten lives, homes, and property.
The legacy of “hands-off” forest management and the “let-it-burn” philosophy is that California is losing its forests. Since the mid-1980’s, the Forest Service’s California Region has accumulated a 3.46 million acre backlog of identified reforestation needs, or forest lands that were burned in wildfires and never restored. Some of these forests are not regenerating naturally. What were once abundant green forests are now brushfields.
We’ve long argued these public lands need active forest management to help reduce the size and severity of wildfires. We’ve urged our elected representatives to make forest management a top priority and to give federal land management agencies the direction and ability to do more logging, thinning and prescribed burning to reduce fuels on the ground.