By Robert Ingram
There seems to be a lack of understanding of our Sierra fire evolved ecosystem.
Our forests used to burn often, every seven to 15 years in the lower elevations and about four times a century in the higher elevations. Our forests retained around 60 to 90 tress per acre back then, as opposed to the 300 to 400 trees per acre today. Historically, the accumulation of ground fuel (the amount of burnable live and dead vegetation on the forest floor) and ladder fuels (the intermediate vegetation in between the ground fuel and the forest canopy) remained low.
Repetitive, mostly low intensity fires, kept our forests thinned of too many trees while reducing the ground fuels and ladder fuels.
The Sierra has missed five to 10 burn cycles on virtually every acre, pushing every forest in a condition never previously created. This man-caused biological shift has left our forests weak due to too many trees competing for limited sun, water and nutrients. Additionally, repetitive fire kept root, trunk and other live tree-rotting fungus and parasites like dwarf mistletoe in check.
Our forest require all forms of active forest management, much in the form of forest thinning to return tree density closer to historical levels, while removing ladder fuels to dramatically improve forest health.
One hundred plus years of fire exclusion has allowed the unhindered spread of these tree weakening species. The end result, drought or not, our sickly forests are ripe for additional pest infestations like our current bark beetle problem. But to correct this condition with large prescribed burns is unrealistic, extremely risky and way too expensive.
Just on United States Forest Service lands alone in California, to return to a 15-year fire cycle, over 1 million acres must be prescribed burned every year. At year 16, the original 1 million acres would need to be re-burned. Impossible, in the current over-stocked and fuel loaded forest condition, the number of people living in the wildland/urban interface, the air quality restrictions, the staggering federal and state bureaucratic red tape to wade through and the liability with eager lawyers wringing their hands waiting for the inevitable escape. Plus, it does nothing to correct our horribly poor forest health condition.
Our forests require forest management much in the form of thinning to return tree density closer to historical levels, while removing ladder fuels to dramatically improve forest health. Environmentalists don’t understand, or don’t care about, the true condition of our forests and the much-needed remedy. They hate harvesting trees. They use a little smoke and mirrors to claim that local and national environmental groups allow fire salvage that are a hazard and threat to the public. Those fire salvages are burned trees along public roads which the environmentalist can’t win on appeal anyway due to public safety. But the fire salvage of hundreds of thousands USFS acres outside of public roads are routinely appealed by environmentalists and stopped. Most of the trees on the federal acres burned in the Rim and King fires remain as standing rotting dead.
The Forest Issues Group from Nevada County, successfully appealed the limited herbicide spraying of the massive Cottonwood Fire in eastern Nevada County. The young planted trees remain stagnated in thick brush leaving tens of thousands of acres in a dense fuel-loaded condition. They tout the virtue of complex early seral forest yet through appeals or lawsuits stops its development.
Environmentalist’s claim mystical biomass plants are coming to fix the forest fuel load problem. Not true, a typical 2 to 4 megawatt plant would only need 400 to 600 acres of clearing for a year’s worth of fuel. We need to address 100,000 acres a year in Nevada County alone.
And the economics are completely out of whack. The going price a power company pays for electricity from a biomass plant runs around $34 a bone dry ton. The delivery cost to a biomass plant for a bone dry ton runs $60 to $75. Massive subsidies ultimately paid by us ratepayers can’t fix this level of upside down economics.
When environmentalists toot their horn about their virtues, take it all in with a grain of salt.
Robert G. Ingram lives in Grass Valley and is a registered professional forester.
This was first published as a letter to the editor in the Nevada Union