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What The Delta Could Learn From The Spotted Owl

The headline in the June 23 issue of USA Today echoes the headlines of other state newspapers. A record 66 million trees have died in Calif., increasing the fire risk. These headlines in the past few months should serve as a warning to those people working to save the California Delta. Single species management puts watersheds at risk.

Years of drought and lack of forest management have left the forest of the Sierra’s vulnerable to fire and bark beetles. Foresters say that the damage may be irreversible and that whole species of trees could be lost. In other areas like Arizona whole watersheds have been burnt and then collapsed under the onslaught of large rain events, sending rivers of mud hurtling toward communities, and people have started to question the wisdom of doing nothing. What is happening in the west should serve as reminder to everyone who cares about the resources of our nation that “not making a decision is a decision”.

The idea of the goal of returning the west to an untouched wilderness has been the objective of many of the people responsible for the current state of crisis in our forests. Scientists like Reed Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, Pegasus Professor, and Davis-Shine Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Central Florida and President of the Florida Institute for Conservation Science, and Edward Osborne Wilson, who is the University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and is the guiding force that shapes the mission of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and others have promoted this goal of setting aside large untouched areas to remain in a natural state. By using this eastern mindset that we can return forests to untouched wilderness by letting nature take its course, they have unwittingly sealed the doom of many of California’s forests and watersheds. The western forests have little in common with the acres of dense eastern forests, but yet those misguided goals have shaped environmental policy for decades. Shaped by native peoples and fire; our western forests were managed before any ship set sail for North America and remain a landscape shaped by fire and people.

In addition to the untouched wilderness experiment, there is also the idea that each endangered species should be managed for a single species protection. The best example of failure of this system is the habitat set asides for the Northern Spotted Owl. After being listed as an endangered species in the early 1990s, large tracts of land were set aside for the Northern Spotted Owl. Most of these owl circles, as they were called, have been impacted by the increase and severity of fire. These policies also impacted federal land where Spotted OwlS were found and curtailed forest management on those forest as well. Thousands of acres of forest land is being litigated into oblivion by people with no thought other than the halt of any action that would mean tree harvest. Litigation has stopped even the best intended fire reduction projects. Will history be repeated in the delta?

Making decisions for the delta, based on what is best for the Delta Smelt will only put our salmon and steelhead at a greater risk for collapse. We must look at the whole watershed including the people who depend on water for farms and families. It is time to look past the eastern based science of Wilson and Noss and find a way to merge common sense and science in a way that solves problems and saves species. Would the outcome be different if we spent the next 5 years working to implement all of the recommendations for habitat and stream restoration for all fish species and monitoring those projects to see if they have an impact on fish survival? The Sacramento-Central Valley Fish Screen Program is an excellent example about what can be done when you work from a project based strategy. Ann Willis at the Center for Watershed Science is leading an effort to balance water resource’s using co-equal goals and reconciliation ecology to achieve species protection and community health. We have willing landowners that sit ready to help restore the ecosystem. They want to help. The families and the endangered species in California are counting on us not to study them into extinction, or set unrealistic goals of an untouched wilderness. They are counting on us for projects that will be completed and then adapted to ensure that all species in California prosper.

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