Forest Innovation Summit Address

by Jeanne Wetzel Chinn, Redwood Chapter Northern California Forest Committee Chair

Good Afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. A few people have asked me, “What is Sierra Club?”  Sierra Club is the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. It was founded in 1892, and has national and state offices, and regional chapters.

I represent the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter’s Northern CA Forest Committee, and I am retired from the CA Department of Fish & Wildlife. Our Forest Committee has 24 highly knowledgeable members in 6 Northern CA Counties with expertise in forestry, botany, biology, prescribe burns, environmental non-government organizations, landowners, retired agency folks, and registered professional foresters.

Our 100+year Vision Statement is:

A Northern California where forest ecosystems are diverse, resilient and conserved; where historic land management damages are approaching recovery, and forest management programs are adaptable to on-going changes while providing monitoring for best available science-based land use and forest practices, biodiversity, and where our forests maximize carbon sequestration.

Historically – What is a Natural Forest?

Indigenous people in California performed over 4.5 million acres of cultural burns a year for 5 thousand years. They were integral to the ecology as they managed the forests. These were disturbances that supported the health of the forests, woodlands, and grasslands.  Their practices on the landscape supported wildlife habitat, healthy forests, and provided benefits for their personal needs such Ceremonial & Medicinal use, hunting and gathering food, basket supplies, and tules for boats.  In 1885, CalFIRE was founded and stopped all cultural burns creating a fuel overload of forest materials and causing our forests to be vulnerable to wildfires.

In the late 1880s early loggers began to clearcut forests, drove oxen pulling wagons up the forest watercourses causing great erosion issues, and then small trains were built through forests to take out timber at even greater levels.  These disturbances resulted in significant overlogging and serious devastation in our forests that has continued to this day in some areas where clearcuts are still allowed according to the CA Forest Practice Act Rules.

What is Sustainability? – Here, in CA, we really need an alternative term, such as “Responsible.” The reason we need an alternative is because the term “Sustainable” has been overused and abused. Our technology and culture have taken us beyond what the forest ecosystems can handle.  The indigenous people worked within the boundaries of what was sustainable. Then, due to the many settlers and loggers overusing resources, we face a Tragedy of the Commons.

Regarding economic Interests, as you know from this Summit, we use wood products, that is a reality. There are many ecosystem services. How do we reconcile healing our forests and using wood products?

It is complicated. 

I want to provide an alternative, where you can overlay your commercial values.  How do we coexist with the realities of land ownership and commercial operations?

My experiences in the forests I’ve worked in through CA Fish & Wildlife are from the Santa Cruz mountains up into Mendocino County. In the southern areas there is a concentration of small and large private landowners, with more state and federal forests to the north. CA is more advanced and government regulated in relation to forest landscape health than other states, although enforcement can be an issue. There are Timber Review Teams for industry harvest plans with CalFIRE & Forestry as lead. These Review Teams include professional foresters representing landowners, geologists, local agency representatives, Water Board and CA Fish & Wildlife staff. I was a timber harvest review team member with boots on the ground for many single-select harvest plans. Single selection removes individual trees of varying sizes to maintain uneven-aged stands. My work included protection of old growth and wildlife trees, special status plant species, seasonal wildlife habitat prohibitions, and measures to prevent erosion in riparian areas and watercourse crossings.

Some people say we should Not cut down another tree and not use any wood products; however, the alternatives they offer are not renewable resources. How do we meet the challenges to reconcile existing conditions with policies and goals, while taking into account important ecosystem services?

I’ve been asked to speak about “sustainability” in addition to economic considerations. Yet, we have to reconcile and meet the challenges presented for biodiversity, water, soils, climate change, and restoration needs.

Biodiversity – there is great loss from lack of cultural burns, degradation, overcutting, and climate change effects. How to get it back? An example, Marbled Murrelet is now a highly endangered seabird, coming ashore to coastal forests annually to hatch 1 egg without a nest on an Old Growth tree branch a minimum of 6inches in diameter with a 4-inch flat spot next to the trunk. Every tree in a timber harvest plan must be examined to leave trees with these large branches and their surrounding protective screen trees as wildlife habitat.

Watercourses – We need protection measures for salmon, trout and other aquatic species with erosion protected clean water, maintaining canopy cover for shade, cool water temperatures, and woody debris recruitment for refugia.

Soils – Why should we not Clearcut? Mycelium are tiny threads of fungal organisms that wrap around tree roots in a mycorrhizal network connecting forests together in an exchange of nutritional resources, transfering water, nitrogen, carbon and other minerals – and allow trees to send signals to each other in a forest. These forests are alive and communicating with each other.  When an area is clearcut these connections are broken.

Climate Change – Severe Drought and has led to invasions by native bark beetles. In timber harvest plans other invasive non-native plants like Pampas Grass and Scotch & French Broom must be taken out prior to daylighting from logging or they take over.  Wildfires from decades of fire suppression, drought and overstocked forests are wreaking havoc on our forests. What are natural disturbances?  And given climate change, how do we meet these challenges? In part, by allowing prescribe & cultural burns, and providing restoration activities with measures for adaptive management.

Forest Management – what do we have currently and how can we create and enhance forest resiliency into the future long-term?

There is Profound uncertainty, and we need to look at both stands and landscape levels. Example, inland from the coast, land managers are incorporating Clumpy/Gappy measures with acres of high wildlife habitat off limits to trimming during the nesting, denning, & fawning season. These clumps are surrounded by grassland gaps for protection from wildfires, with the idea that fires drop to ground level to prevent them from dancing unimpeded through the canopy and with a better chance of being suppressed. 

Conservation – provide an ecosystem-based approach for structural, functional & genetic diversity, and Sierra Club generally doesn’t support herbicides and pesticides for use in National Forests. Protect all old growth and wildlife trees; protect watercourses, and listed wildlife species habitat including connectivity linkages to enable their genetic flow. One example is the Northern Spotted Owl, whose status is federally threatened and in CA the Coastal-Southern Distinct Population Segment is endangered. It is an indicator species for all wildlife in its Northern CA habitat upon which they depend. Our Native Northern Spotted Owls live in the forest canopy and are very fragile and vulnerable to harvest plans and fires. Opening up the forest exposes them to predators and heat, with invasive Barred Owls coming in and taking over – this could lead to their extinction.  Mitigation measures require 2 years of 6 surveys for active nest detection prior to harvest implementation.  Their nest-roost areas and surrounding foraging habitat are off limits to harvests.

Adaptable Management – needs to be a priority. We need to Evaluate, Monitor, and Adapt with measures utilizing and contributing to best scientific available information. 

Ecosystem Services – Prioritize select cuts, leaving Old Growth Mother Trees, wildlife trees, key snags and granary trees, protect watercourses, and protect soils with wide cushioned rubber tires. How do we have a soft impact on our forests while harvesting for wood products?

Collaboration and Education – We need all Stakeholders working together to address these challenges. An example is the Northwest Forest Plan designed to protect old growth forests and critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. It covers 17 National Forests across 24.5M Million acres of federally managed lands in Western Washington and Oregon, and 5 National Forests in Northwestern CA. There is a Federal Advisory Committee called FACA established by the U.S. Forest Service to solicit advice and recommendations on landscape management approaches to update the Plan framework guiding management in consideration of current science and local economic, social, and environmental conditions.  FACA includes 21 representatives from key constituencies including:  the scientific community with specific expertise related to forests and fire ecology, wildlife, aquatics, vegetation and adaptive management, indigenous traditional ecological knowledge, conservation organizations, the forest products industry, outdoor recreation, government agencies, and the general public. Sierra Club has an internal committee tracking the progress of FACA and providing additional support and input. 

We are challenged as caretakers of the land – how can we create opportunities out of the constraints?  How can we both accomplish being responsible forest stewards and produce needed wood products?

My prayer to our Trees since the early 1970s upon seeing timber trucks loaded with old growth going down the highways is this:

Thank you for being here, and providing shade and beauty. Thank you for giving yourselves over for our wellbeing.  May you be used completely and may your future generations be healthy and thrive.  Thank you.