California needs to increase the pace and scale of efforts to improve the health of its headwater forests—the source of two-thirds of the state’s surface water supply. Management techniques including prescribed fire, managed wildfire, and mechanical thinning can help rebuild resilience in these forests and prepare them for a challenging future.
Decades of fire suppression have increased the density of trees and other fuels in headwater forests to uncharacteristically high levels and resulted in massive tree die-offs and large, severe wildfires. Improving forest health will require reducing the density of small trees and fuels on a massive scale.
This will require changes in the regulation, administration, and management of forests. Many of the recommended reforms in forest management can take place at low or no cost. But implementing them will require vision, determined leadership by state and federal officials, and the backing of an informed public.
“Actions to arrest the decline in forest health will take place far from urban centers,” said Butsic, an assistant cooperative extension specialist. “But all Californians will benefit through continued supplies of high-quality water, natural environments, forest products, and recreational landscapes.”
Changing the way forestry work is funded—and in some cases securing new funding—will also be needed to help expedite forest improvements. The authors suggest reforms that will enable the private sector and government agencies to use existing tools and funding opportunities more effectively and collaborate more easily on larger-scale management projects. One key recommendation is to find opportunities to combine revenue-generating timber harvesting with other management work to help offset the costs of efforts to improve forest health.