Ever since California was invaded in the nineteenth century and eventually absorbed by the U.S., our land management practices have been atrocious. Mining and lumber companies went to work clear cutting most of the forests, including even rare giant sequoias, using the wood for mine shafts and other infrastructure.
Then, compounding matters, land managers have actively suppressed forest fires, leading to overgrown forests ripe for catastrophic fires and now intense tree die-offs due to drought and climate change.
Contrast this to Native California land management, which involved regular burns that cleared out the forest understory and left giant, well-spaced trees to thrive.
Now a new UC Berkeley study documents how controlled fires can provide all sorts of benefits for forest health and water supply:
“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study.
You can see more in the video above from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Meanwhile, the forests in the central and southern Sierra Nevada are experiencing an unprecedented pine tree die-off, due to the drought and climate change, as I mentioned above. Had these forests been managed properly, the pine trees would not have been able to grow back in water-competing clumps and might have been better able to withstand the drought.
Below is a photo I took from Yosemite National Park last weekend, where towering dead pines are going to be cleared out soon, leaving the area almost unrecognizable, and perhaps permanently altered. Let’s hope this situation motivates more responsible forest management practices going forward (tree thinning and controlled burns), as well as a stepped up fight against climate change.