Spring has arrived with the anticipation of another wildfire season. Last year’s was abysmal, especially for Californians. More than 1.8 million acres were burned, with the Camp Fire and Mendocino Complex Fire being some of the largest in state history. Now, more than ever, there is a need to reduce the risk of wildfire. The American Forest Foundation (AFF) is focusing on just that – by expanding our capacity to help private forest owners in California overcome barriers and protect their forests and the benefits – in particular, the clean water – they provide.
While all forests provide Americans with significant benefits - wildlife habitat, wood supply and good paying jobs - in the West, forests’ ability to support the clean water supply is paramount. Forests act as a natural water filter and storage system, keeping water clean.
In fact, 22 million Westerners get their clean drinking water from the water that flows through forests.
Yet, the worsening wildfire seasons, along with drought conditions, insect epidemics and the lack of markets – have put tremendous stress on these forested watersheds.
This dynamic is never more present than in northern California, where the Sierra Nevadas supply more than 60% of the water used across the state.
While most think this region is all public land, it is actually a patchwork of ownerships, with federal intermixed with private and family lands. In fact, in California, nearly 3 of every 5 acres at risk from wildfire in important watersheds are privately-owned.
Because clean water and wildfire do not stop at boundary lines, we must address forest restoration on both public and private land in a region if we are to make significant change.
While landowners want to do their part, they often face an uphill battle. According to AFF’s Western Water Threatened by Wildfire report landowners face barriers such as:
Uncertainty about what to do: Most landowners do not have technical expertise on forest management. While they know they need support, they do not know who to contact or what steps to take
The complexity of paperwork needed: Conducting a harvest or thinning out small trees often requires multiple steps, applications, licensed professionals and a forest management plan – a process that can be cumbersome for landowners
A place to dispose of the material: In order to truly reduce wildfire risk, small trees and debris must be completely removed from the property. This means the material must go somewhere – ideally to a mill that uses non-merchantable material such as a biomass facility. But these types of markets are scarce in the West
Cost: In the West, fuels reduction treatments can reach upwards to $2,500 an acre for landowners, with equipment, professionals, transportation and more. These costs are unrealistic without markets to offset the
AFF is working to help landowners in the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades overcome these barriers.
In the newly expanded My Sierra Woods project, AFF is collaborating with partners to provide landowners support. My Sierra Woods is providing landowners access to foresters and peers to help navigate the forest management process; as well as tapping into the biomass market to offset portions of the cost. Additionally, AFF is actively working with the U.S. Forest Service to find opportunities to work cross-boundary with federal land neighbors to ensure forest restoration at the landscape level. Ultimately, this work will create more resilient forests that support the water supply throughout the state.
Meet Chantz Joyce, AFF's California Conservation Manager
To lead the My Sierra Woods project, AFF recently hired a seasoned forester and expert in landscape-scale restoration, Chantz Joyce. A registered professional forester, Chantz brings a deep understanding of the challenges family forest owners face and a passion for helping them succeed.
Tell us about your background and forestry experience:
I grew up in the central valley of California and every year for vacation my family would spend a week in the mountains. It was always filled with great memories for me. It led me to investigate the forestry program at Humboldt State.
I began working in the field in college and once I became a registered professional forester, I began to do more advanced forestry work, writing timber harvest plans, contract supervision and interacting with different community organizations.
At one point, I had the opportunity to sit on a watershed board that was pursuing forestry projects. I enjoyed working with those landowners and collaborative groups, so I transitioned to a position with the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council. There I conducted landowner outreach and the groundwork for landscape-scale restoration projects.
Why did you decide to join the American Forest Foundation team?
I’ve worked with a lot of different agencies and ownerships. What I have found is working with family forest owners is so rewarding. I love building relationships with people. It may take extra time, or it may be more expensive, or you have to be more creative in finding ways to fund the work they want to do, but the end result and the people, certainly is worth it.
Forests play a significant role in producing clean water. Can you explain?
California’s forests provide a wealth of benefits to citizens across the state, but water is especially important. Our forests filter and purify the supply as it flows downstream. When we lose large tracts of forest – specifically to wildfire – the water that would normally be treated by the forests as it flows, doesn't get treated. So the quality of that water gets degraded.
What are some of the challenges California landowners face in caring for their forests?
The first issue for small landowners is they do not know where to go with their questions, or the extent and complexity of the process of forest management in California. You hear: "Who do I call with questions? Where do I start? How do I get in touch with a forester, do I have to pay them to come look at my property? Can I trust them?".
The second issue is there are significant fixed costs associated with forest projects. Whether you own ten acres or 200, it's the same equipment you need to do the work. For landowners in the Southeastern U.S., selling their timber helps them offset their costs, and sometimes even make a profit. But in California, like many places in the West, you will not recoup your costs because there are so few mills. And the existing mills are flooded with material from our large fires, and do not offer landowners a decent price.
In some cases, landowners are spending the money to have their property thinned and have the material chipped. But they're stopping there, leaving the chips spread on site. This does not actually remove the fuel hazard, it just rearranges it. They're not taking that final step to put it in a truck and take it to a facility where it can be used such as a biomass facility, because transportation is another cost.
What do landowners need to help them take action?
To start, the regulatory process needed to be streamlined. The Board of Forestry and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) have created a number of exemptions, specifically for landowners to manage their forests.
Second, and most important, a landowner needs to meet with a registered professional forester. While the State’s exemptions have helped to expedite the process for a landowner to reduce risk, there are still many complex steps. A forester can help the landowner manage this process, because it can be time-consuming and confusing.
Third, is financial assistance. There are numerous grant programs active in the state right now to cover the cost of a forester or other steps, but finding the right program to fit your need can be difficult. And these programs will not cover all costs.
You’ve worked for or partnered with many organizations in your career – what makes the American Forest Foundation unique?
AFF is bringing its experience with family forest owners from across the nation to California. AFF excels at bringing together many forest stakeholders – industry, conservation groups, federal players, landowners themselves. While every organization has different goals, everyone wants to see our forests thrive. AFF is helping to achieve a greater impact on the ground, by working inclusively with everyone, looking across boundaries, and coordinating with others. This ultimately is beneficial to everyone.
What is the My Sierra Woods program?
California’s forests are at a high risk for future wildfires due to overly dense conditions, drought, pests, and a changing climate. Former Governor Jerry Brown signed a law, S.B. 901, requiring landowners to maintain and improve forest health. The My Sierra Woods program is a group of partners working together to remove the barriers landowners encounter and help them get this forest work done on their land.
Specifically, we are helping landowners navigate the complex process and defray the costs of fuels reduction. In Shasta, Tehama, Butte, Yuba, Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada and Placer counties, for landowners that meet certain criteria, we can provide a free forester visit. Additionally, AFF is leveraging a market-based solution – a new financial incentive called the Forest Biomass Transportation Incentive (FBTI) – to help private forest landowners offset a portion of the costs of transporting the thinned material to a nearby biomass facility.
How is the American Tree Farm System involved in My Sierra Woods?
The California Tree Farm Program is one of our key partners in the project, bringing a network of about 500 landowners who are already active stewards of their forests. New incoming landowners to the My Sierra Woods program will be given the opportunity to meet with a Tree Farmer, rather than a forester if they choose. This peer network is a great avenue for those who prefer to dip their toes in the forest management process by talking with another landowner.
October 14, 2021
The Impact of Philanthropy in Western Forests
Family forest owners Ron and Marianne Dreisbach use land management – and provide philanthropic support – to help wildfire mitigation efforts
October 14, 2021
Mitigating Wildfire Risk Out West
Reducing the devastating effects of wildfires is paramount for saving our forests, and the American Forest Foundation is working to empower family forest owners and firefighters to tap the brakes and gain the upper hand.
December 15, 2020
Overcoming the Capacity Challenge in the Western U.S.
To meet the need for more professional foresters to assist landowners in western states, AFF has partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to build forester capacity across priority landscapes, with several successes and lessons in the program’s first year.