By Tom Knudson
Ventura County Star (California)
Copyright 2006 Ventura County Star
All Rights Reserved
On one side of the property line, a new forest is taking root, a glassy-green sea of waist-high pine planted by a timber company after a massive wildfire swept through six years ago.
On the other side, on public land managed by the Lassen National Forest, dense mats of brush cling to a landscape dominated by charred dead trees, some standing, others not.
"Nobody on the Lassen is proud of that land line," said Duane Nelson, who manages reforestation for the Forest Service in California. "We actually refer to it as our wall of shame."
Reforestation — the planting and natural regeneration of trees — is the most critical part of forest management.
However, across the West, vast parcels of Forest Service land scorched by increasingly catastrophic wildfires have not been replanted. The consequences may linger for centuries.
Imagine a Sierra Nevada that yields not gin-clear snowmelt but coffee-colored torrents from eroding canyons. Imagine shrub fields that stretch for miles, so dense that even birds and backpackers avoid them. That is the future Doug Leisz — a former associate chief for the Forest Service — envisions unless the agency replants more quickly.
"It's an extremely serious matter," said Leisz, who lives near Placerville. "Our forests are too precious to lose this way."
Large fires across the West since 2000 have sparked enormous concern in Congress, state legislatures and forest communities. They have led to huge new investments in firefighting and prevention. However, far fewer dollars have been routed to the tricky business that follows a fire: getting the trees growing again.
The scope of the challenge can be viewed not only from lonesome backcountry roads but also in a handful of government reports, including three by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Among their findings:
n While the Forest Service spends 40 percent of its $4.5 billion budget on fire, only a tiny fraction — about 1 percent — goes toward reforestation.
n As wildfire's footprint grows — this year a record 9 million acres have burned — the agency's reforestation backlog grows, too. In 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, 900,000 acres of Forest Service terrain slated for planting was left unplanted, up from 722,000 in 2000.
n Even where trees are planted, the agency often has no money to care for them. As a result, young stands grow into shadowy thickets where dead limbs dangle like wicks into brush, an invitation to more fire. Nationwide, 2 million acres of planted ground need thinning, an area three times the size of Yosemite National Park.
"I'm disappointed. I'm saddened. I'm frustrated," said Gil Driscoll, a retired mechanical engineer who lives near one overcrowded plantation in the Plumas National Forest.
More acres need replanting
Wildfire — fed by a massive buildup of woody debris, the legacy of a century of firefighting — is gobbling up more terrain than ever, and burning in destructive ways. Big, old, seed-producing pines that have weathered fire for centuries are dying in today's super-novas.
Making things worse, the timber industry dollars that paid for reforestation in the past have diminished as environmental lawsuits throttle the sale of Forest Service timber.
The upshot: Forest Service terrain that needs replanting is growing rapidly but money for reforestation is not.
"This is a swing back to the dark side," said Leisz, the retired Forest Service associate chief. "The backlog is getting bigger. It's growing like a cancer."
Of course, others dream of a different future in which the mountains recover naturally, over centuries, without the road-building and post-fire salvage logging that Forest Service officials say is needed to speed — and help pay for — reforestation.
"Salvage logging adds insult to injury, especially after a severe fire," said Linda Blum, a member of the Quincy Library Group, formed by citizens to strike a balance between logging and protecting the environment.
Obstacles were numerous
Yet there are few better places to see the consequences of the agency's failure to replant than in the expanse of brush and charred timber in the upper reaches of the Feather River, where the Storrie fire blackened 56,000 acres in 2000.
Obstacles to reforestation were numerous. Money was tight. In the Lassen National Forest, where 27,000 acres had burned, 21,000 acres were set aside as a natural area. They could not be touched.
However, Lassen officials determined that 1,100 acres could be replanted and planned to pay for it by logging trees killed in the blaze.
So began more than a year of planning, required by the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws.
Then in 2002, five environmental groups appealed, alleging the Storrie restoration project would hurt the area by damaging water quality and spotted owl habitat.
In August 2002, a Forest Service appeals officer ruled the project could go ahead. By then, the trees were starting to rot. Timber companies showed little interest.
Eventually, only 234 acres were replanted at a cost of $266,000. The job was paid for not with salvage revenue but with tax dollars.