By Patricia McBroom
In the mountains above Fresno, a slim, beautiful wild plum has taken root in a newly cleared meadow. No one planted the tree. It simply sprouted on its own, once the overgrowth was pushed out by Native Americans working to revitalize the forest.
The blooming presence of this sapling stands as testimony to what can be done to not only restore a meadow but to thin the forest and thereby bring more water down from the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
|A wild Sierra Plum tree sprouted naturally in|
the restored Progeny meadow, east of Bass Lake.
credit: Ron Goode
Experts have been talking for years about thinning California's forests to enhance the water supply downstream. No one knows exactly how much more water the Sierras could produce if the dense undergrowth was removed, but it's a lot – two, three, up to 16 percent (p.2) or more, of current yield. While estimates vary, most reflect a recognition that reversing the century's old habit of suppressing fire in the watershed is critically needed.
“Failure to understand the urgency of the situation in the Sierra Nevada will have devastating impacts on California's environment and economy,” warns the Sierra Nevada Conservancy in a new report on the need for prescribed burns and thinning in the forests.
The Conservancy, a state agency, was referring mainly to the risk of huge wild fires, like those that have been growing in size every year. But authors of the report, The State of the Sierra Nevada's Forests, also estimate that up to 60 percent of snowfall never reaches the ground because the tree canopy is too thick. Much of that snow then evaporates and never reaches downstream use. On the other hand, when wildfires rip through the forest, they take out every tree and nothing is left to shade the new snow, which again is lost to the air and early melting.
A golden mean is needed – some trees, but not too many, and a forest cleared of dense underbrush so that when fire does come, it stays on the ground. A wet meadow, for its part, acts to control the wild fire. It is the forest's sponge, holding water late in the year and releasing it slowly into streams and groundwater. Many, if not most, of the Sierra's meadows have been degraded, no longer functioning as sponges or sources of species diversity.
|North Fork Mono Tribe chief Ron Goode has worked for|
decades to revitalize his homeland with traditional knowledge of
prescribed burns and forest ecology. credit: Patricia McBroom
Ancient traditionsI was in the Sierra National Forest, which surrounds the San Joaquin River watershed, between Yosemite and Sequoia, to find out what the North Fork Mono Tribe was doing to recover the health of the forest there. It is their ancient homeland and while most of the several thousand Indians – those who survived genocide – were driven out of the mountains a century ago, many of them still carry traditional knowledge of forest stewardship.
“Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the use of fire by North Fork Mono and other California Indian people enhanced plant and animal resources and sustained a higher human population density than intensive, seed-crop agriculture could have supported,” writes Jared Dahl Aldern, an environmental historian and co-director of the Stanford University-based Comparative Wests Project.
Gardeners of the Forest
“These were the gardeners of the forest,” said Douglas McKay, head archaeologist of the Sierra National Forest's heritage program, as we rumbled in a Forest Service jeep through the woods from meadow to meadow. McKay explained that the several hundred thousand Indians who originally lived there had maintained healthy forests with regular controlled burns that preserved the meadows, increased the diversity of species and protected against wild fire.
“We need the gardeners to come back and start taking care of the land again.” said McKay, adding that most of what scientists describe as a “natural” forest with a clean understory was actually created by Indians.
|Wood and debris waiting to be removed after meadow restoration in the|
Sierra National Forest. credit: Patricia McBroom
“A good meadow has up to 55 species, including food, medicine and other useful products,” said Goode. “This meadow was brown when we started,” he said, pointing to a green space in the trees filled with flowers and new grasses. “Before, all we had was thistles and brush. Now we have bees, flowers and plants. The water is providing for all of that.” Goode is participating in the Dinkey Creek collaborative, an effort to restore 154,000 acres in Sierra National Forest with thinning and meadow revitalization. It's one of the larger Forest Service projects in California, representing about 10 percent of this national forest (1.3 million acres). But it's a drop in the bucket, compared to what needs to be done.
Benefits of Forest Restoration
In a large scientific review of water supply benefits, the Nature Conservancy recently estimated that tripling the pace of current forest restoration would result in up to a six percent increase in the mean annual streamflow from individual watersheds. The restoration would pay for itself in these water benefits, the non-profit conservation group concluded.
|Sierra National Forest has 1.3 million acres, half of which is|
in need of thinning; the rest is protected wilderness areas.
credit: US Forest Service
Yet, the Forest Service is crippled by loss of personnel due to Congressional cutbacks. Controlled burning usually can't be done because of resistance by air pollution boards, or public misunderstanding. Moreover, the forests are now so choked with flammable material that a prescribed burn could easily turn wild. And it's dry and hot. And there's no money. Most of the money that U.S. land management agencies such as the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management have early in the year for proactive management is swallowed up later by the need to fight fire.
The Karma of Doing Nothing
“Pick your smoke.” says the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, in advocating for controlled burns. Adds McKay, “Mother nature will do it if we don't and you will not like the result.”
What then can we do? If government agencies can only respond to crisis management of wild fire, there will be little effort to fix the State's crucial watershed – the magnificent mountain range that stretches 400 miles from Bakersfield to the Oregon border which is the source of 60 percent of our developed water supply. Moreover, climate change is reducing the snow pack to a frightening degree; there is an urgent need to make the best use of what falls from the sky.
Against these odds, McKay is optimistic. “We have the ability to fix this problem, but we need some funding,” he said. McKay wants to see tribal people employed in a modern day Conservation Corps to initially clear the forest of its dangerous overgrowth by mechanical means, then maintain a clean forest with low-intensity prescribed burns every few years.
|Forest archaeologist Douglas McKay wants a|
modern-day Conservation Corps to restore the
Sierras: "We can fix this problem," he says.
credit: Patricia McBroom
Native Americans lived in and maintained the Sierra Nevada mountains with such burns for more than 9,000 years until European contact. We could do worse than use their knowledge. The small burns not only kept wild fire under control, but they were necessary to maintain the ecological health of a wide variety of animal and plant species. Giant Sequoia trees, for instance, require periodic fire to regenerate and are at risk from fire suppression. Sierra meadows are primary resting places for millions of migratory birds on the Pacific flyway.
Collaboration and Money
But are there enough Indians to do the job? “There are plenty of Indians,” replied Goode. Some 6,000 Indians from 13 tribes still live in or near the Sierra National Forest, with many more thousands further north. “Anyway, all you need is one, who knows what he's doing.” Young Americans of all backgrounds could then be employed to serve the nation under a collaborative effort by many organizations including tribes.
That is exactly what the Forest Service is trying to put together now. The Dinkey Creek Landscape Restoration Project, for example, involves 30 different organizations – state, federal, non-governmental, private and Indian – which have so far thinned thousands of acres of forest and are preparing to restore the meadows.
“We need to be putting together more of these collaborative groups,” said McKay. “All we need is the money.”