The first time that I considered that the forests on our ranch might be in trouble was when my oldest son Jesse, a Humboldt State botany major home on break, said, “Mom, this is not a healthy forest.”
I was surprised. Until Jesse’s comment, I thought the verdant forest, with its forest floor a bed of sword and maidenhair fern, and its slopes secured by roots of snowberry and wild rose, to be a healthy, resilient ecosystem.
But then on the night of Oct. 8, 2017, three fires surrounded us. For a week we did not know if our ranch would burn. It didn’t, but it was a wake-up call. Our forest had not been managed for at least 200 years, ever since white settlers arrived and then killed or chased off the people who had successfully cared for the earth of Napa County for millennia.
Most of us know that our climate is in deep trouble. If we are going to keep global temperature rise from topping 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we put into the atmosphere by eliminating the use of fossil fuels. But we must also draw down the excessive CO2 already in the atmosphere.
Our native forests do this naturally, sequestering carbon within their roots, trunks and branches. Scientists say trees are our best hope of drawdown of carbon. There are calls to plant 3 trillion trees, which will help, particularly as the trees grow, but we also need to stop cutting trees.
Proforestation, a term coined by Bill Moomaw, is a natural way to ensure trees do what they do best by not interfering with them. Proforestation “means growing intact existing forests to their ecological potential.”
When forests are disturbed, carbon is released, regardless of how the disturbance happens: wildfire, agricultural conversion, development logging — or essential thinning.
According to Forest Unlimited, of the 33 million acres of forest in California, 24%, or about 7.9 million acres, is owned by non-corporate private owners such as Donald and me, and 90+% of this acreage is 500 acres or less.
Many of us have no idea of how to "manage" a forest — or even that we need to manage it. Traditional knowledge about managing forests, particularly the use and timing of controlled burning, has been actively suppressed. This has had severe consequences in the degradation of our forest lands and their ability to survive the frightening frequency and increased intensity of wildfire.
When I learned that Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS, under the USDA) performs forest evaluations, offering matching funds on forest management, we applied. Some level of funding is available for those who make up to $900,000 a year. Although it is suggested that neighbors work together, each landowner must apply separately.
The next step was an evaluation. NRCS Evelyn Denzin and forester Jeff Kelly walked our ranch, drawing up a plan that includes thinning the forest and pile burning and management of the debris. We received estimates of what the cost share would be. If we are accepted into this program, we will be in charge of getting contractor estimates, hiring, paying for it in total, and then applying for the reimbursement, covering up to 50% of the work completed. We can do the work in stages and reimbursed work must be completed within three years.
The Forest Plan divides the 23.6 forested acres of the ranch into units and collects data from four representative 1/10-acre plots. On average, there are more than 1,000 trees per acre, with about 850 being California bay laurel (bay). The bay act as ladders for flames to climb into treetops and outcompete the desirable oak and madrone. The bay also transmits sudden oak death to the oaks and the madrone and is very flammable.
The forester’s recommendations raise questions that mirror those in forest management. Because we collectively have suppressed fire for so long, we have a dire situation on our hands. Everything we do will have negative consequences. Yet, if we do nothing, the outcomes will be far worse.
First, there is a lot of needed thinning. According to author Daniel Matthews ("Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change"), the density of forests that enjoyed frequent fires before white settlers took over the West was about 20-60 trees per acre. We have as much as 50 times that. One recommendation is thinning to 100-200 trees per acre, leaving all the oak and madrone, more bay by the creek, and keeping distances between tree clumps to about 15 to 20 feet.
Even leaving the larger number of 200 trees per acre means removing, on 24 acres, 16,520 trees! What do we do with that much debris? Burning releases carbon back into the atmosphere. Chipping creates kindling for wildfire, unless you compost it for years before spreading it again. Biochar can be redistributed to the forest floor, increasing fertility and sequestration. Still, how do you make biochar from the chipping of 16,520 trees? The logistics are daunting.
Yet, there is danger if we do not thin. Matthews cites studies saying that drought-stressed trees are more likely to die in a wildfire, even trees that are historically able to survive fire, like oak and redwood. Thinning may well help our drought-stressed trees survive.
I studied the plan, considering the consequences of each decision. I have some hard choices to make our ranch forest wildfire resilient. What I decide will impact our neighbors around us; what they decide will affect us.
Please, if you own land with forest or oak woodlands, consider contacting one of the following agencies to get help making your lands wildfire resilient. There are federal and state plans available that help with cost-sharing and includes NRCS; Cal Fire’s California Forest Improvement Program, which offers forest management for owners of 20-5000 acres; and the federal Emergency Forest Restoration Program, which helps owners who have been impacted by the wildfires. And Mt. Veeder Firewise offers a free three-hour evaluation for home hardening that is invaluable.
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Patricia Damery is a retired psychoanalyst and a writer and lives with her husband Donald on a forested ranch on the western ridge of the Napa Valley. Her forthcoming book "Fruits of Eden: Field Notes" tells the story of her own entry into activism for oaks. She can be reached at email@example.com
The article first appeared in Napa Sierra Club’s newsletter and is available at https://www.sierraclub.org/redwood/napa/blog/2021/03/steep-learning-curve-managing-our-forest-land-made-understandable-patricia.