Guest commentary: Napa has too many trees
Guest commentary

Guest commentary: Napa has too many trees


Ask any forester. She will tell you it’s true. Despite what you read in the papers, Napa, like the rest of the West, has too many trees. Our forests are unhealthy.

Tree density per acre varies from the Rockies, the Northwest, the Sierra to Napa Valley. Google “How many trees per acre a healthy forest should have?” and you’ll find that every area of the West currently has 5 to 10 times more trees per acre than there were when Lewis and Clark reached the coast.

According to forester Ralph Osterling, our Western hills should have around 80 to 100 trees per acre. Currently, we have somewhere between 500 to 800 trees per acre.

That’s why this watershed fight is so wrong.

First: Citizens defeated Measure C. To re-create “Measure C light” by administrative means makes a mockery of democracy. It’s unethical to favor partisan groups who lost at the ballot box.

Second: The abject ignorance of those advocating for increased “canopy cover” is not only silly, it is “unnatural” and actually dangerous to a healthy environment.

Some advocate increasing tree canopies from 60 percent to 70 percent or even 90 percent. This is counterproductive for the following reasons:

If we want to protect our watershed, what we need is a realization that in order to prevent another ecological disaster, we need proper forest management — not additional canopy cover.

We don’t need an ordinance which disincentivizes land owners from managing their over-dense forests — and prevents people from cutting trees over 5 inches in diameter, or limits forest management to 10 percent of trees per acre.

We may need to eliminate 50 percent to 80 percent of the trees per acre. Not clear cut, mind you. Judicious thinning of excess growth is what is needed.

According to Lin Weber’s “History of the Napa Valley,” in 1824, when Altimura first laid eyes on the Napa Valley, he deemed it perfect for cattle because there was no underbrush for cows to get tangled up in.

Lightning occasionally caused “natural forest fires,” but more important, (according to Henry T. Lewis in his seminal work, “Patterns of Indian Burning in California”) the local Indians burned on a regular basis. They did it for a myriad of reasons; from crop management, to making it easier to find acorns. But they did it every year.

That’s why when George Yount arrived in 1834 there was almost no “understory” to fuel fires.

The understory that is clogging our forests not only robs nutrients from normal healthy trees and blocks sunlight, this same understory provides a “step ladder” effect in the event of fire. Fire climbs up the little stuff and burns the bigger trees. This is why talk of 40 percent “shrub retention” is not only ludicrous, it is dangerous. (See Lake County).

Cal Fire has now recognized the importance of healthy forests to prevent catastrophic conflagrations.

From the U.S. Forest Service website: “The problem fire protection officials face is that not only does green vegetation burn, the forest is overstocked — 100 to 200 trees per acre, where a healthy forest has 40 to 60 trees per acre. Thinning green vegetation not only reduces the fire danger, it also frees up resources for the remaining plants and trees, making them more healthy, restoring their vigor and making them more resistant to fire as well as infestation by bark beetles and other parasites.”

A secondary benefit from healthy forests is more water for our rivers and streams.

An ancient redwood can soak up from between 1,000 to 2,000 gallons per day. A mature oak tree soaks up hundreds of gallons per day during the dry months. Because our western hills have trees of all types and all ages, no one has been able to give me an accurate account of what an average acre of madrone, pine, oak, Douglas firs, redwoods, et al soaks up daily. Yet, if we have 5 to 10 times too many trees per acre, that means 5 to 10 times as much water is being soaked up by trees and not going into our springs, creeks and rivers. (Trees shut down in October, which is why we see puddles in creeks and small increases in river flows — though there has been no rain all summer long).

Lastly, let’s stop all talk of “we have to do our part to fight climate change.” Due to the Ag Preserve, we have done more to combat climate change than any county in the country.

Urban environments create massive carbon footprints, compared to vineyards and forests. When we came here in the ‘50s zoning was one home per acre! The Ag Preserve limits urbanization to one home per 40 acres on the flat and one home per 160 acres in the hills.

This restriction means rural land owners have done more than their share to combat climate change, by eliminating tens of thousands of homes.

It is wrong for folks who live in the municipalities or have recently moved to the hills (because they are so pristine due to the Ag Preserve) to ask country folk to give up more of their property rights. We’ve done 10,000 times more already than urban dwellers.

As to setbacks from the tiny dry creeks that begin in the hills, my father’s home is on 13 acres. If we followed the proposed setbacks we would have less than two acres usable.

How much more do you want us to give up?

But don’t take my word for it. Ask the experts — not the groups with political agendas.

We all want a healthy watershed. Current rules and regulations have made that possible. The beauty you see today is because of policies rural people abided by yesterday.

What we’ve done is working. Please stop discriminating against country folks. Rural lives matter!

Jeffrey Earl Warren is a St. Helena resident.

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