Wednesday, August 6, 2025

Unintended Consequences in Western Forests

Western US forests are in ecological collapse. Wildfire is sweeping through at unprecedented scale and intensity while native bark beetles destroy entire stands. Climate change is only making things worse. The good news is that the problem was largely created by our short-sighted management policies, so we can fix it. But we need to act soon, and at scale, to preserve our forests and our water supply.

Comstock-era firewood--cut by Abner Weed in
the late 1880’s for the Virginia City silver
mines and the logging locomotives--still sitting
in the Sagehen forest waiting for a spark, 130
years later.

Dead wood in dry western forests is essentially
immortal: that includes large-tree logging debris.
We need small fires to cycle nutrients, not big
fire that kills everything and starts the
dysfunction-clock all over again.

But first, we need to thin the forest of overgrown
small trees and woody debris, so that small fires
don't turn into big ones.

Traditional logging doesn't do that, so we need a
new kind of timber industry that does.
Imagine sincerely trying to prevent rain from landing anywhere on a forested landscape. This would be an insane proposition.

Now think about fire. Low intensity fire is as natural to western US forests as rain, yet for most of the past 100 years, we have done everything in our power to exclude even small fires from these landscapes. We are now reaping the consequences of that folly, with accumulated fuel loads and warming, drying weather feeding catastrophic firestorms that destroy entire stands, and even city neighborhoods. California alone spends over $1.5 billion annually on fire control to protect 15 million fire-endangered acres. In 2017 over 1,000,000-acres burned in California, with direct and indirect fire suppression costs exceeding $13 billion. Who planned that?

Obviously, no one intended for us to arrive at this crisis but now that we have, there is a lot of finger pointing and digging in of heels going on. Environmentalists point at loggers, and loggers at environmentalists, but both sides have some hard lessons they need to hear and take to heart if we are to find a way through this crisis, and back to healthy, productive forests and forestry again. 50 years of vitriol and litigation proves one thing: you can’t change someone’s values by arguing with them or by steam-rolling them. Winner-Takes-All is a horrible model for managing shared resources like forests. We need to find a new, better way…and we have.

...

[CONT.]

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
  • Learn more:
    www.savingthewest.net | sagehenforest.blogspot.com | www.sagehen.ucnrs.org
    Watch our webisodes explaining the fire problem and the Sagehen Forest Project at tinyurl.com/y8ho2ckx
  • Contact your elected representatives and let them know there’s a better solution out there than just turning the traditional timber industry loose in our damaged forests to reset the dysfunction clock again. Ask them to support the Sagehen Forest Project prescription, and changes to building codes to allow engineered wood buildings. Resist “salvage logging” of dead trees: these trees are not a fire problem, and this activity reduces our capacity to do what needs to be done to save our remaining living forests.
  • Request local wood, and buy it where available! If retailers keep hearing this demand, they will force the industry to respond.
  • Use (hopefully local) biochar in your garden to improve your soil, and bank wood carbon for thousands of years. https://sagehenforest.blogspot.com/2018/04/biochar.html

Monday, July 30, 2018

Black-backed woodpeckers need small fires, not large ones

Scott Crosbie bands a BBWO at Sagehen in 2004.
The Black-backed Woodpecker (BBWO) is a threatened bird that colonizes burned areas, and depends on standing dead snags for their nests. As such, they are a touchstone species in the debate about salvage logging of burned and beetle-killed forests. Some environmentalists (notably, Chad Hansen of the John Muir Institute) are advocating for allowing large wildfires to burn, assuming this creates more habitat for the BBWO.

Here's an interesting new paper on Black-backed Woodpeckers:
"Our expectation, grounded in island biogeographical theory (MacArthur & Wilson, 1967), was that larger fires should show increased colonization and persistence. To the contrary, sites in larger fires were less likely to be colonized..."
So much for the emerging "Just Let it Burn" argument--these fires are just too big and destructive. We need to thin first, then let regular, low intensity fire back in. And leave lots of standing dead for BBWOs and other wildlife, too, of course.

Here's a short video of a BBWO nesting near the Sagehen fishhouse in 2014. BBWOs are a regular resident at Sagehen, where they nest in standing beetle-killed trees, not burned ones. See observations of BBWOs at Sagehen on iNaturalist:

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Biochar

Biochar is going to form a part of the solution to western forest management.
"Biochar is charcoal used as a soil amendment. Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon, and can endure in soil for thousands of years. Like most charcoal, biochar is made from biomass via pyrolysis. Biochar...has the potential to help mitigate climate change via carbon sequestration. Independently, biochar can increase soil fertility of acidic soils (low pH soils), increase agricultural productivity, and provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases."
Applied Power Labs in Oakland, CA builds portable pyrolysis machines that extract energy and heat from biomass waste. The end product of this process is biochar, and the artist-led company has a new strategy for disposing of, and distributing it. Based on the model of Community Supported Agriculture, you can now buy a biochar subscription, for your garden or someone else's. Do it!



More info.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

SFP Videos and 1-sheet

We've been chipping away at a series of 6 short videos explaining the Sagehen Forest Project evolution. Watch them below--just one left to finish!



We're also headed off to Washington DC next week for Congressional Visits Day, so we produced a 1-sheet (2-sides) explaining Sagehen and the Sagehen Forest Project very succinctly:


Saturday, November 4, 2017

We're expanding!

The Sagehen Forest Project is growing. The techniques and strategies we developed are being applied at larger scales in California. We are involved in several new initiatives, profiled in previous posts: Lake Tahoe West, Tahoe Central Sierra Initiative, Saving The West

We continue our outreach efforts. In September, Sagehen hosted 35 insurance industry executives to talk about what they should know about forest management, and how they can help. We are planning our next state and federal legislative training session for 2018. This fall we attended Burning Man as a guest of one of the founders in order to explore how Black Rock City's unconventional thinkers can help. We are meeting with this year's Temple architect and other artists about dead trees, forest health, and how their projects can connect people to forest issues.

Full implementation will take up to 3 more years to get burn windows, but you may want to start following some or all of these other efforts.

Friday, November 3, 2017

End days!

Preserving the big, fire-resistant 
Jeffrey pine trees; removing a 
lot of torchy White Fir.
Finally, we are reaching the final stages of implementation of the Sagehen Forest Project and other forestry projects in the basin plantations: logging and fire!

The hand-thinning and mastication units in the Sagehen Forest Project were completed in 2016. We tried to start burning the piles last fall, but they were still too green. All summer long, firewood cutters have been removing the logs from the piles for us (including volunteers from Northstar's Epic Promise Day), and the remaining slash is now dry and ready to burn as soon as snow comes to prevent the fires from taking off. The burn piles have a small bit of plastic sheet in them to keep the core of the pile dry enough to light after the ground gets too wet to burn.

Bamford, the contractor for the units with saw logs on them, finally executed his contract at the eleventh hour: it was awarded 6 years ago. The scary Transformer-like machines started processing logs about a week ago, and they will work until weather makes the ground too wet to continue. They'll return next season to finish. It's an impressive operation.

But, forest restoration projects are not complete until low-intensity ground fire returns to cycle nutrients and take over the task of thinning the forest before it burns catastrophically. Cool fire also removes duff layers that impede water infiltration, letting it run off and escape rather than replenish the groundwater.

That guy looks so unsafe!


This week, the Forest Service finally put fire into the plantations that they masticated in 2014. It takes a long time for all the stars to line up: air quality, fuel moisture, no wind, a storm on the way to put the fire out afterwards, fire crews in position, funding. It's amazing it ever gets done at all. Hopefully, public resistance to light smoke from prescribed fires is being overcome by the overwhelming smoke from catastrophic burns.

In the long run, this stuff is going to burn. As Craig Thomas of Sierra Forest Legacy says, "There is no 'no fire' option for California." We need to decide whether we want to work with fire, or continue to be its victim. "With fire, we've been trying to completely suppress a process that is as natural as rain...and it's not working out well for us. The next generation is going to pay our air emissions debt."

Feller-buncher head
Sagehen is working with the Saving The West project to try to build a small wood timber industry to keep some of the wood out of the flames, or at least burn it in a controlled furnace to make heat and energy.

Sagehen Forest Project photos (more recent photos are later in the album).

Of course, none of this would be possible without all of our wonderful partners in the Sagehen Forest Project including our funders at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, National Forest Foundation, US Forest Service, Tahoe National Forest, Wildlife Conservation Board, Joint Fire Science Program, UC Berkeley, and others. Heartfelt thanks!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sierra to California All-Lands Enhancement (SCALE) Project



SCALE is another group working on small wood utilization strategies. You can read their June newsletter here.

Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative

 "The Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative (TCSI), a part of the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP), brings together innovative approaches to increase the pace and scale of restoration work that gets done across the watersheds of the Central Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe areas."
TCSI is another recent initiative that scales up some of the principles of the Sagehen Forest Project. Sagehen is actively involved in the TCSI process, which covers 4.4m-acres in central California and Nevada.

See info flyer.

Lake Tahoe West

November 30, 2016 was the inaugural meeting of the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership.

Modeled on the Sagehen Forest Project's successful collaboration:
"The goal of the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership (Lake Tahoe West) -- a new interagency initiative of the California Tahoe Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, California State Parks, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, and National Forest Foundation -- is to restore the resilience of the west shore's forests, watersheds, recreational opportunities, and communities to such threats. The planning area includes 59,013 acres of federal, state, local, and private lands, from Emerald Bay to Squaw Valley."
More info.
FTP site where you can download all current and historical stakeholder group meeting materials.

One really interesting thing about the initiative is that they funded artist Todd Gilens to participate in the process and respond to the issues. Sagehen encourages #ArtSciConverge efforts to bring larger audiences and new problem-solving strategies to the grand ecological challenges of the 21st century.

Monday, January 9, 2017

CLT Blast Testing

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is a structural wood product that can be made from small diameter timber. This makes it a strong candidate for industrial use of some of the low-value wood product that needs to come off the Tahoe forests in order to restore ecological function and resilience to these damaged systems. As a bonus, CLT reduces the massive carbon footprint of concrete and steel in urban buildings.

Though very strong, fire- and seismic-resistant, CLT is not in the Universal Building Code...yet:
WoodWorks, in cooperation with the United States Forest Service and the Softwood Lumber Board, conducted a series of live blast tests on three cross-laminated timber (CLT) structures at Tyndall Air Force Base. All structures remained intact and matched modeling predications with acceptable levels of damage under significant explosive loading. WoodWorks will release a full analysis of testing results when available. The results will be used to further expand the use of wood solutions for Department of Defense applications and other blast-resistant construction.
 Check out that shockwave! Read more about these tests on the WoodWorks website.



Monday, January 2, 2017

STW updates


Saving The West continues to move forward with its goal of creating a small wood industry to restore ecological function to western forests. Some recent developments include:
  • A new website is under construction.
  • The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure was recruited this fall to submit a $100-million STW grant proposal to the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change program. The proposal passed administrative review, and the foundation will announce semi-finalists in mid-January. Newton Harrison is also in conversation with the Buckminster Fuller Institute about STW; in 2014, the organization awarded a Fuller Challenge honorable mention to the Harrison's art project at Sagehen.
  • We are applying for grants to fund a LiDAR and Landsat analysis to determine the quantity and quality of woody material that would be removed should the STW demonstration area in central CA and western NV be treated to restore ecological function. This analysis applies the "8-Emphasis-Area" approach developed in the Sagehen Forest Project collaboration. Quantifying the available supply over the time spans required for investment capital repayment is traditionally the major stumbling block to moving forward with new markets. Due to the realities of implementation cost, the Forest Service currently designs projects around what they can sell on the current commodities market, which is not useful for making financial projections.
  • The Sagehen Forest Project model is now being implemented in the Lake Tahoe West Shore collaborative project, a big scaling up of the concepts.
  • We continue meeting with all kinds of people already working at the intersection of industry and forest management in CA and NV, creating synergies and opportunities. One interesting idea we are discussing with the Burning Man people is the use of Sagehen Project slash for the construction of structures like the Man or the Temple, as a way to spread these concepts to a global audience.