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. Be an informed citizen, not an unwitting pawn:
    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. sagehenforest.blogspot.com/2018/04/biochar.html
  • Have other ideas? Get in touch! sagehen.ucnrs.org/faculty-staff/ 
  • Artists: forest.ucnrs.org | sagehen-art.blogspot.com
  • We need financial support, too. Donate safely via the orange "Give Now" button at the top of our homepage at sagehen.ucnrs.org

Friday, October 19, 2018

Other Groups Working on Forest Issues

There are a lot of other groups working on California forest issues like we are. Here's a growing list:

New Products from Small-Diameter Wood

CLT and biochar are interesting enough, but there are some crazy new wood products out there, too...

Fungus Bricks


Made from fungus and sawdust, Phil Ross' recipe makes extremely durable furniture and building materials from a forest waste product.

The company, MycoWorks, also makes leather from fungus and waste fiber.





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Cutting Edge Materials Science with Wood

STRONG: "Some varieties of wood, such as oak and maple, are renowned for their strength. But scientists say a simple and inexpensive new process can transform any type of wood into a material stronger than steel, and even some high-tech titanium alloys."

CLEAR: "Because MMA’s index of refraction (a measure of how much it bends light) matches that of the lignin-free wood, rays of light pass right through the MMA-infused composite instead of getting bounced around inside empty cells. This renders the [treated wood] material remarkably clear." 

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Carbon Fiber from Wood Precursors

Oakridge National Labs is working on reducing the cost and manufacturing time of carbon fiber, which is a magnificently strong and light material, but currently prohibitive for mass production. Their research includes a focus on less expensive precursors including wood lignin, a waste product of the paper industry.


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Plastic Packaging from Wood

"Microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) consists of plant fibres that are only 100 nanometres in diameter, but can be extremely long, making them highly suitable as a reinforcement material for biodegradable plastics.

MFC membranes have also been shown to be impermeable to gases such as oxygen and can therefore be used to protect foodstuffs.

Most of today’s plastics are petroleum-based, but scientists are now trying to create a climate-friendly alternative to plastics from renewable resources - bioplastic and (MFC)."

-------------------------------

Nanocrystalline Cellulose (NCC)

"The new [paper-making] method involves breaking down wood pulp with enzymes and then fragmenting it using a mechanical beater. The shear forces produced cause the cellulose to gently disintegrate into its component fibres.

The end result is undamaged cellulose fibres suspended in water. When the water is drained away...the fibres join together into networks held by hydrogen bonds, forming flat sheets of 'nanopaper'.

Mechanical testing shows it has a tensile strength of 214 megapascals, making it stronger than cast iron (130 MPa) and almost as strong as structural steel (250 MPa).

Normal paper has a tensile strength less than 1 MPa.


The secret to the nanopaper’s performance is not only the strength of the undamaged cellulose fibres, but also they way they are arranged into networks. Although strongly bound together, they are still able to slip and slide over each other to dissipate strains and stresses."

It even conducts electricity!

-------------------------------

Wood Gas

Ford Model A with a wood-gas generator.
"Wood-powered vehicles have been around since the auto industry’s earliest days, but they didn’t rise to prominence until the end of the First World War. Alarmed by gas shortages during the war, many countries in Europe encouraged private companies to find a new type of fuel."


Traditional Forest Management

TED talk on Forest Management


As Paul says in the video, Native Americans managed the landscape with fire for thousands of years--in fact, the forests wouldn't exist without this legacy of fire.

Native American Forest Management

In California

 

Kat Anderson's, Tending The Wild is the definitive text on Native American land management in California.
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KCET: Cultural Burning, Episode 1

 


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Menominee Forest Keepers

 

"For more than 150 years, the Menominee have pioneered forestry practices that have preserved an ecosystem with numerous species and varied habitats. The result is a forest that is not only economically profitable, but also ecologically healthy.

The Menominee practice a sustained-yield approach to forestry; that is, they manage the forest to ensure that trees are harvested in amounts that will ensure a steady supply of timber far into the future. The Menominee approach is unique, blending modern forestry science with traditional beliefs embedded deep in their culture."

More info.



   

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Forests Are Human Artifacts

 

"Like people everywhere, Indians survived by cleverly exploiting their environment. Europeans tended to manage land by breaking it into fragments for farmers and herders. Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did...but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes. A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison."

..."what the eco-imagery would like to picture as a pristine, untouched Urwelt [primeval world] in fact has been managed by people for millennia...[forests] are among the finest works of art on the planet."

"The Indians were the 'keystone species' of the American ecosystem...After disease killed off the Indians...buffalo vastly extended their range. Their numbers more than sextupled. The same occurred with elk and mule deer."

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.