Log it, Graze it, or Watch it Burn

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: October 1, 2020

The West seems to be on track to have catastrophic wildfires annually. Diverse interests place blame on a wide variety of causes including climate change and decades of inadequate land management. Meanwhile, here in Sonoma County as the smoke dissipates from our latest fire, landowners continue to assess the feasibility of implementing fire resiliency measures on their properties. Though a wide variety of tools are available, barriers including high costs, lack of labor, time constraints, regulatory red tape, and absentee landowners leave many wanting to take action, but instead are facing uncertainty about where to or lacking the resources to begin.

Stephanie Larson, Sonoma County Director and Livestock Range Management Advisor, said that another fire season is always just around the corner and whether a landowner has 20 acres or 200,000, the process of implementing fire resiliency practices can be overwhelming. However, she hopes our community will take the momentum from living through another fire to make positive changes. 

“Leaving the land as ‘natural’ doesn’t work anymore,” Larson said. “It’s not actually how it evolved and now it’s so choked and fire-prone that it’s a liability for us all. We have all seen that very clearly over the past four years.”

Sonoma County is unique though because as Larson points out, with less than 10% of land in federal or state ownership, most of the land is privately owned and small scale. 

“The burden and responsibility of keeping our community more fire-safe and fire resilient are on the backs of landowners,” Larson said. “Both landowners and community members must understand all the practices available and the wide variety and scale of costs and labor needed to implement them.

Drew Loganbill is the Natural Resource Conservation Service District Conservationist in the Petaluma field office, where he has worked for 9 years. He provides technical assistance to agricultural producers in Marin and Sonoma County and works to prevent environmental degradation—which includes wildfire.

“More and more when I see these fires, I see the hardship on agricultural producers, whether it’s the livestock landowners losing all of their feed at once or vineyards losing vines or irrigation systems,” Loganbill said. 

He attributes increased catastrophic fires in Sonoma County to a combination of climatic anomalies and lack of management. However, he said he sees opportunities to help private landowners to create more fire resilient landscapes by implementing land management tools, which won’t necessarily stop wildfires from occurring but will help them be less destructive. He said that doing so can be challenging, costly, and time-consuming.

“We do projects in areas where a fire hasn’t struck including fuel load reduction, fuel breaks, and forest thinning,” Loganbill said. “We also have programs available to assist post-fire by doing erosion control, thinning of dead and dying material, slash removal, and replanting.”

He said that even though many effective tools are available, landowners face barriers to implementing such important measures on their property, which stands in the way of our community’s overall safety.

One of the most glaring barriers is the inability of the average 10-acre parcel to generate enough profit to pay for the necessary improvements.  

“Even if you were to do a timber harvest plan, most landowners can’t really generate money to put back into their property,” Loganbill said. “It is expensive to properly do fuel load reduction work and other improvements.”

Matt Greene of Matt Greene Forestry & Biological Consulting has been a Registered Professional Forester working primarily for small family forests and ranchers and non-industrial landowners for 21 years in Sonoma County, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and Mendocino County. He echoed similar concerns and said that land size is often a barrier to entry.

“According to the Sonoma Land Trust, the average forest parcel in Sonoma County is 10 acres in size,” Greene said. “A parcel that small is going to have a hard time offsetting the $1,000 to $2,500 cost per acre to the fuels reduction work that needs to get done including thinning, grazing, and brush removal.”

The NRCS has several financial resources to support landowners achieve their goals including from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).

“We’ve had some limited success securing grant funding for projects putting in fuel breaks for ingress/egress roads for fire safety, but broadscale across the county, projects aren’t moving forward yet,” Greene said.

That is largely due to the parcel sizes, grant requirements and ranking criteria as some of the funding gives priority to economically disadvantaged communities. Therefore, Greene said that projects in Sonoma County often don’t fit within grant parameters. Without grant funding, he said that there are very limited options for small landowners to offset funds needed for fuels reduction projects.

However, Greene said that lessons from the past can help us have more fire resilient forests in the future. 

“We did such a good job for about 70 to 90 years of suppressing large wildfires, but now we have fuels built up as we’ve never seen before,” Greene said. “If you look at the historic literature, Native Americans and lightning were burning land every 7-9 years in coastal locations of Sonoma County and that’s not the case anymore.”

What is needed now? A reasonable discussion about forest management.

“Today, we have an overabundance of trees per acre,” Greene said. “Historically, in coastal redwood forests in Sonoma County we likely had 40-75 trees per acre and now in many forests there are 200 or 300 trees per acre or more. Not every tree standing is needed whether for forest production, wildlife, or beneficial water use. We are loving our forests to death.”

He said that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the only solution is to do more commercial logging but that fuels management needs to be a priority. 

“We need to reduce smaller diameter materials, brush, and downed woody debris, which all help carry fires as well as managing our maturing forests,” Greene said. “These non-commercial projects are costly to landowners and have no economic gains.”

Going forward, Greene said that it is going to take time to reduce ladder fuels and forest fuels to a point where they are manageable. Then, landowners must keep at it. 

Most vegetation sprouts following cutting, burning, or disturbance from grazing so Greene said it’s important to remember that applying a management tool is not a one-time fix-all. 

“That’s what’s really hard—when you have to tell a landowner that it’s going to cost $1,000 to $2,500 per acre every 5 to 8 years,” Greene said. “Hopefully, you can reduce the fuel load so that each successive follow-up is less costly.”

With only three or four loggers in Sonoma County, Greene said that a lack of skilled labor is a significant barrier to fuels reduction and forest management.

“That low number is tied to available jobs, Greene said. “If landowners aren’t going to be doing the jobs then we won’t have the labor necessary to complete the work that is necessary county-wide.”

He is optimistic that through the creation of training programs and the use of proper instruments and protections, that labor force could grow.

The lengthy time frame and consistently low log prices also prevent landowners from profiting enough to make implementing fire resiliency tools affordable.

“If you are going to do a timber harvest in Sonoma County, it’s a two-year process for most landowners and a timber harvest plan alone costs $40,000 to $50,000 on average,” Greene said. “A lot can change in two years and it’s hard to know where the markets will be. Right now, if you have Douglas fir or ponderosa pine, most projects don’t pencil unless you have several hundred acres of land available. The Redwood market is definitely depressed— it’s dropped by about 50% in the past 3 years.”

Greene said that the land base needed to offset the permitting costs is less than what is needed for fir and pine forests and that currently, there isn’t much of any market for hardwood species locally. 

Loganbill also added that low labor availability and high costs have contributed to several individuals backing away from funding the NRCS awarded because the quotes they were getting for labor were still too much out of pocket. 

Greene said that because logging is so expensive, landowners should consider using all available management tools to reduce fire fuel on their property.

“Grazing is a great option,” Greene said. “It keeps the brush and ladder fuels down and is good for the whole ecology. The problem is that there probably is not enough livestock in the county right now to treat it.”

Larson said that she has always been pro grazing and is working hard to make widespread grazing more feasible.

“We are trying to help bring more grazing onto properties in Sonoma County by introducing people who may not have thought about grazing or don’t know how to but want to reduce the fire fuels, with people who graze using our Match.Graze program,” Larson said. “We also created how-to guides that individuals can use as a resource.”

The Match.Graze program has three tiers so that a variety of grazing options can be used including short and long-term grazing contracts.

One of the biggest barriers to grazing is the lack of infrastructure. Larson said that the Match.Graze program is helping people get connected with long term leases and funding sources from the NRCS or RCDs to help with infrastructure costs so that a grazer had an incentive to build the necessary infrastructure. 

Garry Mahrt is a Certified Rangeland Manager. He said that although grazing is an important tool a landowner can use, it can only help to a certain extent. 

“The use of fire as a tool had been taken out of the mix for decades, but you really need fire in the ecosystem,” Mahrt said. “At this point, it’s the most important tool because with so many years without management, we need to manage the fuel load. Where there is grassland, you can use grazing to help decrease the fuel load followed by a prescribed burn so that the intensity of the fire is lower.”

Larson said that, in many ways, fires can be beneficial. 

“Prescribed burns are a great tool, and if the fire isn’t too severe or too hot, then it is actually good for the land,” Larson said. “However, what has happened is that we haven’t done anything to the land—we haven’t thinned it, removed any trees, done any burns or grazed it—so when a fire comes through there is so much fuel that they burn so hot and sterilize the soil, leaving some real concerns for erosion.”

Lack of public support, high liability, the cooperation of mother nature, and regulatory hurdles make prescribed fires a challenging tool to bring to fruition. 

“A few years ago, we started a prescribed fire association called the Good Fire Alliance to get local groups together to do prescribed burns,” Larson said. “There are barriers—paperwork, air quality approval, fire district’s approval, liability insurance. A burn boss is going to cost $2,000 minimum and there are not many of them. Overall, there are a lot of steps and hoops to jump through.”

Mahrt said that to become more commonplace, we need cooperation from local fire districts, expedited permitting process, larger burn day windows, and involvement from Cal FIRE. One of the biggest challenges is navigating the requirements of the Air Quality Districts—depending on which you fall into.

“In Sonoma County, there are two Air Quality Districts,” Mahrt said. “Depending on where you live, you are either dealing with Bay Area Air Quality District is in San Francisco or the equivalent office for Northern Sonoma County is in Healdsburg. You can guess which is more challenging to work with.”

Larson said to become a fire resilient county we have to completely change our mindset. 

“We need to do some serious evaluation of our timber management and harvest and the long-term management of our land using grazing and prescribed burns,” Larson said.

She is hopeful that Sonoma County may someday soon be known as a fire resilient county.

“We are pretty well known for fires, now let’s be well known for taking steps to make a change on the things that are in our power.”

Loganbill said that going forward, landowners need to work collaboratively and within groups or watersheds to combine resources, save costs, and maximize the impact of fire fuel reduction projects.

“A lot of times, the larger scale you go, the cheaper it is,” Loganbill said. “I have seen great success when landowners can share costs, time, and knowledge.”

Greene said that reducing the destruction of wildfires in Sonoma County is going to take everyone coming together and that the allocation of more public dollars to support private landowners would help reduce some of the barriers. 

“It’s more than just an individual’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem,” Greene said. “We need groups and organizations to help with the economy of scale, the equipment, and the labor. Landowners need to look beyond just their 10 acres and think about how their decisions impact the whole community.”

 

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