Sonoma County Native Returns as Registered Professional Forester

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: March 4, 2019

Jason Wells is a California Registered Professional Forester (RPF) for the Sonoma and Gold Ridge Resource Conservation Districts. In his role, he provides technical and planning assistance to landowners, is working to build a forestry program capable of addressing vegetation and fuels management concerns throughout the county and is addressing post-fire recovery efforts.

Wells was born and raised in Petaluma and graduated from Humboldt State University with a B.S. in Forestry with an emphasis in Forest Conservation. After graduating he worked for six years in private industry in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. His experience includes writing CEQA equivalent Timber Harvest Plan documents, integrating knowledge of forest operations with environmental impact mitigations, forest health and protection, forest management economics, and road design and layout. Wells has also been certified by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) to conduct archaeological surveys for plans in which CALFIRE is lead agency.

He specializes in silviculture and applied forest ecology. Ecology is the study of plant communities and how they interact together. Wells explained that silviculture is that same topic applied to trees. Applied forest ecology, therefore, is the manipulation of forest stands to achieve the values that a landowner or society deem necessary. Some of those values include water quality, soil quality, sustained production of high-quality timber products, viewsheds, recreation, air quality and habitat. Wells said that in Sonoma County, roughly half of the total acres are forest land, and over 80% of that is privately-owned.

“Sonoma County is unique,” Wells said. “The vast majority of our natural capital lies on privately-owned lands, and the management of those lands can be challenging due to highly fragmented parcels, high costs of land and labor, the diverse patchwork of land uses, and limited infrastructure for forest management specifically.”

Unfortunately, he said that in the U.S. over the last 100 years, forests have been managed with policies of fire suppression and that over the past 40-50 years, particularly in west Sonoma County, management has lacked, which has allowed for a considerable amount of understory vegetation and growth to go unchecked.

“When we look back at the history of this county, we see that Native Americans burned a lot of land in Sonoma County and in the redwood region. According to a Jackson State Demonstration Forest study, the fire return interval was around 20 years,” Wells said. “Native Americans burned understory vegetation consistently, which helped other species like oaks to thrive.”

He said that lack of timber lands management is almost as damaging to the environment as development because unmanaged forests have considerable fuel bed that contributes to catastrophic fires.

“Management of forests has been happening for a long time,” Wells said. “So, for people to just step back and not do anything is actually a change. When you have plant and animal communities that have evolved and adapted alongside management for thousands of years and then you just stop…that is damaging to the ecosystem.”

Not surprisingly, after the October 2017 fires there was a recognized need for increased forest management in Sonoma County. Simultaneously, the Sonoma Resource Conservation District received a grant from the National Association of Conservation Districts to found and fund Wells’ current position, which he began in June 2018.

Now, he said his goal is to connect landowners with forest management plans so that they can receive Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds, improve their land, and help Sonoma County be more fire resilient.

EQIP is a cost share program for farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and other types of landowners. Before they will allocate funds for forest-related practices EQIP requires a forest management plan to show intent by the landowner to manage forests. LandSmart is the RCD’s management plan program. That is where Wells comes in.

Wells explained that there is no one size fits all healthy forest, so landowners need someone with his expertise to determine what forests need from many different perspectives. In collaboration with a consulting forester, like Wells, landowners can develop a forest management plan. The Sonoma RCD is currently developing forest management plans through their LandSmart program, which will cover the cost of 85% of the process.

According to the Sonoma RCD, the LandSmart Program is carried out through partnerships with landowners striving to achieve productive lands and thriving streams. It is a regional collaborative with Napa County, Gold Ridge, and Mendocino County RCDs. Components of the program include conservation planning, technical assistance, on the ground projects, and youth education and stewardship. The LandSmart program was started because of water quality regulations that affected vineyards in the Sonoma Creek and Napa Valley watersheds; it quickly expanded to cover conservation planning for other land uses, which now includes forest management.

Completing a LandSmart plan can qualify a landowner for not only EQIP, but also California Forest Improvement Program (CFIP) funds. Wells said that, through the program, landowners can be reimbursed for thinning, planting, fitting, pruning, minor road building, road maintenance, stream crossings, and more.

The LandSmart planning documents provide landowners with the opportunity to put their thoughts and ideas about how they would like to manage their property now and in the future all in one place. Wells said that plans include information about the property’s history including its past uses, information about roads, access, any erosional problems, water courses, an inventory of rare and threatened species, plants and animals, a forest inventory including how many board feet of each species of timber are standing, and how many trees there are per acre.

Wells said that the range of funding that landowners could qualify for through EQIP depends on the size and scale of the plan but that there are thousands to tens of thousands of dollars available.

“You don’t have to have 100 acres to do a LandSmart plan,” Wells said. “You can complete one for any acreage, but it makes the most sense if you have enough acreage to necessitate management of multiple resource concerns. EQIP will help with any property size, however, CFIP is for properties with 20 acres or more with preference given to parcels zoned for timber production.”

Although Wells admitted that completing a plan requires about a year-long commitment, he said that he thinks LandSmart plans yield clear benefits for landowners, even if they just have 40 acres.
“Having a forester out to your property could help you see or consider some things that otherwise you maybe wouldn’t notice or know were a problem,” Wells said. “A lot of people don’t know about the many practices that could be implemented to improve their property and secure a successful future for it.”

In addition to EQIP and CFIP cost share funding, there is another funding option for forestland owners who want to better their land through conservation practices. Wells explained that depending on how old the timber is, how much it’s growing and how well the market is doing, a landowner could harvest it and put the profit right back into the property. In order to do this, the landowner would need to prepare a commercial harvest document, such as a non-industrial timber management plan. In this case, information provided by a LandSmart plan could save landowners time and money by providing some of the information necessary for a non-industrial timber management plan.

“Creating a LandSmart Plan, thinning and clearing underbrush in timber stands, and planning for the future is good for the landowner, good for the land, and makes our land more fire resilient,” Wells said.

The Sonoma Resource Conservation District is a non-regulatory special district. Wells explained that because of this, if he visits a landowner’s property, he is not there to cite any violations or issue fines. Rather, he operates as an advisor trying to help landowners better their land.

“We are a local government agency, but we aren’t out there to bust you,” Wells said. “We are just there to help.”

If you are interested in a LandSmart Plan contact the Sonoma RCD by calling (707) 569-1448 or email jwells@sonomarcd.org

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