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Now’s the Time to Get National Forest Planning Right

The US Forest Service’s decision on how three California national forests will be managed could have far-reaching implications

Conservationists across the country have their eyes on California’s southern Sierra Nevada as the US Forest Service decides how the Sequoia, Inyo, and Sierra national forests will be managed over the next several decades. What comes of this long and drawn out planning process, which will last several months, could have long-term, far-reaching implications for our water supply, recreational opportunities, wildlife, air quality, forest and fire management, and economy —not just here, but on all our national forests and the communities that live by them.

Sequoia National ForestPhoto by john Fowler The Sequoia, Inyo, and Sierra national forests are among the most treasured landscapes in the Sierra region.

These three forests are the first out of the gate to implement new forest planning rules that were adopted in 2012 after many controversial and failed attempts to update the existing regulations which date back to 1982.

Conserving the wildlife, scenic beauty, and clean water offered by California’s national forests is crucial to sustaining the lifestyle Californians enjoy and depend on — especially robust outdoor recreation economy. The national forests serve as the state’s single largest source of clean water, providing nearly 50 percent of our water supply. These lands, managed by the Forest Service, also support about 38,000 jobs and draw millions of visitors to the Golden State each year.

The Sequoia, Inyo, and Sierra national forests are among the most treasured landscapes in the Sierra region. The combined four million acres of these forests are home to a wealth of natural wonders. From majestic giant sequoia groves to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, to world renowned wilderness areas.  This is a land of superlatives. All kinds of wildlife call these forests home, including the rare Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, California’s state fish, the golden trout, the northern goshawk, Yosemite toad, black bear, great gray owl, and many more.

The outdoor recreational opportunities in these forests benefit local businesses and provide important sales tax revenues to local governments. Each year more than 4.3 million people visit the forests of the southern Sierra, making them an anchor for important recreation-based economies in Inyo, Mono, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, and Mariposa counties. With more than 3,150 miles of hiking trails and ample opportunities to ski, bird watch, camp, picnic, hunt, fish, ride horses, and otherwise enjoy the forest, there’s something for everyone.

As the Forest Service develops new plans for how our forests will be used and managed in the future, it is essential that these plans be strong, protective, and based on the best available science to safeguard our forests and their many natural and economic benefits. Healthy, well-managed forests are vital to ensuring clean air and water, fish and wildlife habitat, and high quality outdoor recreation opportunities for local residents and visitors alike.

Strong forest plans should prioritize sustainable, high-quality recreation opportunities that support recreation-based jobs and local community economies. At the same time they should take into account special places like designated wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers and roadless areas, as well as areas important for fish and wildlife, including those that are home to at-risk species like the Pacific fisher. Likewise, as our state continues to face critical drought conditions, it is also clear that protections should be put in place for mountain meadows, lakes, and streams that are vital to water quality and quantity.

The new plans should also provide an opportunity to move beyond aggressive fire suppression policies, and use managed fire as a means for restoring healthy forest conditions. Science has shown that the way to lessen the risk of huge, out-of-control fires is to allow regular natural fires and purposeful controlled burns. Controlled burns reduce the build-up of fire-ready material on the forests floor, much of which has accumulated due to more than a century of fire suppression and unsustainable logging practices. Managing fire on the landscape, rather than suppressing it, brings a number of other benefits as well, including nutrient cycling, renewing wildlife habitat, improving forest health and air quality, and creating jobs through the employment of dedicated burn crews.

The southern Sierra forests’ management plan is an important opportunity to set a strong example for the rest of the country’s national forests to follow. Now is the time for the Forest Service to get it right and create national forest plans that restore and maintain ecological integrity, protect robust wildlife populations and ecosystems on which we depend.

 

Pamela Flick
Pamela Flick is Defenders of Wildlife's California representative, based in Sacramento.

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