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Changing climate could have devastating impact on forest carbon storage

New research to help guide policy decisions

 

New research from a multi-university team of biologists shows what could be a startling drop in the amount of carbon stored in the Sierra Nevada mountains due to projected climate change and wildfire events.

The study, Potential decline in carbon carrying capacity under projected climate-wildfire interactions in the Sierra Nevada, published this week in Scientific Reports, shows another facet of the impact current man-made carbon emissions will have on our world if big changes aren’t made.

“What we’ve been trying to do is really understand how changing climate, increases in temperatures and decreases in precipitation, will alter carbon uptake in forests,” said University of New Mexico Assistant Professor Matthew Hurteau, a co-author on the paper.

“The other aspect of this work is looking at disturbance events like large scale wildfires. Those events volatilize a lot of carbon and can kill many trees, leaving fewer trees to continue to take up the carbon.”

Fire scar collecting

Matthew Hurteau collecting data from a fire scar in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

According to Hurteau, who worked on this study with colleagues from Penn State and the University of California-Merced, roughly half of all human-emitted carbon is absorbed by vegetation and the ocean, and is stored through natural processes – something that helps limit our actual carbon impact on the atmosphere. The problem is, as forests begin to change, due to global warming and large scale fires, the amount of forest carbon uptake will decrease, accelerating the amount of man-made carbon making its way into the atmosphere.

“Our simulations in the Sierra Nevada show that the mean amount of carbon loss from the forests under these projections could be as large as 663 teragrams,” said Hurteau. “That’s equal to about 73 percent of the total above ground carbon stock estimated in California vegetation in 2010.”

Hurteau and his colleagues used climate projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and run ecosystem model simulations, where they look at individual tree species in the Sierra Nevada to understand how projected climate and wildfire will influence where those trees will be found in the future and how quickly they’ll grow. Using that data, researchers are then able to determine the expected carbon uptake – which, if things continue moving in the same direction, will see huge declines across the Sierra Nevada mountain range over the next 250 years.

The two factors that influence these findings are changes in climate and the likelihood of large scale forest fires. Because California is experiencing warmer and dryer conditions due to global warming, certain tree species are not able to flourish across particular geographic regions like they once were. Less tree growth, means less carbon uptake in forests.

The study also shows that wildfires will play a big role in the reduction of stored carbon. And while many of these incidents will occur naturally, Hurteau says we are, in part, to blame for their significance.

“We’ve been putting out fires for a hundred years, causing tree density to go way up. In the absence of fire that system has a lot more carbon stored in it,” explained Hurteau. “But, when you have these large fire events the amount of carbon stored in the system drops because it kills many of the trees. Whereas, in a forest that’s been maintained by regular forest fires, which is the natural ecological state, your total carbon at any given point in time can be lower but it stays more consistent.”

Hurteau says researchers have identified strategies for reducing some of the fire risk by actively thinning forests to manage tree density and restoring surface fires. It’s an idea that seems counterproductive until you consider how volatile these ecosystems are due to the risk of large scale fires that end up destroying hundreds of thousands of acres.

“Part of my responsibility as a publically funded researcher is to identify issues that these systems face, draw attention to them and then figure out what the impacts of those issues are,” he said. “Directly from that work, we also want to try and identify solutions to these issues.”

Hurteau says he hopes this work will help policy makers in California gain a better understanding of what needs to be done to maintain these forested ecosystems. He says it’s not only for the benefit of nature but for all of us, since healthy ecosystems lead to cleaner, better regulated water flow to communities across the western United States.

Read the press release here.

2017 UPDATE: State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report

The State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report: From Bad to Worse

In 2014 the Sierra Nevada Conservancy produced the first State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report. However, when the 2014 report was released, tree mortality wasn’t even mentioned. This update to the State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests report explores the changes the Region has experienced since 2014, and outlines the long-term consequences of those conditions.

Read the report here: http://www.sierranevada.ca.gov/our-work/docs/SOSv2webPrint.pdf

For more information visit: http://www.sierranevada.ca.gov/our-work/state-of-the-sierra

2017 Summit – March 1, 2017 in Sacramento, CA

Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program Annual Summit
Interest on a Past-Due Bill: Funding Watershed Restoration and Forest Health

Date: Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Time: 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Location: CalEPA Headquarters Building, Byron Sher Auditorium, 1001 I Street, 2nd Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814

RSVP here

Members of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) Board and staff, and leadership of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Region 5, will be joined for this year’s Summit by representatives of other state, federal, and local agencies, as well as a wide range of stakeholders to learn about innovative approaches to funding watershed restoration in the Sierra Nevada Region.


AGENDA

10:00 Welcome
State of the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program and the need for investment in watershed restoration.
Speakers:
• John Brissenden, Sierra Nevada Conservancy Governing Board Chair
• Jim Branham, Sierra Nevada Conservancy
• Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service

10:25 State of Sierra Watersheds
Speakers:
• Steve Frisch, Sierra Business Council
• Izzy Martin, The Sierra Fund

10:45 Looking Forward: Investment in Ecosystem Services
How can Sierra interests be more relevant to urban populations and their representatives?
Speaker: Assembly Member Brian Dahle

10:55 Rural/Urban Connection: How Do We Raise All Boats
How do we bridge the rural/urban divide in a way that benefits both interests?
Moderator: Debbie Franco, Governor’s Office of Planning and Research
Speakers:
• Fran Spivy-Weber, State Water Resources Board
• Trina Cunningham, Upper Feather River Tribal Consultant
• Rosemarie Smallcombe, Mariposa County Supervisor

12:00 Break for lunch (lunch will be on your own)

1:00 Call to Order

1:05 Reconvene

1:10 Implementation Insights
What are the keys to success in places where downstream investment has been secured and projects successfully implemented? What are some of the new, innovative investment models?
Moderator: Jay Ziegler, The Nature Conservancy
Speakers:
• Mike Jackson, Attorney at Law
• Marcus Selig, National Forest Foundation
• Nick Wobbrock, Blue Forest Conservation

2:00 Watershed Investment Primer
Introduction to the public goods charge (PGC) discussion, ensuring a common understanding of the concept as well as understanding about how the charge works in the energy sector.
Speaker: Newsha Ajami, Water in the West

2:15 Watershed Investment Discussion: Public Goods Charge
What are the pros and cons of a PGC for water? How do watersheds figure into the discussion?
Moderator: Newsha Ajami, Water in the West
Speakers:
• Dave Bolland, Association of California Water Agencies
• Lester Snow, California Water Foundation

3:45 Wrap Up, Final Questions, and Next Steps
Review findings, next steps, and gaps left by the conversations had today.

4:00 Adjourn


For more information, contact the Sierra Nevada Conservancy at (877) 257-1212.
www.sierranevada.ca.gov

L.A. Times: What all those dead trees mean for the Sierra Nevada

By Bettina Boxall
January 28, 2017
Reporting from Sequoia National Park, CA

The ponderosa pine had taken root decades before the Revolutionary War, making a stately stand on this western Sierra Nevada slope for some 300 years, Nate Stephenson figures.

Then came the beetle blitzkrieg. Now the tree is a dab in the gray and rusty death stain smeared across the mountain range.

At the base of its massive trunk, a piece of bark has been cut off, revealing an etched swirl of insect trails. Higher up, naked branches reach out, as if from a many-armed scarecrow.

“This was alive until the drought killed it,” Stephenson says mournfully.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that since 2010, more than 102 million drought-stressed and beetle-ravaged trees have died across 7.7 million acres of California forest. More than half of those died last year alone.

Exacerbated by anti-wildfire policies that produced a crowded forest more vulnerable to drought, the massive dieback is unprecedented in the recorded history of the Sierra.

The beetle epidemic is transforming the 4,500-foot to 6,000-foot elevation band of the central and southern range for decades to come, if not permanently. The sheer scale of mortality means that outside of developed areas, it’s likely that most of the tree corpses will be left to topple over.

It will takes centuries to replace the legions of majestic old pines that have succumbed — if that is even possible in a warmer future that promises to alter the forest in ways ecologists can only guess.

Read more here…

Shared from the Los Angeles Times on January 30, 2017.

Public Comment: California’s Draft Forest Carbon Plan

CALIFORNIA’S DRAFT FOREST CARBON PLAN – AN OPPORTUNITY FOR ACTION

The 2008 Climate Change Scoping Plan, which is the framework for implementing Assembly Bill 32, recognized the important role forests play in meeting the state’s greenhouse reduction goals, stating that actions should be taken to “preserve forest sequestration and encourage the use of forest biomass for sustainable energy generation.” The Forest Carbon Plan is being developed to provide additional impetus, detail, and direction as to how forests will play a role in California’s carbon future. The plan provides an array of strategies to promote healthy wildland and urban forests that protect and enhance forest carbon and the broader range of forest ecosystem services for all forests in California. More importantly, this plan supports an opportunity for increased action by the State of California and federal, tribal, local, and non-government partners to restore our forests to a healthy, resilient state.

The passage of Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, marked a watershed moment in California’s history. By requiring in law a sharp reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, California set the stage for its transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future. Sierra Nevada forests play a critical role in achieving the state’s long-term goals, but action is needed to ensure our forests act as carbon sinks, and not carbon sources.

The overall forestry climate goal guiding the Forest Carbon Plan is to firmly establish California’s forests as a more reliable long-term carbon sink, as opposed to a carbon source.

MORE INFORMATION

For more detailed information and to comment on the Forest Carbon Plan, visit: http://www.sierranevada.ca.gov/our-region/healthy-forests/forest-carbon-plan

To learn more about other State of California draft plans currently available for public comment, visit: http://restorethesierra.org/engage/


HEALTHY FORESTS EQUAL STABLE CARBON STORAGE

  • Sierra Nevada forests help regulate our climate by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon in the soil, branches, and trunks of trees.

 

Healthy Forest Carbon Cycle

 

  • However, many Sierra Nevada forests are overgrown. In these overgrown forests, trees have to compete for resources like water, nutrients, light, and space, which can slow their growth and limit their carbon absorption.

 

Unhealthy Forest Carbon Cycle

 

  • In addition, these overgrown forests are more vulnerable to large, damaging wildfires, insect outbreaks, drought, and disease. Wildfires release stored carbon as plants and trees burn, and trees killed by large, damaging wildfires, insects, drought, and disease can become carbon emission sources as they decay, contributing to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions rather than offsetting them. Most importantly, dead trees stop removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • It will take decades for Sierra forests to regrow and replace the carbon storage that has been lost, and some areas burned by high-severity wildfire may grow back as shrubs rather than forest, storing less than ten percent of the carbon that healthy forests store.

 

CA Headwaters Partnership Final Report

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service have completed a final report that summarizes the challenges, lessons learned, and best practices of the California Headwaters Partnership. The report also sets forth next steps for the partnership.

In addition, the U.S. Department of the Interior has released a Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative report and debuted a companion web site highlighting the efforts of seven partnerships building the resilience of natural resources in the U.S. These partnerships demonstrate the benefits of using collaborative, landscape-scale conservation approaches to address climate change and other resource management challenges.

What is the California Headwaters Partnership?

The CA Headwaters Partnership has been designated one of seven Resilient Lands and Waters regions in the United States, in accordance with the President’s Priority Agenda for Enhancing the Climate Resilience of America’s Natural Resources. The U.S. Forest Service and California Natural Resources Agency (via the Sierra Nevada Conservancy) are leading this effort together to:

  • Identify and map priority areas for conservation, restoration, or other investments
  • Build resilience and enhance carbon storage capacity
  • Develop landscape-scale strategies to assist in planning and management activities
  • Knit together existing collaboratives and efforts already underway for large landscape restoration

The process used to identify and quantify forest and watershed restoration will be organized through the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP), with the goal of making California’s forests and watersheds more resilient to wildfire, climate change, and invasive species.

The Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative will put a national spotlight on existing collaborative efforts and demonstrate that by organizing at a landscape scale, Federal, state, tribal, and local partners are able to improve their ability to plan for the future and address climate impacts across jurisdictional boundaries. By tracking successes and lessons learned from these efforts, this initiative is expected to encourage the development of similar resilience efforts in other areas.

More information can be found here:

102 Million Dead Trees in California

News Release

Release No. 0246.16

Contact:

Office of Communications

(202) 720-4623

press@oc.usda.gov

 

New Aerial Survey Identifies More Than 100 Million Dead Trees in California

VALLEJO, Calif., Nov. 18, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today that the U.S. Forest Service has identified an additional 36 million dead trees across California since its last aerial survey in May 2016. This brings the total number of dead trees since 2010 to over 102 million on 7.7 million acres of California’s drought stricken forests. In 2016 alone, 62 million trees have died, representing more than a 100 percent increase in dead trees across the state from 2015. Millions of additional trees are weakened and expected to die in the coming months and years.

With public safety as its most pressing concern, the U.S. Forest Service has committed significant resources to help impacted forests, including reprioritizing $43 million in California in fiscal year 2016 to conduct safety-focused restoration along roads, trails and recreation sites. However, limited resources and a changing climate hamper the Forest Service’s ability to address tree mortality in California. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service officials are seriously hampered not only by short-term budgets passed by Congress, but also a broken budget for the Forest Service that sees an increasing amount of resources going to firefighting while less is invested in restoration and forest health, said Vilsack.

“These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” said Vilsack. “USDA has made restoration work and the removal of excess fuels a top priority, but until Congress passes a permanent fix to the fire budget, we can’t break this cycle of diverting funds away from restoration work to fight the immediate threat of the large unpredictable fires caused by the fuel buildups themselves.”

The majority of the 102 million dead trees are located in ten counties in the southern and central Sierra Nevada region. The Forest Service also identified increasing mortality in the northern part of the state, including Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas and Lassen counties. Five consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to these historic levels of tree die-off. As a result, in October 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on the unprecedented tree die-off and formed a Tree Mortality Task Force to help mobilize additional resources for the safe removal of dead and dying trees.

This year, California had a record setting wildfire season, with the Blue Cut fire alone scorching over 30,000 acres and triggering the evacuation of 80,000 people. In the southeastern United States wildfires have burned more than 120,000 acres this fall. The southeast region of the Forest Service is operating at the highest preparedness level, PL 5, reflecting the high level of physical resources and funding devoted to the region. Extreme drought conditions persist, and many areas have not seen rain for as many as 95 days.

Longer, hotter fire seasons where extreme fire behavior has become the new norm, as well as increased development in forested areas, is dramatically driving up the cost of fighting fires and squeezing funding for the very efforts that would protect watersheds and restore forests to make them more resilient to fire. Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget and is anticipated to rise to 67 percent in by 2025.

As the situation in the southeast demonstrates, the problem of shrinking budget capacity is felt across the U.S., not only in the western states. The health of our forests and landscapes are at risk across the nation, and the tree mortality crisis could be better addressed if not for the increasing percentage of the Forest Service budget going to fight wildfire. “We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country,” says Vilsack.

Forest Service scientists expect to see continued elevated levels of tree mortality during 2017 in dense forest stands, stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity. Photos and video of the surveys are available on the Forest Service multimedia webpage.

Learn more about tree mortality and the work to restore our forests in California at the Forest Service’s web page Our Changing Forests.

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The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands managed by the Forest Service contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone and provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply

Last Date Modified: 11/22/2016

Read the press release here: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2016/11/0246.xml

$10 million invested

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) has invested nearly $10 million since December 2015 into projects that support the goals of the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program. Better forest health is a primary goal identified in a variety of SNC plans and programs, as projects that create or improve forest conditions result in a combination of multiple watershed and ecosystem benefits, including:

  • Improved water quality, reduced erosion, and improved water yield
  • Reduced likelihood of high-intensity fire and the negative consequences of such fires
  • Protecting and enhancing natural resources and habitat
  • Assisting the regional economy through increased restoration efforts
  • Improved air quality, contributing to increased carbon sequestration, stable carbon storage, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • Support for collaborations that create and implement projects to improve forest health

Thirty-two projects have been funded so far through the SNC’s Proposition 1 Grant Program for both on-the-ground implementation and planning projects. Grantees include fire safe councils; national, statewide, and local nonprofits; land trusts; resource conservation districts; irrigation districts; state agencies; local governments; and Joint Powers Authorities.

Proposition 1 is the The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Bond Act of 2014, passed by California voters in November 2014. A total of $25 million was allocated to the SNC for multi-benefit water quality, water supply, and watershed protection and restoration projects for the watersheds of the state.

For more information on these projects and the SNC’s Proposition 1 Grant Program, visit www.sierranevada.ca.gov.

Southern Sierra Conservation Cooperative to Reconvene

The Southern Sierra Conservation Cooperative (SSCC) formed in 2009, moved by a recognition that climate-driven changes threatened to alter key ecosystem functions of the Southern Sierra Nevada ecoregion, including the provision of clean air and water, biodiversity, maintenance of soil fertility, flood attenuation, and sustainable provision of amenities and commodities valued by humans.

Partners, including Southern Sierra land management agencies, research organizations, and Non-Governmental Organizations, developed and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the purpose of providing a conceptual framework within which the Members could jointly establish, manage, and meet the mission of the Cooperative, to “work in concert to make the best use of each partner’s resources and efforts to conserve the regional native biodiversity and key ecosystem functions within the Southern Sierra Nevada Ecoregion in the face of accelerated local and global agents of change.” Although the SSCC ceased formal meetings in 2013, and the MOU expired in 2015, the drivers that originally inspired the SSCC continue to hold true.

In the past few years the southern Sierra Nevada Ecoregion has been disproportionately impacted by “agents of change” in the form of insect- and drought-induced tree mortality and wildfire of an unprecedented scale and frequency. Catalyzed by these events, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) reconvened the SSCC in April 2016 to address the implications for land management, both in terms of immediate response and long-term strategies for ecosystem resiliency under a changing climate.  Participants, primarily composed of representatives from the MOU signatory agencies, agreed that there is a need for the SSCC to exist to advance novel thinking and creative management strategies necessary to preserving southern Sierra Nevada ecosystems and associated benefits.

The SNC is currently working to formalize a Phase II of the SSCC via a renewed MOU and intends to coordinate a series of workshops in 2017 to address some of the priority issues confronting southern Sierra Nevada resource managers.  This effort is supported by the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office, Sierra National Forest, Sequoia National Forest, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and many others.

For more information, contact:

Sarah Campe

Sierra Nevada Conservancy

Area Representative – Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kern Counties

sarah.campe@sierranevada.ca.gov

(559) 565-3727 – Office

(530) 217-8166 – Cell

California Law Recognizes Meadows And Forests As Water Infrastructure

Governor Brown signed AB 2480 in September. AB 2480 identifies the importance of maintaining the reliability of California’s water supply by financing the maintenance and repair of watersheds on the same basis as other water collection and treatment infrastructure. In addition, to the extent feasible, the bill ensures that the maintenance and repair activities eligible are limited to certain forest ecosystem management activities.

California Law Recognizes Meadows And Forests As Water Infrastructure