Overcrowded forests are hurting drought-stricken communities

2014-03-28 Ashley Bach

Smart forest management is a need that gets more important every year. Because our country's federal forests aren't being actively restored and managed, they are dying from insects, disease and massive wildfires.

These forests are dangerous to their neighbors - so overcrowded that they're a tinderbox for increasingly destructive wildfires, and fires or not, filled with disease-riddled trees that could fall down at any moment. 

According to experts, these unhealthy and overcrowded forests are also sucking too much water out of the ground and hurting drought-stricken areas. The Modesto Bee reports that forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains are taking too much groundwater from Central California, which is in its third year of drought.

“There are 2½-to-3-times more trees today than there used to be, and they’re sucking up water,” explained Eric Knapp, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station. “A lot of the Sierra is in pretty bad shape” because it’s so overgrown...

Capturing snowmelt is crucial to California’s economic health, said Mitch Dion, general manager of the Calaveras County Water District. He calls the Sierra snowpack “the state’s biggest reservoir.”

“Climate change is upon us,” Dion warned. “The snowline is moving up the hill.” He said forest overgrowth is worsening the impact of that change by reducing water flows.

The region is a very different place now than it was 150 years ago when “you could have ridden your horse through the Sierra forests with relative ease,” Dion said. Now, he said, it is “jungle-like with all the underbrush.”

The answer? Forest restoration, which will get the Sierra Nevada forests started on the way back to the state of active management in which they should have been in the first place.

The U.S. Forest Service is talking to local researchers about a pilot project that would thin 10,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada range.

If all goes as suggested, that project could increase water flows, decrease destructive fires, create jobs and improve the health of the remaining trees.

“We may not be able to help with the drought this year, but we might be able to help the next generations,” said Bales, who also is the academic director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute...

Much of the underbrush clogging the forests also needs to be removed, which Bales said is something small fires used to do naturally...

All those extra trees gulp water that once would have flowed to the Valley. They also prevent snow from hitting the ground and melting into the soil. A lot of snow gets caught in the tree canopy, where it evaporates.

The plan is to thin the overgrowth to create gaps in the forest floor so more snow can collect on the ground – as it did in centuries past.