Do me a quick favor and put on your imagination hat. Make sure it’s on securely. Great. Now think of a forest. Any forest. Put yourself in that forest and start looking around.
What do you see? How far into the forest can you look? Are there lots of small trees? Large trees? Is it light or dark? Is there wildlife? Water? Is there much vegetation on the forest floor? What do you hear? What do you smell? How many of the plants around you are familiar?
A year ago, my imaginary forest was a conifer forest thick with trees big and small, and so lush that you had to bushwhack through it. It looked exactly like the Sierra Nevada forests that I grew up hiking, biking, and backpacking in. But the ideal, healthy forest in California looks nothing like that of my imagination. I’d venture to say that I’m not alone, even among other “outdoorsy” folks. Most of us have no idea what a healthy forest looks like--or if we’ve seen one, we prefer the more “pristine” and “untouched” version that we already know. We walk through our unhealthy forests and send a silent prayer up to Saint John Muir thanking him for the beautiful trees that surround us.
Here’s my non-expert forestry spoiler: John Muir is no saint. Yes, he did much to prevent forests from being developed, but this preservation involved removing Indigenous people from their land. The forests still stand, but they are sick. This is because a healthy forest is a managed forest. California’s forests are ecologically adapted to human involvement; for thousands of years before European settlement of this area we now call California, Native stewards were actively managing both forested and non-forested land, often through the use of fire.
When Spanish colonizers came to California on scouting missions, they described the land’s appearance as that of a carefully tended garden. Another spoiler: what we believe to be pristine forest land is now more like a neglected garden, to no fault but our own. Indigenous genocide and cultural erasure created the fire suppression dogma that has ruled the west for centuries, leading to thick, dense, brushy forests.
Most of us know what that means for fire severity and intensity. But what does that mean for overall forest health?
Let’s take a walk through my imaginary forest. My forest consists of high density and brushy vegetation with both young and old trees in close proximity. This density seems lush and beautiful, but it creates a higher risk of severe wildfire and also consumes more water, leading to drier conditions and drier watersheds. The brush in my forest can also carry a ground fire to the crowns of trees. Crown fires spread rapidly and cannot be easily contained. When a fire spreads in my imaginary forest, there can be high tree mortality and the mass release of the carbon stored in the trees.
In a managed old growth forest, trees are mostly mature and are well-spaced. Mature trees, due to their size, sequester more carbon over a longer period of time. In a wildfire, they are more resilient. Their thicker bark protects them and their height and good spacing means that fire is less likely to catch limbs, jump from tree to tree, and cause a crown fire.
Managed forests also have better and cleaner water supply, leading to healthier fish and riparian communities. Brushy plants like manzanita and ceanothus require lots of water. A managed forest contains less brush, which means more readily available water in the watershed. In addition, frequently burned forests will contain charcoal deposits in the soil, which purify the water before it enters the lake, meadow, or river.
A healthy forest is also a biodiverse forest filled with many species of plants, wildlife, fungi, and bacteria. Different species help each other out. Mycorrhizal networks created by fungi connect trees and can transfer nutrients and information long distances through root systems. Wildlife can help combat unwanted invasive insects, act as pollinators, assist with soil health and structure, recycle nutrients, and disperse seeds. Each species has its own habitat requirements, which are reliant on the health (and thus, management) of a forest.
I’m not a forestry expert. But it doesn’t take an expert to tell you that humans are not separate from nature. This common distinction is harmful: a separation of ourselves from the “natural” world isolates ourselves from our duty to participate. We play an integral part in managing ecosystem health and function. We play an integral role in maintaining the health of our forest communities.
Management can be many, many things. We can thin brush and understory vegetation by hand or by machine. We can conduct controlled burns. We can return Indigenous stewards to their land. Or, we can simply know when to get out of the way. Not all wildfires are evil, and even large wildfires can do good for the landscape.
Say a wildfire goes through your forest. There was low tree mortality, and you achieved some great ecological benefits. End of story, right? Wrong. Management is a continuous process. You can never walk away from a landscape; it has to be maintained. You never just burn it once, you never just treat it once, and you never just walk away. Management means building a relationship with the land.
Put your imagination hat back on. How do you see your imaginary forest now? How do you feel walking through it? Can you still hear it? Smell it? See the life within it? What role do you see for yourself in taking care of it?
You may not own a patch of forested land, and you may not work in forestry. Not everyone can, and that’s okay--we all have a role to play in achieving better forest management policies. The first step is to know what you’re seeing, know the history, and know the problem. The second step is collectively demanding something better.