The Sierra's National Forests: Critical to the State yet Critically Underfunded

Picture of Emily Blackmer

Emily Blackmer

Economic Development and Natural Resource Project Manager

Did you know that approximately 20% of California’s land — a total of 31,250 square miles— is managed by the U.S. Forest Service? For the Sierra Nevada region served by SBC, the share of Forest Service land reaches nearly 90% in places such as Alpine County. 

In this region, national forests are vital. For example, in 2017, the Sierra’s nine national forests were visited 22.8 million times. You’re probably familiar with many of these places, even if you didn’t know that they are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Lake Tahoe, for example, is surrounded by national forest land. And Inyo National Forest, home of Ansel Adams Wilderness, is also managed by the USFS. In 2019, tourism generated $3.6 billion in taxable sales and 36,400 jobs in the Sierra. That’s a lot of money for a predominantly rural region representing a small fraction of the state’s population.

These lands are important to all Californians, not just the Sierra’s residents. Over half of the visitors to national forests in the region travel here from other parts of the state. What’s more, 60% of state’s water supply comes from Sierra Nevada forests, as does a full 75% of freshwater in the Sacramento-San Juaquin Delta. This means that water for over 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of agriculture comes from Sierra forests (and mountains, meadows, and rivers).

That’s a lot of stats, but hopefully, they help you understand why it was such a big deal when recently, in an unprecedented decision, the Forest Service closed every last inch of California’s national forest land due to the historic wildfire threat. This was necessary given the extreme fire activity that we have witnessed over the past month. However, blame for the closures shouldn’t necessarily lie at the feet of public visitors who might start fires. Or, for that matter, with the National Forest land managers who were forced to make tough decisions despite the impact on local communities.  

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen stories about how climate changefire suppression, and building in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) have created a perfect storm in which fires can grow larger, more powerful, and more destructive than ever before. These stories are important and true — but what we haven’t heard as much about is how decades of underfunding have left the Forest Service unable to prepare for the wildfires that we knew were coming.

RimFireEven as scientists and forest managers grew increasingly aware of the massive threat posed by the combination of climate change and fire suppression, the U.S. Congress has largely neglected to adequately fund the Forest Service. In doing so, it has drastically hampered the agency’s ability to carry out the full scope of its forest stewardship mandate. For example, a generation of underfunding has left the agency unable to invest in the recreation infrastructure that we all love, such as trails, campgrounds, and visitor areas. Remember, this is the same infrastructure that supports 22.8 million visits a year in the Sierra — it’s not a stretch to think that it may be (over)due for some maintenance.

More crucially right now, this underfunding has also left the Forest Service unable to take action on what experts agree is required to reduce fire risk: ecological forest restoration, where selective thinning of trees and prescribed and managed fire restore forests to a healthier, more resilient state. As a result, the Forest Service has increasingly relied on states to step in and help manage national forests through partnerships such as the Shared Stewardship agreement, which was signed by Gov. Newsom in August.

So yes, let’s shut down the forests until the greatest risk passes. But instead of calmly accepting the closures, let’s make our voices heard to those who have led us into this crisis. Let’s hold accountable the federal legislators who have decided that stewarding our precious forests isn’t worth the investment. What’s not worth it — the world-class recreation opportunities? The local jobs and economic benefits? The flow of water to the rest of the state? The sheer beauty of these places? Californians should be irate that decades of federal neglect caused 20% of the state — all of it public land— to be closed to public access! 

While we’re at it, let’s also hold accountable the state legislators who have decided that climate action can wait for next year. Every year that they delay is another year in which megafires rage, costs rack up, homes burn down, and people die. Who really thinks that it’s okay to wait?

Collectively, our state and federal legislators hold the keys to start solving the problems we face. These are the sorts of problems that government exists to address: massive, complex issues that demand coordination, resources, and action beyond any one community’s capacity. It’s time to remember that these people work for us — because what they’re doing isn’t working.

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