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Climate & Energy
From the President
Investing Efficiently in Forests

A friend once remarked to me how fortunate it is that the U.S. can afford inaction when natural resources are wasted. At the time we were looking at a fire-ravaged forest in California’s Sierra Nevada. Actually, it was not a forest any longer, and perhaps will not be for some decades hence, as the fire had burned so hot that a thirty-inch trunk had been reduced to a trench of ash in a shiny black slope of hardened earth. The snow and rain to come would of course flow from that slope undeterred by altered forest soils.

This burned ground was upstream of the Oroville Dam, which national media has made one of the many emblems of decline in our national infrastructure. As writers point out in this issue of The Pinchot Letter, the dam is just one part of the infrastructure that provides water. The source water area, the place where precipitation first becomes water supply, is the forest.When and how it’s delivered behind the dam and how much sediment comes with it has implications for cities downstream, in this instance affecting the physical and intellectual capital generated by Sacramento and San Francisco. The crumbling dam is only the middle man, which can be replaced or repaired in a year or two. The forest cannot be replaced or repaired in less than a decade at the least. Right now, the cracks in our forest infrastructure are only widening.

“The friends and the enemies of the forest have both said more than they could prove ...“ — Gifford Pinchot, 19051

Aided by the scientific passions of its second chief, Henry S. Graves, the U.S. Forest Service has helped the world understand how watersheds function with and without trees. Field experiment stations in Colorado, Georgia, Oregon, New Hampshire, and elsewhere have shown that while forests tax the water they receive (a healthy share consumed by evapotranspiration), generally they pass along pure water in steady installments of underground and overland flow. Perhaps most importantly, a healthy forest will keep out most sediment. The science of watershed hydrology, at least in terms of water yield during the Holocene Era, is well settled. But we are now in the Anthropocene, or as fire scientist Dr. Stephen Pyne has called it, the Pyrocene-when the burning of fossil fuels and forests are part of the same phenomenon.

Fire is of course a natural and regenerative force to which forest ecosystems were once well adapted. And though what is considered a natural fire regime is not settled science, enough of the problem is indisputable — threats to irreplaceable ecosystems, water supplies, and people already in the wildland-urban interface — that action is necessary. There is also enough consensus that forests are not as well adapted to the severity and frequency with which droughts and fires now seem to be occurring. In the Sierras for example, there are more than 100 million dead trees, roughly a quarter of the forest. This problem is not confined to California, it exists throughout the western U.S. and beyond.

A more expensive problem is that people are not well adapted to coming changes in the fire regime.We will experience supply chain disruptions in the form of ill-timed and episodic slurries of water that we cannot store, treat, or use as we are accustomed.We need to do three things, in order of increasing difficulty: invest in this supply chain, roll back global CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations, and become less reliant on water. The good news is that investing in forests will help with water supplies and CO2 concentrations. The bad news is that investing in forests as infrastructure is still regarded by some as the self-serving pitch of all those working to manage and protect forests. So perhaps the place to start is focusing on what we must do, and work efficiently in places that would eventually have to be defended or restored at greater cost.

"Nature is conservative." — Frederick O. Bower, 18982

One of the least discussed tenets of conservation is the principle of “efficiency.” Gifford Pinchot wrote incessantly about the need for efficiency in governance and in use of natural resources. He once wrote that “...the outgrowth of conservation, the inevitable result, is national efficiency.”3 At the time Frederick Winslow Taylor was championing the idea of efficiency. To Pinchot, efficiency could reduce wastefulness in resource management, compel only but the necessary use now to preserve resources for future generations. But “Taylorism” soon became the religion of industries seeking to squeeze labor, and through opposition from the labor movement, fell from favor among the Progressives. Nevertheless, Pinchot was proud of the efficiency of the Forest Service as an agency and its position as a beacon of administrative effectiveness within government.4 He also deplored waste. I presume to believe that Pinchot and others of the Progressive era would be appalled by the notion that we can “afford to waste our natural resources.”

There is a drumbeat for investment, new industries of all kinds (and especially biomass energy and tall wood buildings), which show promise and may get to scale when introduced in the right setting. The reasons for failure or slow progress in forest restoration are many: want of long-term agreements, distance to the resource, environmental concerns, policy change, procedural delays, supply chains, etc.5 Five years into the much celebrated 4FRI project in Arizona, fewer than 9,000 acres of the planned 50,000 have been treated.6 California, which has tried harder than any state to make lemonade from the lemon of catastrophic wildfire, has seen more than half of its biomass energy generation facilities close since the 1990s with the sunset of subsidies. Their Public Utility Commission now debates whether modest rate-hikes are worth getting them back online, just as the stockpile of biomass within the woods expands.7

For want of action CalFire now operates an expensive fleet of harvesters, haulers, and burners to incinerate Sierra Nevada’s dead trees so that they will no longer burn in the woods. The Forest Service and CalFire are together investing $43 million to deal with the situation—$11 million for the new equipment.8 Where once lower intensity fires culled and regenerated the forest, climate change introduces extremes at rates beyond adaptable limits. To avoid damage to homes, wildlife, water supplies, and long-lived ecosystems we are now bringing waste to nature. The costs of this waste are borne by taxpayers. Perhaps it is necessary, but it is a tragically inefficient use of scarce resources. There may be no clearer demonstration of the price of inaction, and the requirement of foresight on what may be most efficient and least wasteful.
 Credit: National Interagency Fire Center/Kari Greer

Accompanying these discussions is the fond hope that when public policy does not lead to a solution, the private sector will rise up and solve the crisis. Perhaps there is belief that a venture capitalist in San Francisco worried about her water supply will help save us from public inefficiencies or indebtedness. Something akin to this happened in Denver— water utilities investing in forest restoration. Of course private investment in public lands, for all that they provide is most welcome, and in fact, increasingly anticipated.9 But private investment will still require good public policy that assures reliable implementation and efficient operation. Agencies will at least need to help decide where demand has ready supply on public lands, based not only on where trees are dead, but where there is compelling public interest, social license, and capacity to do something about it.

Recently the Brookings Institution hosted a meeting on how and where to invest in transportation infrastructure.10 The insights were not obvious. Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser suggested that you should not always invest where infrastructure is dilapidated, but where new infrastructure will assuredly be used. Some infrastructure investments are GDP-neutral at best: they are never fully utilized or they entice only relocation of businesses that were thriving without public investment. In other words, invest in places that will know what to do with new roads and traffic lights, and know your return on investment. This is sobering but necessary, and poses questions about forests for which we do not have satisfactory answers.

For much of the history of forestry in the U.S., efficiency was associated with stopwatches at logging operations. But in conservation, efficiency must have a higher meaning, and acting based on an understanding of how we must manage to serve national needs and preserve future resources. Efficiency requires a pragmatic sense of the necessary, and making sure priorities reflect economic and political realities, along with ecological needs.

A compelling case for investing in forest infrastructure— to secure water supplies and improve public safety—might borrow the calculus applied to transportation investments. Sad states of disrepair unfortunately may not on their own justify federal spending. Certainly many ecosystems are priorities based on current conditions, and how far habitats may have deviated from the past and the possible. However, we must ask the question of whether an initial expenditure will lead to durable solutions—whether a restored ecosystem will endure, or simply need repeated and expensive interventions. In some places forests will just have to regrow in a condition and composition that we cannot currently prescribe. We also must be realistic about whether the markets needed to support restoration will be sustainable, and if not, whether the workforce and the infrastructure are mobile.

Mapping and analyses of fire-risk, forest reforestation needs, watershed conditions, and many other priorities are sophisticated and up-to-date. Less sophisticated is the understanding of what would happen otherwise, and whether one place or priority will have better returns than another. We need to invest in our forest infrastructure for all that it provides, but do so with a sense of what the return on that investment will be, and whether it is an efficient and responsible use of nature’s resources as well as our own.
—Will Price

1 Pinchot, Gifford. A Primer of Forestry. Bureau of Forestry, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. 1905.
2 Bower, Frederick O. Opening address to the British Association, Bristol meeting, Section K (Botany). Nature 59 (1898): 88-91.
3 Pinchot, Gifford. The Fight for Conservation. Doubleday, Page & Col., New York, NY. 1910.
4 See Fukuyama, Francis. (2014). America in Decay The Sources of Political Dysfunction. Foreign affairs (Council on Foreign Relations). 93.
5 Hjerpe, Evan, Jesse Abrams, and Dennis R. Becker. “Socioeconomic barriers and the role of biomass utilization in southwestern ponderosa pine restoration.” Ecological Restoration 27.2 (2009): 169-177.
6 “McCain Concerned About Slow Pace of Wildfire Prevention Efforts.” Prescott eNews. March 26, 2017. Accessed March 29, 2017. http://www.prescottenews.com/index.php/news/currentnews/ item/29666-mccain-concerned-about-slow-pace-of-wildfireprevention-efforts
7 “A beneficial way to dispose of the Sierra’s lost trees: Use them for energy.” Los Angeles Times. March 17, 2017. Accessed March 29, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-leslie-what-todo- with-dead-trees-in-the-sierra-20170317-story.html
8 “Drought killed 66 million trees in California.” U.S. News & World Report. June 22, 2016. Accessed March 29, 2017. https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2016-06-22/fedsdrought- kills-66-million-trees-in-californias-sierra
9 Public lands can survive political headwinds with corporate investment. Triple Pundit. March 28, 2017. Accessed March 29, 2017. http://www.triplepundit.com/2017/03/public-lands-cansurvive- political-headwinds-with-corporate-investment/
10 From bridges to education: best bets for public investment. Brookings Institution. January 9, 2017. Accessed March 29, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/events/from-bridges-to-education-bestbets- for-public-investment/
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