Restoring Forests: It’s a Start – Healthy Natural and Human Communities in a Computational Age

 Why is restoration important?

Forest restoration is the place to show it is possible to turn back the tide of industrial age damage, to show repairing nature can pay for itself and to promote a renaissance of local communities.  

The photo above shows one reason forest restoration is important.  Another is to reduce the huge carbon load each wildfire generates. Another is the that you get free water in the form of additional runoff.  The most important reason is creating an ethic of restoration, including a cadre of people dedicated to restoring health to the planet.  

Restoration is just as important for the inner city as it is for for forests, fisheries, bays, harbors and watersheds.  Forest restoration is a place to prove restoration can work and pay for itself.  Restoration depends, not mainly on distant institutions, but on people with skin in the game, who live near and are tied to restoration because it makes their lives better.  Restoration is a place to start healing and building strong communities, as well as create a healthy natural world.

Restoration of any system, without dangerous guesswork, has only become possible as computational tools, such agent based modeling, have matured.  The old days, when damage could be ignored or “protection” pursued based on the aethetics  of David Thoreau, didn’t turn out well.  

Simulation offers a glimpse of likely futures and a rational way of moving forward on generational timescales.  Native Americans and residents of Pre-Columbian Amazon civilizations could afford to take many lifetimes to work the kinks out of their programs for sustainable relationships with the land.  Computational tools act like a time capsule.  The learning curve today depends on the quality of programs and hardware, along with earlier examples, collaboration and a bit of good sense.  

As the benefits of restoration begin to sink in, sustainable practices are likely to become just as second nature for people in this century as they were for North and South Americans before 1492.  Restoration is likely to extend to fixing the damage to personal health, economics, civil discourse and politics, that seems impossible to correct now.  The idea of restoration is infectious.  It’s already showing up in  wellness, buying local food, returning to outdoor activitybuilding strong local communities and supporting strong local schools.

The complex systems model for forest restoration is described in Christian Messier et al, Managing Forests as Complex Adaptive Systems:  Building Resilience into the Challenge of Global Change, Routledge, New York, 2014.  It formed the core of the article, along with visits to wild fire sites in the Central Sierra in 2015 and 2016, and  discussion with foresters.  Oregon State Forestry Professor Klaus Peuttman was particularly helpful.  

Adapted from article originally published October 10, 2016, at 

Californians and other westerners have the ability to greatly reduce the likelihood of wildfire devastation in the Sierra Nevada. Making the forests a safe, healthy resource again may seem impossible, but forest restoration in other states is already producing excellent results. Besides cleaner air, healthy woodlands come with the benefit of higher levels of runoff water available to local farms and cities – exactly what our thirsty state needs.

A hundred years of fire suppression in an effort to protect homes and cities near wooded areas has created dense stands of trees and brush – kindling for the megafires in the Central Sierra for the last decade, causing long-term damage to our forests and watersheds. Restoration in the Central Sierra promises smaller, less-destructive fires, more snowmelt, improved air quality and jobs.

“Restoration” refers to the combined thinning of trees and brush, to produce healthy forests aiming for densities of about 100 years ago. Idaho, Arizona, North Dakota, Hawaii, Wyoming, Kansas and Washington are using such programs, and California appears ready to follow suit.

In photos from the nineteenth century, large trees in the Central Sierra appear widely spaced, in an open, parklike setting. Today, forests often feature a dense growth of small trees with explosive underbrush. The pattern of fires before 1900 promoted healthy growth.

“Fires would run for 30 miles low to the ground, burning grasses but leaving most of the trees intact,” according to a 2013 Scientific American report. Computer modeling gives today’s foresters the added advantage of seeing how forests will react to changes in management practices.

A national shift from suppression to restoration got underway at the turn of the 21st century after a string of disastrous wildfires. In 2002, Dale Bosworth, a second-generation forester and the 15th chief of the U.S. Forest Service, declared: “We have a serious forest health problem and … we aren’t doing enough about it. … On the national forests, our purpose for tree removal is not what it was 40 years ago. Today, long-term ecosystem health drives everything we do. It determines whether or not – and where and how – we decide to cut trees.”

The rising tide of wildfires resulted in the bipartisan 2003 Healthy Forests Initiative and led Congress to pass the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

Today’s forests are part of a patchwork of passive and active management. To put this into perspective, the 2013 Rim Fire burned passively managed forests occupying 14 times the area of San Francisco and then stopped when it reached the actively managed land of Yosemite National Park.

Active management is a reality in national parks and several western states. Scientific American featured the rollout of what Arizona foresters expect to be a 20-year effort to thin dense stands of ponderosa pines at no cost to taxpayers. That’s because the contractor is allowed to keep the harvested trees and biomass.

According to California’s Sierra Nevada Conservancy, “Computer modeling of the Sierra has found fuel treatments that alter the size and intensity of wildfires could reduce the amount of carbon emitted by fires from 36 to 85 percent.” UC Merced professor Roger Bales estimates the thinning of a Nature Conservancy site west of Lake Tahoe by 25 to 50 percent would increase the amount of water flowing into streams from 9 to 16 percent.

Creating a wider protective band of thinned forest around foothill and mountain residential areas is not only possible but would save money in damages, provide jobs and supply much-needed water in California.

Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley outlined the situation from a local viewpoint: “The current devastation of the pine forest in the Southern Sierra provides a timely opportunity to revisit the passive approach to forest management. … The science and history of our region strongly support the need to actively manage our watersheds.”

Fresno Irrigation District Manager Gary Serrato offered a regional water perspective, “Proper management of our forest results in a healthier forest, less forest fires and an increase in water supply. Additional runoff allows for additional supplies for agriculture, urban and environmental purposes.”

And, according to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, “Routine forest thinning is a common-sense conservation measure that helps to prevent the spread of fires and improves water flows and the sustainability of wildlife habitats.”

Isn’t it time to take serious steps toward restoring our forests?

Richard Bailey of Reedley is an attorney, engineer and hiker. He is a former member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Advisory Planning Commission and former counselor for Tahoe Keys, the Squaw Valley Public Utilities District and the Alpine Meadows Public Utilities District.
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