Restoring the Sierra: Seeing the forest for the trees

For the vast Sierra Nevada, it’s more important than ever to see the forest for the trees.

And in one area of the Sierra National Forest that bigger picture includes preserving forest health, safeguarding communities from wildfire, improving wildlife habitat and creating local jobs.

All of those goals are part of a unique forest restoration project underway in the Dinkey area of the Sierra National Forest - a popular recreation destination just east of Fresno. It is hoped that the lessons learned here can serve as a blueprint to improve the health of other forests.

The science-based program, known as the Dinkey Collaborative Restoration Project, is focused on 154,000 acres of forests, meadows, lakes, rivers and chaparral.

The Wilderness Society is one of the project’s many diverse partners, which also includes a lumber mill, a utility company, a regional air pollution agency, California Native American tribes, local fire safe councils, the U.S. Forest Service, nonprofit organizations and several universities.

By working together, these partners are focused on the Dinkey’s dense stands of trees that threaten the health of the forest and its residents – both animal and human.

In a healthier forest ecosystem, a variety of trees co-exist in a landscape where periodic fire helps to naturally thin out the density. Instead, many areas of the Dinkey are currently packed with too many small trees that are elbowing out other species.

“Our goal is to retain and promote large tree and denning/nesting structures needed by the Pacific fisher and the California spotted owl and provide sufficient natural regeneration of shade-intolerant tree species for the creation of future fire-adapted forests” explains Stan Van Velsor, a California Wilderness Society forest expert who has been working on the Dinkey collaborative for two years.

When fire whips through these crowded stands of smaller trees, the fire grows more intense, with flames traveling upwards through the trees - even destroying species like Ponderosa pines which can typically survive smaller fires. The fire then becomes a devastating ‘crown fire’ where flames spread rapidly across the crowns of trees and threatens communities and rare species like the Pacific fisher, a shy, furry mammal that is becoming rare in old growth forests of the Sierra Nevada.

So far, the Dinkey project has hired local crews to help thin trees on nearly 5,000 acres, much of this near communities with high forest fire danger.  This year, several other projects are in the works:  reintroducing fire on approximately 2,000 acres through prescribed burning, thinning another 2,500 acres of forest and undertaking several watershed improvement projects like erosion control.

Re-introducing low and moderate intensity fire, Van Velsor explains, is also an important part of the Dinkey project and eventually controlled burns will be used on approximately 46,000 acres.

The Dinkey project, Van Velsor says, restores forest health and will help campers, boaters and fishermen to continue to enjoy this area. Local forest crews employ community residents. And rare species like the Pacific fisher will have better luck finding the black oak where they make their homes.

If forests grow unchecked with no small fires or thinning, smaller species like white fir and incense cedar will crowd out black oak and other tree species. “A multi-species forest is more resilient, more fire tolerant and healthier in the long term,” Van Velsor says.