It is the middle of May, and Californians across the state are starting to feel the effects of a water year that has left much of the state in drought. In the Sierra Nevada, dry-too-soon landscapes dominated by overgrown forests are raising concerns about a rewind of the historically destructive 2020 fire season.
The good news, such as it is, is that state leaders are increasingly allocating resources to match the challenges megafires, like those we saw last year, create for California and the Sierra Nevada.
Last week, Governor Newsom reaffirmed support for a down-payment on Sierra Nevada wildfire resilience with a $708-million 2021-2022 budget proposal. It includes an additional $50 million for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to fund forest health and fuel reduction projects in the region. If enacted, we expect that funding from this budget would start becoming available for projects in early 2022.
The region would also be well-served by a proposed $50 million Department of Conservation program to create a biomass gasification facility in the Sierra Nevada. That investment would be capable of turning the low-to-no-value woody material created by many forest restoration projects, into clean-burning, climate-friendly energy sources. Infrastructure that supports the economic utilization of restoration byproducts will allow us to increase the pace and scale of forest health and defensible space projects and support more economic opportunities in rural forest communities.
And the Sierra Nevada would also likely benefit from funding that would flow to statewide programs administered by other agencies, like the $220 million proposed for a variety of CAL FIRE’s forest health grant programs, and another $60 million for the Department of Conservation’s Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program. All have supported important work in the Sierra Nevada in recent years.
It’s important to keep in mind that this proposal would build on the $536-million early action wildfire and forest resilience budget that state leaders approved just last month. That’s a good thing, because there is no shortage of important work to do. At the SNC, for example, we expect to award our entire $19 million allocation for shovel-ready projects at an interim board meeting that will be held July 15th.
As we have said before, this budget won’t immediately restore resilience to the Sierra Nevada. It will take time and sustained investment to reverse the impacts of more than 100 years of fire suppression and a changing climate.
And yet this year may mark a significant and encouraging commitment of resources. One that reflects a growing recognition that the vast forested landscapes of the 25-million-acre Sierra Nevada are vital to California and increasingly vulnerable to wildfire in an accelerating climate crisis. The health, greenhouse gas, and water supply risks created by 2020 megafires showed this all too clearly.
There is a significant backlog of work to do and so many reasons to do it. It’s time to get to work.