Posted on Categories ForestsTags , , , ,

Op-Ed: Wildfire safety starts with communities, not cutting forests

Shaye Wolf, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Another harrowing fire season and devastating losses of lives and homes sound an urgent alarm that California’s wildfire policy — focused on logging forests in the backcountry — isn’t working. Tragedy after escalating tragedy demands that we change course.

The good news is that a road map exists for fire policy that truly protects communities. Step one: Make houses and communities more fire-safe. Step two: Stop building new developments in fire-prone areas. Step three: Take strong action to fight climate change.

For years, state and federal wildfire policies have promoted logging of our forests. Under overly broad terms like forest management,thinning and fuels reduction, these policies do the bidding of the timber industry and entrenched agencies that are invested in cutting down trees. Yet, as more money has poured into logging, we’ve witnessed the unprecedented loss of lives and homes.

The reality is that no amount of logging can stop fires. In fact, it can even make fires burn hotter and faster. The 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the Butte County city of Paradise spread most rapidly through areas that had been heavily logged, and we’re seeing the same patterns in this year’s fires.

A study covering three decades and 1,500 fires, co-authored by one of my colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity, found that the most heavily logged areas experience the most intense fire. That isn’t surprising given that cutting down trees creates more exposed, hotter, drier conditions and promotes the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses.

Moreover, many of California’s fires — including half of this year’s burned acreage — have occurred not in forests, but in chaparral, grasslands and oak savanna. For at-risk communities across much of the state, logging is completely irrelevant to the fire threat.
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Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , ,

MALT Board of Directors’ conflicts of interest exposed as legal battle unfolds

Peter Byrne, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

In January 2017, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) paid $1.66 million to the family business of a member of its board of directors, Sam Dolcini.

The money bought a conservation easement on hundreds of acres of cattle-grazing land owned by Sam and his father, Earl Dolcini. Half of the purchase price came from a sales tax supporting Marin County Parks. The balance came from tax-deductible corporate and private donations made to MALT, a non-profit charity which the Internal Revenue Service terms a 501(c)3.

The county’s contribution to the Dolcini deal was approved without debate by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, which is closely connected to MALT. Supervisor Dennis Rodoni sat on the MALT board when the Dolcini deal was sealed, and Marin Board of Supervisors President Steve Kinsey was a MALT director from 1997 to 2016.

Years later, in May 2020, Parks suddenly ordered MALT to refund the county funds used to purchase the $1,666,500 Dolcini easement. The reason? When applying for the funding, MALT had failed to disclose the existence of an appraisal it had commissioned that valued the easement at half a million dollars less than the price paid by MALT and the county.

MALT immediately refunded $833,250 to the county using private donations. The Dolcinis did not return any of the money, said MALT spokesperson Isabel French. In June, executive director, Jamison Watts, resigned to “recalibrate my life-work balance.” As facts about the board’s historic conflicts of interest spill into view, MALT has lawyered up.

It turns out Sam Dolcini is not the first board member to sell an easement to the land trust. MALT has spent tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds buying easements from its own board members.

Read more at: https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/malt-directors-conflicts-of-interest-exposed-as-legal-battle-unfolds/Content?oid=10569479

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , , , ,

Bill Keene resigns as head of Sonoma County’s open space district

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a district advisory committee member, said her constituents want to see the majority of the district funds go toward agricultural lands ― preserving open space and natural resources that remain in private hands, and thus at lower cost than having to purchase the property outright.

While residents wouldn’t be able to get on the land, “the public can also be enjoying agricultural preservation by driving by and seeing a field full of cows or seeing a ridge top that’s not full of houses.”

The longtime head of Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has announced he is stepping down from the job, setting off both a search for his interim replacement and suggestions by some that his departure offers an opportunity to reshape leadership of the taxpayer-funded agency.

Bill Keene, who has served as general manager since 2009, submitted last month his resignation to the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the 30-year-old district, acting as its board of directors.

Keene, 51, who joined county government in 2000, working previously for Sonoma Water, is only the third director in the open space district’s history.

Keene stressed that the decision to leave was his ― prompted by questions he has asked himself amid the past seven months of the pandemic about the next stage of his career and intertwining crises, including escalating climate emergency, social unrest and, recently, catastrophic wildfires along the West Coast.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to be,” he said. “I’ve always known where I was going, and this is the first time. But I saw a couple of my colleagues jump and decide to do different things during the pandemic, and it kind of inspired me.”

His contract expires in November, though he has agreed to stay through the end of January if needed.

The departure has opened a conversation about what the county wants in the next general manager and in the overall direction of the agency. Supervisors said it was not unusual for them to be signaling such a discussion at this point.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/bill-keene-resigns-as-head-of-sonoma-countys-open-space-district/

Posted on Categories Forests, HabitatsTags , , , ,

Sonoma County parklands a mosaic of ash and unburned islands after Glass fire

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

From a distance, wildfire ash almost looks like snow peaking out from stands of barren trees and pockets of green canopy on the ridges and slopes encompassing 8,800 acres of parkland in the Mayacamas Mountains straddling the Sonoma and Napa valleys.

The Glass fire burned through the majority of these treasured preserved lands, moving throughout all of Hood Mountain Regional Park and roughly 90% of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, leaving pockets of green islands within the burn scars.

Stewards of these lands say the next several months will involve urgent work to prevent traumatic erosion to the land, stop large sediment deposits from clogging creeks, and tamping down invasive weeds so that native plants have a chance to grow back and thrive.

Though it could be months before the public is allowed to return to the trails and the stunning panoramic view of the valley from Gunsight Rock, the outlook is far from grim for the flora and creatures adapted to fire.

“It’s not a tragedy when a park burns,” said Melanie Parker, deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/sonoma-county-parklands-a-mosaic-of-ash-and-unburned-islands-after-glass-fi/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, ForestsTags , , , , ,

Op-Ed: Don’t believe self-serving messengers. Logging will not prevent destructive wildfires

Chad Hanson, LOS ANGELES TIMES

My community of Big Bear City, in the mountains east of Los Angeles, had a tense week recently. For a few nerve-racking days, the El Dorado fire, which has burned more than 20,000 acres in and around the San Bernardino National Forest, threatened to move our way.

The fire had seen little movement in the previous days, despite the fact that it was burning in dense forests with many dead trees and downed logs. Weather conditions had been cool and calm. Then things changed, and quickly. The weather shifted to hot, dry and windy. Right away, the El Dorado fire began spreading much more rapidly, toward Big Bear. We were notified to prepare for potential evacuation. Several days later, temperatures cooled again, winds died down and fire activity calmed.

Scenarios like this are playing out across the western United States, especially in California and Oregon. Many homes have been lost and, tragically, at least 30 lives too. Numerous communities have been forced to evacuate, displacing thousands of families. People are scared and looking for answers.

Meanwhile, as wildfires continue in parts of the West that don’t often burn, a troubling new form of climate change denial has crept into the public dialogue, and it is only increasing the threats to public safety.

The logging industry — and the Republican and Democratic politicians whose reelection campaigns it finances — are busy telling the press and the public that they should focus on “forest management” in remote wildlands, rather than on climate change and community wildfire preparedness. Joining this chorus is a group of agency and university scientists funded by the Trump administration.

Logging bills are now being promoted in Congress, ostensibly as solutions. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) introduced a bill last month that would severely erode environmental laws to increase commercial logging in our national forests. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would triple funding to subsidize logging on federal forestlands.
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Posted on Categories Water, WildlifeTags , , ,

How beavers became North America’s best firefighter

Ben Goldfarb, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The American West is ablaze with fires fueled by climate change and a century of misguided fire suppression. In California, wildfire has blackened more than three million acres; in Oregon, a once-in-a-generation crisis has forced half a million people to flee their homes. All the while, one of our most valuable firefighting allies has remained overlooked: The beaver.

A new study concludes that, by building dams, forming ponds, and digging canals, beavers irrigate vast stream corridors and create fireproof refuges in which plants and animals can shelter. In some cases, the rodents’ engineering can even stop fire in its tracks.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s a wildfire right next door,” says study leader Emily Fairfax, an ecohydrologist at California State University Channel Islands. “Beaver-dammed areas are green and happy and healthy-looking.”

For decades, scientists have recognized that the North American beaver, Castor canadensis, provides a litany of ecological benefits throughout its range from northern Mexico to Alaska. Beaver ponds and wetlands have been shown to filter out water pollution, support salmon, sequester carbon, and attenuate floods. Researchers have long suspected that these paddle-tailed architects offer yet another crucial service: slowing the spread of wildfire.

This beaver-dammed wetland in Baugh Creek, Idaho, is a so-called “emerald refuge” that can serve as a firebreak and refuge for other species during wildfires. Source: Joe Wheaton, Utah State University.

“It’s really not complicated: water doesn’t burn,” says Joe Wheaton, a geomorphologist at Utah State University. After the Sharps Fire charred 65,000 acres in Idaho in 2018, for instance, Wheaton stumbled upon a lush pocket of green glistening within the burn zone—a beaver wetland that had withstood the flames. Yet no scientist had ever rigorously studied the phenomenon.

Read more at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/09/beavers-firefighters-wildfires-california-oregon/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Sustainable LivingTags , , , ,

Op-Ed: A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Firestorms in the West have grown bigger and more destructive in recent years — and harder to escape. Massive and frenzied, they have overtaken people trying to outrun or outdrive them.

Gridlocked mountain roads prevented many Paradise residents from fleeing the Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018. This year, more than 30 people have died in the fires in California and Oregon, and again, in many cases, people were trying to escape fast-moving blazes.

There’s much work to be done on how we protect people amid a wildfire, including how and when we advise them to evacuate. But fire experts also are considering different ways to protect communities, and some of these ideas haven’t been given their full due as options for states that increasingly find themselves under siege.

One approach, seen in a bill proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is to log more dead trees and dig more firebreaks, among other things. But it’s outmoded and environmentally problematic; environmental groups have attacked the bill for allowing the fast-tracking of logging permits, bypassing the normal review process, in areas far from any towns that could be threatened.

Beyond that, trying to prevent fires can lead to overgrown forests that set the stage for more catastrophic blazes. Rather than going down that road, or cutting trees and brush in order to make fires smaller and slower, the better, more scientifically based approach is to focus more on houses and less on trees.
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Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , , , ,

Op-Ed: Lawmakers let oil and gas interests sicken us; Gov. Newsom can put us on the path to recovery

Venise Curry & Ellie Cohen, CAL MATTERS

Make no mistake about it. Climate change is powering California’s perfect storm of record heat, lightning, drought, wildfire and smoke amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and electricity blackouts.

In his video message to the Democratic National Convention in August, Gov. Gavin Newsom made it clear. “The hots are getting hotter; the dries are getting drier. Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.”

While touring the devastating North Complex Fires near Oroville on Friday, Newsom called current state goals “inadequate to meet the challenges” and vowed to fast-track state efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Yet California continues to fan the flames as the seventh largest oil producing and third largest refining state in the country?

State lawmakers, with the exception of a few climate leaders, are increasingly falling under the thrall of oil and gas industry dollars. The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in California, spent $8.8 million on lobbying in 2019 alone.

Californians are being poisoned daily by pollutants emitted from California’s 81,500 active and idle oil and gas wells, pumps, refineries and pipes. Toxic oil and gas infrastructure – from freeways to oil rigs – are too often located in communities of color, dangerously close to homes, schools and hospitals due to historic redlining and racist redevelopment policies.

Read more at: https://calmatters.org/commentary/my-turn/2020/09/lawmakers-let-oil-and-gas-interests-sicken-us-gov-newsom-can-put-us-on-the-path-to-recovery/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=28eb561a-c380-430e-9f9f-745a3f45e261

Posted on Categories Land UseTags , , ,

Montage Healdsburg builder seeks to renegotiate deal with city as resort nears opening

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Initial discussions are underway between the builder of a long-planned luxury hotel just months away from completion in Healdsburg and city officials over public benefits in the original development deal that the builder wants to forgo, including on-site construction of affordable housing.

Montage Healdsburg, touted as the city’s first five-star hotel, is set to open by December, about 15 years after the previously named Saggio Hills project was put forward on 258 wooded acres on the north side of town. It includes 130 rooms and suites ranging from $695 to $1,695 a night, and plans for up to 70 villa-style homes.

But as the finishing touches on the hotel are put in place, the Robert Green Company, the Encinitas-based developer, and project subsidiary Sonoma Luxury Resort, are seeking to renegotiate some of the public amenities called for in the 2011 approval that paved the way for the project, previously estimated to cost up to $310 million.

In exchange for a $7.25 million cash payment to the city, Robert Green Jr., the company’s president and chief executive officer, wants to forgo on-site development of affordable housing and other public amenities he was required to provide, including a fire substation, construction of a community park, a trail network and two public roadways meant to aid emergency evacuation and link with the nearby Parkland Farms subdivision.

On the 14-acre affordable housing site, which Green was to grade for the city before handing over for construction, the developer instead wants place an open space easement, barring future building. The cash payment would be intended in part to help finance equivalent housing elsewhere in the city.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/montage-healdsburg-builder-seeks-to-renegotiate-deal-with-city-as-resort-ne/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , , , , , ,

Its electric grid under strain, California turns to batteries

Ivan Penn, THE NEW YORK TIMES

When demand exceeded supply in a recent heat wave, electricity stored at businesses and even homes was called into service. With proper management, batteries could have made up for an offline gas plant.

Last month as a heat wave slammed California, state regulators sent an email to a group of energy executives pleading for help. “Please consider this an urgent inquiry on behalf of the state,” the message said.

The manager of the state’s grid was struggling to increase the supply of electricity because power plants had unexpectedly shut down and demand was surging. The imbalance was forcing officials to order rolling blackouts across the state for the first time in nearly two decades.

What was unusual about the emails was whom they were sent to: people who managed thousands of batteries installed at utilities, businesses, government facilities and even homes. California officials were seeking the energy stored in those machines to help bail out a poorly managed grid and reduce the need for blackouts.

Many energy experts have predicted that batteries could turn homes and businesses into mini-power plants that are able to play a critical role in the electricity system. They could soak up excess power from solar panels and wind turbines and provide electricity in the evenings when the sun went down or after wildfires and hurricanes, which have grown more devastating because of climate change. Over the next decade, the argument went, large rows of batteries owned by utilities could start replacing power plants fueled by natural gas.

But that day appears to be closer than earlier thought, at least in California, which leads the country in energy storage. During the state’s recent electricity crisis, more than 30,000 batteries supplied as much power as a midsize natural gas plant. And experts say the machines, which range in size from large wall-mounted televisions to shipping containers, will become even more important because utilities, businesses and homeowners are investing billions of dollars in such devices.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/03/business/energy-environment/california-electricity-blackout-battery.html