Forest ecologists finally got their wish: an entire private landscape on which to test methods of tree thinning and controlled burns to reduce risk of mega fires and minimize the effects of drought on California's frozen reservoirs -- mountain snowpacks.
A coalition of environmental groups recently bought a 10,115-acre parcel in the Sierra Nevada range at the headwaters of the American River to serve as a living laboratory for a 5-year collaborative research and restoration project led by scientists at the Nature Conservancy and UC Merced.
"We are facing another record-breaking year of drought and wildfires in California," said Edward Smith, forest ecologist at the Nature Conservancy, "and the only way to reduce the impacts of this trend is to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration."
Experiments at the $10-million parcel acquired by the Nature Conservancy, the American River Conservancy and the Northern Sierra Partnership will focus on strategies for thinning trees and leaving enough room for more snowfall to accumulate, then melt and fill rivers, rather than evaporate off the tops of unnaturally dense forests.
Surrounded by the Tahoe National Forest, the acreage is a major source of drinking water for Northern California as well as a popular recreation area for hikers and equestrians. Its old growth red fir, Ponderosa, and Jeffrey pine forests are home for species including the California spotted owl.
The property, now owned by the American River Conservancy, is also at risk of catastrophic fires because of a legacy of poor forest management, overly zealous fire suppression and dramatic declines of snowpack caused by warmer temperatures and insect attacks.
"Over the next two years, we plan to thin about 25% of the forested lands," Smith said. "After that, we'll start bringing in fire crews to conduct controlled burns."
Throughout the process, he added, "we'll be monitoring the responses of wildlife including deer herds, bear and birds such as tanagers, wrens and warblers."