Q&A: Paul Mason, Pacific Forest Trust

California’s increasingly catastrophic fire seasons have drawn the connection between healthy forests, healthy air, and climate change into sharp relief. Under Governor Newsom, California has made sweeping policy changes to petroleum production, green energy infrastructure, groundwater pumping, and the transition from fossil fuel vehicles to zero emission vehicles. As the role that wildfire plays in California’s climate change mitigation efforts has become impossible to ignore, the role that forest management plays in climate change has become an essential part of discussions around climate change policy.

I spoke with Paul Mason, Vice President, Policy and Incentives at Pacific Forest Trust, to hear what trends and changes he sees in land management, and for insight into how to think about the role and health of California’s forests in the age of climate change.

The Pacific Forest Trust focuses on private forests in California, Oregon, and Washington states. As an eclectic think-tank of policymakers, scientists, and forest managers, The Pacific Forest Trust focuses on creating new economic incentives that reward private forever for practicing sustainable forestry and for conserving their forelands. Governmental agencies and NGOs alike have recognized Pacific Forest Trust for their work. Mason is an expert in California forest policy who focuses on developing approaches and solutions to restoring the resilience of the region’s forests and watersheds in response to the increasing pressures placed on them from changing climate.

Capitol Weekly: Forest health’s role in climate change has become undeniable. After 20 years at Pacific Forest Trust, what changes are you seeing on the policy side?

Paul Mason: California has dug an enormously deep hole regarding fire. European colonizers have generally not embraced that California is a fire-adapted ecosystem. The fact that California has always burned is just part of the natural ecology. The best estimate is that California probably averaged four million acres of fire each year before Europeans arrived. Some of that fire was natural ignition. A lot of it resulted from Indigenous Californians setting fire to get the best possible outcomes for cultural reasons, for food production, and for community protection. Fire was an accepted part of being in California—not enormous catastrophic fires like we have now, but lower intensity fires. Europeans showed up, and we both cut down the big old fire-resistant trees, and we tried to eliminate fire. All of the sudden, this whole landscape that was adapted to fire every 5, 10, 15 years, was gone. When early foresters showed up, they marveled at the size of the giant old trees. They also went Wow, it sure would be great if there were three times as many trees here, and they proceeded to create that, through fire suppression, logging, and planting. But California’s fire ecology does not support our current level of tree density. Right now we live in landscape conditions that would not exist without a century of fire suppression. The challenge we face is how to get back toward that pre-colonization condition where fire occurred on the landscape without catastrophic effects, where burns were just part of the baseline maintenance of our ecology.

Most people only think about fire when it feels like a threat. Yet it has always been the essential disturbance regime in most of California. I mean, for millions of years, the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and North Coast forests were driven by fire. There’s never been a time when they didn’t have fires shaping them, and taking fire out of the system for 100 years, the way America has, has been a massive mistake. And it’s going to be an expensive mistake, since it will take large, ongoing investments to get the forest system back to a stable, resistant condition that accepts fire. Creating those forest conditions is an enormous challenge, both the sheer logistics of meeting the scale of the problem, and the economics.

There is a lot of recognition in the timber management constituency that, for example, we need more ‘good fire’ that burns intentionally to reduce surface fuels and overall levels of fuels to get outcomes that we’re okay with—and that yeah, we’re going to kill a few trees, but not like we see in catastrophic summer fires.

CW: Another challenge seems to be the variety of forest types here, and the number of interests who own California’s forest. How do you align federal, state, indigenous, industrial, and private landowners to reduce the forests susceptibility to huge fires?

Mason: Well, you see really different management goals on some of the different ownerships. Roughly half of California’s forests are owned by the federal government, and most of those have been logged at least once and often not experienced any additional restoration forestry, and not nearly enough intentional burns. That means their conditions are very unnatural. Industrial landowners are the next biggest ownership category—your big timber companies—which own somewhere around a quarter of California’s forests, and they typically manage intensively and have dense forests that run between zero and 80 years old. That age class is very vulnerable to fire. The last quarter of California’s landscape is owned by smaller landowners, from ranches on down to rural and residential lands, and they have different management priorities. They’re not necessarily trying to manage for maximum economic return. Some have long-term relationships with the land or just want to have a nice place to visit and live. Often times, their challenge is to do any forest management, because logging is not the primary activity on those lands, so they aren’t as familiar with common practices and processes. This complexity makes managing difficult and expensive.

CW: How have catastrophic fire seasons changed the industrial landowners’ managerial approach?

Mason: Increasingly, they see that you can’t manage for maximizing your timber yield without also thinking about fire, as we’ve seen dramatic increases in fire behavior since about 2017. Even some of the timberland owners who we consider exemplary managers also saw enormous losses in some of the big fires, like the Dixie Fire, so ways to reduce fire risk to protect their timber investments has become a bigger part of the conversation now. But again, the overall landscape condition today looks so different than it did in the 1800s.

CW: So does the financial incentive to protect their investment from catastrophic fire create an opportunity to align private forest owners with management techniques that serve the larger social good of keeping carbon in the ground, not the air?

Mason: Yes. There is a lot of recognition in the timber management constituency that, for example, we need more ‘good fire’ that burns intentionally to reduce surface fuels and overall levels of fuels to get outcomes that we’re okay with—and that yeah, we’re going to kill a few trees, but not like we see in catastrophic summer fires. There’s still a lot of reluctance, because of liability and the fear of a fire bankrupting their company. That’s a legitimate concern. A lot of the large timber managers are more focused on some of the other pieces of the landscape that aren’t managed at all, whether that be small absentee landowners adjacent to their property or the Forest Service. So there’s interest in both doing more proactive management and in reducing risk on other pieces of the landscape that aren’t so focused on generating revenue.

CW: When it comes to forest structure, many coniferous forests that are more fire-resistant are the ones that have older trees and more space them. Maintaining those forests don’t lend themselves to the high rates of timber extraction that people are accustomed to.

Mason: There can be a lot of value there and significant productivity. Well-spaced trees do grow a lot faster, but that’s a very different business model than what most of the industry has been practicing for decades.

CW: Are there examples of working forest lands which serve as models of both healthy and profitable landscapes?

Mason: Yes, there are. There certainly are examples of managers who have worked towards that more natural forest condition, using selective management, maybe harvesting fewer trees, but facilitating larger trees. Collins Pine, a privately owned company in northeastern California has been one of the poster children for that sort of management in California—where it’s biodiverse, structurally diverse, multi-age, not single-species. Unfortunately, they were still heavily impacted by the Dixie Fire. Since we live in a fire adapted ecosystem, there is going to be fire. But because the world is hotter and drier now than it was in 1800, we’re in the very challenging position where the issue is not as simple as trying to restore the forest conditions that existed before European colonization. California’s climate is different.

Well-spaced trees do grow a lot faster, but that’s a very different business model than what most of the industry has been practicing for decades.

CW: Is returning to pre-colonization ecology the right goal for modern forest managers? Or are you trying to create a structure that is less prone to catastrophic fire?

Mason: We’re using that pre-colonization condition as a guidepost for the type of forest condition that’s likely to be better adapted to the fire regimes in California. It’s important to have those guideposts, because most of us living in California have always lived with this unnaturally dense forest that resulted from fire suppression. It’s important to have sense of our forests’ histories, so we know that we should be creating more complexity, more openness, more structural diversity, in our forests. Because of past logging and fire suppression, our forests are homogeneous: the same age and incredibly dense across huge portions of California. Once you get fire and wind in them, they just keep burning. It’s hard to stop those sorts of fires, as opposed to having more spacing between trees, more open meadows, and other areas that provide natural fire breaks. Underlying all of this is our fire suppression system. We’re still overwhelmingly focused on fire suppression. The state has made significant progress in the last few years, ramping up more intentional prescribed fire, cultural fire, and that’s great, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the historical levels of good fire.

The problem with suppression is that we end up selecting for the most damaging fires. By which I mean CAL FIRE and the Forest Service are really good at putting out a fire that’s burning under moderate conditions or cool, damp conditions. The only fires that get away and get really big are burning under the worst possible conditions on a hot dry day, so the suppression approach is actively facilitating the worst outcomes. If we’re going to see millions of acres of fire a year in California, we need to be intentionally burning as much of that as possible under conditions where we like the outcomes, where we’re reducing fuels, but maintaining the big old trees and other vegetation that helps prevent catastrophic sprawling burns.

CW: In terms of “selecting for,” you mean a very Darwinian mode of a suppression policy approach that favor catastrophic fires.

Mason: Yes. We’re spending all this money selecting for the most damaging outcomes.

CW: So if we’re using pre-colonization forests as a guidepost, what we’re using isn’t an uninhabited, so-called “virgin” forest, it’s an inhabited forest actively managed by Indigenous people, whether it be chaparral, Sequoia forests, mixed conifer. Viewed that way, is it easier to sell this idea of active management with prescribed fire to select for less catastrophic fires?

Mason: First, let’s establish that in the last few years, there has been an enormous amount of progress and increased understanding about California’s need for more proactive fire. As a state government, we’re much more invested in beneficial fire than we were five or six years ago. Also, I worry sometimes about just saying ‘We need more active management,’ without being clear about the ends we are managing towards. Not every activity is beneficial. We need management toward more natural conditions. For instance, we want to be restoring more large old trees that are fire resistant. If management is taking out the small trees, leaving the large trees, and making sure that those large trees persist over time and are protected, then that is helpful to mitigate climate change and big fires. If the management involves cutting down the big trees and leaving the small trees and brush, then that makes the problem worse. Being clear about what we’re managing for and why is critical, because a lot of land management that’s going on in California right now is making the problem worse, not better.

CW: So not simply managing to extract big trees for timber, but to facilitate the growth of big trees and maintain them over decades, with less fuel between them, so you create a forest whose structure is more fire resistant.

The only fires that get away and get really big are burning under the worst possible conditions on a hot dry day, so the suppression approach is actively facilitating the worst outcomes.

Mason: Ensuring that future managers retain big trees is critical, and Pacific Forest Trust works with large forest landowners to create permanent working forest conservation easements, which compensate the landowner for the value of retaining more big trees and other forest structure than otherwise required, while maintaining active management on the forest. This is a vital part of addressing our forest and fire challenge. Government conversations and budgets tend to look at a pretty short timeframe: How are we going to reduce risk this year, next year, maybe the third year out? But when we’re trying to restore forest conditions we need to think about decades and longer, out to the end of the century and beyond. That requires long-term commitments that ensure that some of the big old trees that regrow are retained. Think about it: Subsequent landowners who buy forested properties are going to have financial incentive to cut those big trees down to turn a profit—we need to partner with landowners today to change how management is done in the future.

CW: Has the conversation about climate change helped policymakers and landowners recognize that solutions must focus on the long term?

Mason: We’re starting to think longer term and at a greater scale, recognizing that little projects aren’t going to make enough of a difference. More people still need to fully embrace the scale of restoration needed, and the need to ensure that improvements are durable over generations. If we want to have big old fire-resistant trees, for all their values of biodiversity, water supply, future wood production, that requires permanent management changes at a far greater scale. There’s still a lot of the short-term-fix thinking, and well-rounded policy solutions require thinking out to the end of the century. If we’re able to get larger trees back on the landscape, how do we maintain that beneficial trajectory, knowing that California will probably be hotter, drier, and probably a lot more fire prone than it is now? Any realistic solution is going to require the public helping to change the economics of forest management. It’s not going to be viable to simply say that landowners can’t cut as many big trees as they used to. The public has to come to the table and help make that happen.

CW: How do they do that?

Mason: Well, that’s where we use working forest conservation easements to articulate certain future conditions. We want to keep some portion of your overall timber inventory in large old trees. The easement makes that enforceable over time, where the land trust will go out and monitor every year, forever, to make sure each landowner continues to abide by that agreement. Those sorts of tools ensure better management over multiple generations, which climate change requires.

CW: Newsom has created policy that greens the state’s energy grid, and phases out petroleum production while reducing our petroleum dependence—long-term solutions that don’t look at a few fiscal years. Does this current political climate seem ripe for long-term land management?

Mason: Yes, but I do think that land management is different and complicated in unique ways. First, if you’re trying to regulate oil, how many oil companies are there in California, maybe a hundred? How many landowners are there in California? Hundreds of thousands, so that requires different approaches. To their credit, the Newsom administration, and increasingly the legislature, recognize the need to propose solutions at a scale that would actually meet the challenge. A frustration of mine is when people talk about solutions that may feel viable politically but wouldn’t truly solve the problem. To succeed, we need to pursue policy solutions scaled to the size of the challenge. Look how we transformed electrical production in California. We’re transforming automobile consumption and oil production, too. We need to do the same with land management, where we’re managing for climate resilience, water security, and biodiversity as our top drivers, and still ensure that economic products flow from that. It can’t be political. We must manage for those critical values in a real, scalable, long-term way.

CW: On that note, what is some of the notable progress at the state government level that you’ve seen?

Mason: Well, I’ve been doing this for 20 years in Sacramento. If you go back to you even 2016, the state wasn’t spending a material amount of money on proactive fuel reduction or forest restoration. There was virtually zero funding for that. The catastrophic fires we saw in 2017 in Santa Rosa, and 2018 in Paradise, and other large southern fires, changed the conversation politically. To my mind, those years marked the switch from our historical fire behavior to the new reality. The legislature stepped up and made a five-year, billion-dollar commitment on forest restoration and fuel reduction activities, with SB 901. Compared to nothing, that’s a lot. It’s enough to start changing the conversation and jumpstarting a change in how we manage our forest and deal with certain field challenges. The increase in funding has ramped up substantially since then, including some additional funding for capacity building regionally. The Newsom administration has invested $2.7 billion over a four-year period in forest restoration and fuels reduction around the state, which are real material investments. That’s a good way to start building momentum, getting everyone moving.

Now we need to also refine our approach: How are we getting to effective, holistic outcomes? For instance, a huge amount of our utilized water comes from the Feather River drainage and the Oroville Reservoir. The condition of that forest and watershed affects the quality, quantity, and timing of runoff to the reservoir—it’s a critical part of our water infrastructure. To restore those degraded forests, we should have an actionable plan for forest restoration and conservation throughout that whole drainage, and then implement with maximum efficiency. It might take 10 or 15 years to complete, but we need that scale of planning and action to achieve the desired condition for fire, water, climate, and wildlife. Right now, the state approach is largely opportunistic, with funding going to projects that are brought forward, as opposed to being more proactive about identifying the most important actions to reduce fire impacts and increase forest resilience most effectively. There’s movement in the right direction. We need to develop actionable plans regionally and move quickly to implement them.

Once we get to this more natural condition, which is going to require a whole bunch of mechanical forest thinning, then we can use beneficial fire—prescribed burns—to maintain those conditions. If we do this thoughtfully, where we’ve done an initial treatment on everything from the edge of a small town out to the forested mountain ridgetop, then we can just keep burning that land every five years, to maintain a more resilient forest structure and protect these communities who are adjunct to the forest. Because that’s where this all starts to stitch together: We don’t have safe communities unless we have a more resilient landscape, and we don’t get there without a lot of initial thinning and with fire as a core part of that treatment. One thing that science tells us is that mechanical thinning by itself doesn’t really reduce the fire risk all that much, unless you also burn it afterwards. Burning afterwards to reduce the fuels that are left after logging—that makes all the difference in the world in terms of the effectiveness of these treatments.

If you go back to you even 2016, the state wasn’t spending a material amount of money on proactive fuel reduction or forest restoration. There was virtually zero funding for that.

CW: So I imagine a lot of education is involved to show people the value, and the idea, of a “good fire.” So many of us fear fire. We see it spread and destroy, and reduce things to fire is bad, no fire is good.

Mason: Yeah, one of the most culturally important pieces of our challenge is getting the general public comfortable with the idea that California burns. There is no scenario where that doesn’t happen, we only get to control the timing. If we control the timing, we can control the outcomes and reduce the impacts. But there’s no scenario where we don’t have some fire. This unnatural scenario we’ve lived in for most of our lives, where we’ve been able to put out all the fires: That era is over. We need to get much more comfortable and proactive about setting fire to reduce the impacts of these catastrophic fires, impacts both on the forest and on human health. The level of smoke we’ve seen these last few seasons is so staggering that the American Lung Association has gotten active on the issue. They do their State of the Air report every year, and in the last several years, wildfire in California has swamped all the other sources of air pollution. The Lung Association has become proactively supportive of the use of beneficial fire to reduce the impact of these catastrophic fires, because as I said earlier about California’s pre-colonization ecology: There is no no-fire option. You can’t stop this natural California processes, but if we control the timing, we can reduce the impacts.


Aaron Gilbreath, author of “The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley,” is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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