A burning need to ensure the Farm Bill supports forest owners

A privately owned deer farm in the Coastal range in California.
A privately owned deer farm in the Coastal range in California. San Luis Obispo Tribune

The Farm Bill is nearing a possible finish line in the U.S. Congress, with several members of our California delegation – representatives Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and Jim Costa, D-Clovis – on the committee to push it across the finish line.

The timing is ideal, given the growing intensity of our wildfires, our increasing drought conditions and the tens of millions of dead and diseased trees in our forests.

While many Californians know of the beauty of the forests and their value in producing wood for housing and construction, few recognize on the necessity for healthy forests to help keep our water supply clean, to provide wildlife habitat and to contribute to local economies with thousands of jobs.

Many might realize that not all of our forests are publicly owned. One in every five forested acres in California is owned by private individuals and families. The American Forest Foundation says nearly three of every five forested acres at risk of burning in critical watersheds are privately owned.

Private forest owners like myself care about the land. We put in very real sweat equity to keep it productive, and we want to do what’s right to keep it healthy.

But the majority of us are not wealthy. The costs of proactively getting ahead of fire threats continues to grow, and most landowners cannot afford to keep our private forests resilient in the face of ever increasing wildfire threats.

On average it costs $2,500 an acre to remove the build-up of low-grade wood that fuels catastrophic fires.

Luckily, the Farm Bill contains a number of programs and policies that support family forest owners so that we can get ahead of the issue; something all Californians can benefit from.

As Denham, Costa and others work to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, we hope they will fight to include the improvements that help California’s landowners address the challenges – improvements endorsed by the thousands of forest owners, the California Forestry Association and the California Tree Farm Program. This includes:

▪ Strong funding for forest owners in the forestry and conservation programs as we’ve seen in past Farm Bills. Programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program provide enormous public benefit by enabling families to conduct needed management. It’s important funding levels remain intact.

▪ Support for programs and funding that encourage a strong, diverse forest-products industry. Much of the rise in cost for forest management can be attributed to the decline in markets for low-value, small-diameter wood. Support and investment in programs such the Community Wood Energy Program, which can bolster markets for this low-value material, will reduce treatment costs.

▪ We need to address the wildfire issue comprehensively. Issues like these do not stop at anyone’s property line, and with our checkerboard pattern of ownerships we need more cross-boundary, landscape-scale efforts to tackle wildfire across public and private lands. Strengthening the Forest Service’s Landscape Scale Restoration program and increase cross-boundary cooperative work in the Hazardous Fuels program will help.

I hope our California delegation does its part to keep our forests healthy and thriving.

John McDonagh farms Christmas trees in several locations in the Central Sierra Mountains.