Posts Tagged: Susie Kocher
Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, Susie Kocher bundles up her children, gathers the extended family and hikes into the Lake Tahoe Basin forest to find a Christmas tree.
“It’s my favorite part of the season,” Kocher said. “Having the fresh, living thing in the house really symbolizes the holiday. You can’t do it with a fake tree.”
Kocher, a forester and the natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in the Central Sierra, lives and works in Lake Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management District is one of nine national forests in California, all of them in the northern part of the state, where the U.S. Forest Service allows Christmas tree cutting with a $10 permit.
Though some people mourn the death of any tree, Kocher says careful selection and removal of Christmas trees is an enchanting family tradition that enriches forest health.
“We have a lot of small trees on public lands because of fire suppression,” Kocher said. “They’re all competing with one another and many will ultimately die. A smart harvest of Christmas trees can improve the forest by helping with thinning.”
People with permits to cut down Christmas trees in national forests must follow strict guidelines. The trees must be within 10 feet of another living tree, the base of the trunk cannot be more than six inches wide and it must be cut within six inches of the ground. Some national forests limit the harvest to certain tree species.
Despite committing to these guidelines when obtaining a permit, Kocher said she has seen some Christmas tree harvesters make ill-advised choices.
“Some are too lazy to find a good tree and will cut the top off a large tree,” Kocher said. “You can be driving around and see what looks like a poor old Dr. Suess tree, which is what grows from the ugly remnant left behind in the forest.”
Such irresponsible Christmas tree cutting has led some forests to discontinue Christmas tree harvesting for personal use.
Kelly Hooten, information specialist with the Sierra National Forest, said the organization stopped issuing Christmas tree cutting permits because people would tend to cut down only healthy, strong trees.
“It’s really the sickly, Charlie Brown trees that we would prefer to thin in our forest,” Hooten said.
The El Dorado National Forest does not allow Christmas tree cutting because there are more than 30 Christmas tree farms in the vicinity where visitors can choose and cut down their own trees.
“Allowing Christmas tree cutting in forests would hurt these farmers economically,” said Lynn Wunderlich, UCCE advisor in the Central Sierra office. Many Christmas tree farmers also provide food, crafts, activities and visits with Santa.
“Families can visit the farmer year after year as their children grow, so that’s part of the experience,” Wunderlich said.
There has been ongoing debate about whether a fake tree or real tree is more environmentally friendly, but for Kocher, there is no question.
“Fresh real trees are a renewable resource, fake trees are not,” she said. “It’s an agricultural product. You can contribute to a local farmers’ income or you can help thin the forest. Picking and bringing home a fresh tree, decorating it and smelling it defines the season for me. Without it, I don’t think it would feel like Christmas.”
“The fire interval is completely out of whack compared to pre-settlement conditions,” Kocher said.
In a historical, natural and healthy fire regime, nearly half of Sierra forests would experience fire every 12 years and three-quarters would burn every 20 years. However, only 0.2 percent of Sierra forest land has burned repeatedly at least every 20 years in modern times, while 74 percent has not had a single wildfire or prescribed burn in the last 103 years.
These conclusions are part of a report Kocher produced for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency created by the California legislature in 2004 with the understanding that the environmental, economic and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada and local communities would benefit from an organization providing strategic direction.
SNC commissioned reports about Sierra Nevada indicators, such as Demographics and the Economy, Land Conserved and Habitat, and Water and Air Quality and Climate. Kocher’s report is titled Forest Health and Carbon Storage. Future system indicator reports will cover Fire Threat and Agricultural Lands and Ranches.
Forest health is a particularly difficult indicator to frame and quantify as there is no consensus on exactly what defines forest health, Kocher writes in the introduction.
“Forest health is a concept that is commonly used but not well defined,” Kocher said. “You’d think you’d be able to answer how healthy a forest is in a straight forward way. But you have to look at stressors, the natural processes that are happening in a forest. What does the landscape look like?”
Because forest health cannot be characterized by any single, simple measure, Kocher selected three data sets to provide an indication of the health of forests in the region: fire return interval, wildfire threat to ecosystems and forest pest impact and threat. She found that fire return interval told the most provocative story.
Fire return interval tracks the frequency with which wildfire revisits the same land over and over. Kocher compared the frequency of fire return between the pre-settlement “natural” state and modern times.
The pre-settlement or “reference” fire return interval is an estimate of how often, on average, a given forest type likely burned in the three or four centuries prior to Euro-American settlement in the middle of the 19th century. As such, the reference state includes fires deliberately set by Native Americans to manage forest vegetation and wildlife.
Researchers determined fire frequency by analyzing fire scars in tree rings of live and dead trees. Results show that forested areas previously burned every 11 years on average in the warmer and drier lower elevation forests such as ponderosa pine. On the other end of the spectrum, fire occurred only every 133 years for sub-alpine forests where it takes much longer for fuels to accumulate and dry.
Fire suppression in the last 100 years has left much of the Sierra forest land vulnerable to high severity wildfire, Kocher wrote in her report. High severity wildfire across wide areas poses a threat to forest plant and animal life, to forest communities and watershed function, particularly in the northern half of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy Region.
Kocher’s report also reviewed carbon storage in Sierra Nevada forests. Since carbon in the atmosphere is leading to global climate change, there is increased interest in storing carbon in forests.
“It could be said that by suppressing fire, we have sequestered more carbon,” Kocher said. “In an overstocked forest, there are more standing trees and more fuel on the ground. Storing more carbon may help in the short run, but in the long term, your stand has a higher risk of burning up. That puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere.”
Forest thinning improves the stability of carbon storage in the long-term. Whether it reduces the amount of carbon stored depends on what factors are taken into consideration, Kocher suggests. Part of the complexity of the equation stems from whether or not forest products removed from the forest are factored in. Most studies that account for the carbon sequestered by lumber and other products removed during thinning find that thinning both increases the quantity and stability of carbon sequestered by forests over time.
For high severity burns where very few or no live trees remain to provide seed for the next generation, forest recovery can take a very long time. Typically forest landowners want to restore their lands to a forested condition as quickly as possible. In that case, an active approach can help them reach their goal sooner.
The California Tahoe Conservancy has just released a report on the outcomes of active restoration of 40 acres of Conservancy lands where all trees were killed by the 2007 Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe. That fire burned 3,100 forested acres as well as 250 homes.
The report's authors estimate this active approach has hastened the return to a forested condition in the area by about 60 years. This is because planted seedlings are growing quickly while there are few naturally sprouting tree seedlings in adjacent untreated areas and these face competition from vigorously growing native brush that was stimulated by the wildfire. Soil monitoring showed no compaction by heavy equipment during tree removal and minimal soil erosion. Woody mulch left on site was also effective at suppressing brush to give newly planted tree seedlings a competitive edge.
Landowners looking for guidance on post-fire forest management are encouraged to download the free UC Cooperative Extension publication “Recovering from Wildfire: A Guide for California Landowners” and consult the UC Center for Forest Research and Outreach website at http://ucanr.edu/forestry.
If you are passionate about a forest near you then you may want to tune into the UC Cooperative Extension webinar series on Community Forests. The webinars will begin at 6:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on April 7 with additional programs on April 13, 20 and 27. Participants may also want to take part in related field trips to Arcata Community Forest, Usal Redwood Forest, Tahoe-Donner and Weaverville Community Forest.
Community forests are forested lands that are managed to produce what people value. Forests may be valued as a source of timber for lumber, clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational purposes or for all of these benefits in combination.
The webinar series aims to present an overview of community forestry as it is currently being practiced in California. The intended audience is natural resource managers, environmental and forest activist groups, residents of forested regions who might benefit from a community forest approach in their areas and the general public concerned with forest management.
This program is a collaborative effort of the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Northern California Society of American Foresters, with funding support from the USDA Forest Service and the University of California.
Additional information and a link to registration are available at http://ucanr.org/community_forests.
A webinar series and field trips will educate the public on community forests.