The Forest First Program was created because the national forests encompass approximately 30% of the Santa Ana River Watershed’s land mass and receive 90% of its annual precipitation. It was designed as a collaborative venture between the U.S. Forest Service and downstream stakeholders that focuses on developing methods to ensure that the forests and headwaters are kept as healthy as possible. This partnership’s importance has come to the forefront with recent news of the impact of the drought on forest heath.
Forest Fuels and Water Resources Linked
Forest management practices have direct effects on both water quality and quantity, particularly relative to forest fires and the consequential effects of soil erosion and water storage. Over the past one hundred years, changes to the conditions of the forest’s natural state have occurred from recurring fires that have destroyed portions of the natural vegetation community, and from increased forest fuel density in certain areas. While periodic naturally-occurring fires can be beneficial to forest ecology, these altered fuel and vegetation conditions inc rease the risk of unusually severe wildfires that may result in undesirable effects that directly impact the surface and groundwater quantity in the watershed.
Forest Health and the Drought
A three week survey conducted over the summer of 2015 by Biologist Greg Asner from the Carnegie Institution of Science has led to the conclusion that as much of 20% of the state’s forests will die because of current conditions. Under normal conditions, forests lose between 1% and 1.5% of their trees annually. These results come as sobering news. “The only time I’ve seen it this bad is in the Amazon in 2010, when I mapped millions and millions of dead trees,” Asner says. The Forest Service and its partners also conduct annually surveying for insect, diseases and die-offs. Data sets and map images from those surveys are available at: http://foresthealth.fs.usda.gov/
Forest Fuels Reduction Implementation
After several years of implementation of the Program, the San Bernardino National Forest was successful in attaining an Integrated Regional Water Management Proposition 84 grant through the One Water One Watershed Program in 2013. $1,000,000 in grant funding is now being leveraged with approximately $4,000,000 in federally appropriated dollars to reduce the fire risk and improve forest health in two San Bernardino County locations: 1) The 1,600 acre Bluff Mesa project area which surrounds Bluff Lake, and 2) the 440 acre Santa Ana Unit area south of Running Springs and Big Bear. Sediment reduction will occur through improvements to two perennial and multiple intermittent crossings along four miles of Forest Service Road – 1N09 in the Santa Ana Unit project area. On the Santa Ana Unit 3 project, 145 acres of vegetation manipulation (e.g. mastication, removal of invasive weeds, etc.) will improve the resiliency of the forest, restore a more sustainable forest composition and structure, and limit fuel loading. The Forest Service and its partners, which include the downstream water resources agencies, will be responsible for developing and performing a monitoring program to prove that forest ecological restoration benefits downstream customers through increased water supply, improved water quality (less sediment)and reduced O&M costs (less sediment).
Forest Fuels Research
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) coordinated with SAWPA and the San Bernardino National Forest on a project to demonstrate on‐site conversion of biomass. Using pyrolysis processes, the project will take woody biomass—which is removed from the forest to prevent wild fires—to valuable fuel and chemical intermediates. Pyrolysis, the heating in the absence of oxygen, is a well‐known process that converts biomass to liquid fuel intermediate called pyrolysis oil (also known as bio‐oil), with solid and gaseous co-products of bio‐char and combustible gases respectively. It is an energy dense liquid that can be utilized as a stationary fuel oil or can be further refined into green hydrocarbon fuels or petrochemical feedstock. This year, ARS has submitted an application for a CAL FIRE Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund Demonstration State Forest Research Grant to use its two ton per day mobile demonstration unit on site in California. The mobile unit, based on a dual fluidized bed technology termed the Combustion Reduction Integrated Pyrolysis System (CRIPS), was designed and fabricated with funding awarded to ARS by USDA-NIFA as part of a biomass research and development initiative (BRDI) grant. If the CAL FIRE grant application is successful, it will help provide a foundation of research which will lead to ongoing benefits as the project can be replicated in other urban and rural forests throughout California.