If we truly understood that forests are infrastructure, we would invest in their maintenance and restoration as eagerly as we pay for irrigation canals and kitchen faucets and water lines, says Jonathan Kusel.
“We need to increase the investment in our water supply system, beginning with the watershed that is a critical part of that infrastructure,” said Kusel, who directs California’s Sierra Institute for Community and Environment. “That’s the part of the system that refills the water in our streams and groundwater.”
“We need an integrated understanding of the water system that starts at the top of these watersheds in the forests,” he said. “For too long, we’ve chosen to look at the water system as starting at the dam and running downstream from there.”
The financing options are limited only by the public’s creativity and political will.
Kimery Wiltshire, at Carpe Diem West, looks to Flagstaff, Arizona, as the “poster child.” There, voters approved a $10 million municipal bond in November 2012 “to support forest restoration work within key watersheds on the Coconino National Forest and state of Arizona lands.”
It is the only place in the country where forest watershed restoration work is being funded by municipal bonds.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to convince a bonding agency or bank or private investor to put money into projects on public land, said Wiltshire, whose nonprofit group helps create the collaborative relationships that, in turn, lead to forest restoration projects.
“There’s no collateral,” she explained. “So no one wants to invest in public land projects.”
And that’s a problem, since 60 percent of the West’s drinking water originates in headwaters forests, the vast majority of which are in national forests and parks.
Wiltshire tracks the myriad financing methods utilized by communities intent on achieving proactive forest restoration – both to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and to restore and protect healthy watersheds.
She endorses the model of public-private dollars developed by Denver Water and the three national forests that give rise to much of the water it delivers to 1.3 million customers along Colorado’s Front Range.
Similar models are being used by other Front Range utilities and agencies, including the Forest Service, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Northern Water, the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado State Forest Service and Southeast Water Conservancy.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, 82 percent of ratepayers are willing to pay 65 cents a month to protect the city’s water supply from high-intensity wildfires by financing forest restoration projects.
In Eugene, Ore., the Water and Electric Board created a Voluntary Incentives Program that compensates landowners along the McKenzie River for “management practices that benefit water quality and the overall sustainability of the watershed.” The McKenzie provides all of Eugene’s drinking water, flowing west from the heavily forested Cascade Range.
Arizona’s Salt River Project teamed up with the National Forest Foundation to create the Northern Arizona Forest Fund, with the goal of raising contributions from private sources to finance watershed improvement projects already approved under the National Environmental Policy Act. These projects are “shovel ready” and limited only by lack of funding. Walla Walla, Wash., is considering a similar program.
Part of Wiltshire’s work involves bringing together groups of agency and community leaders who can utilize their “collective understanding” and “collective intelligence” to knit together different sources of funding for watershed restoration work.
“It used to be that water utilities just assumed the water would show up,” she said. “There has been a huge shift in thinking in the past five or six years. Now the utilities are very involved in talking about how we can get the forests back and the water coming back so it’s clean and at the right temperature.”
At the Sierra Institute, Kusel takes that argument a step further, calling for accounting methods that consider the environmental benefits of forests.
That includes a new method of carbon accounting, he said.
“It’s a problem when you look at 100 acres, say, and when you take the trees off that land, you have a net carbon deficit because you’ve removed the carbon,” he said. “Our accounting system looks at that and says you can’t support that work.”
But if a forest is viewed in a more appropriate time frame, you don’t end up with a carbon deficit, by Kusel’s accounting:
“If you take that same forest and look at it over a 20-year-plus time frame, you’ve actually encouraged the more rapid growth of the mid-sized trees that are left – and now they’re more resistant to drought. Now you’ve got a net carbon increase, and you’ve recognized the value of the watershed. And you’re a step closer to recognizing the forest as critical infrastructure.”
A little over a year ago, Kusel issued a three-page call to action he christened “One California.”
In it, he suggested “a new vision and bold action” to invest in the forests and watersheds that provide the state’s drinking and irrigation water.
“One California” advocated the restoration of forests for habitat and biodiversity. It called for the restoration of headwater forests. It called for the advancement of science to better understand the relationship between forest health and biodiversity, watershed management and climate change.
He detailed the funding sources needed for the state and federal government each to commit $50 million a year in new money for forest restoration for 10 years. Another $10 million a year for three years is needed to support biomass energy plants and other technologies that utilize woody biomass, he said.
And, as he often does in presentations to audiences in both northern and southern California, he suggested that some of the restoration work can pay for itself if loggers are able to cut some merchantable trees.
“We have to figure out how we can pay for the work that needs to be done in our forests,” Kusel said. “Some of it has to come from, and this will be controversial, the commercial value of the trees. You have to cut some larger trees. You’ve got to embrace uneven-age management.
“There has to be a recognition of the importance of treatment, and a recognition that the government cannot and will not write a blank check for simply taking little trees of no value.”