Habitat integrity and connectivity for species movement, protection, enhancement and recovery — and for climate resistance, resilience, and adaptation – is essential as we move into the 21st century. The precipitous decline of our wildlife and biodiversity, exacerbated by the significant effects resulting from climate change, means habitat connectivity on our forested landscapes is absolutely critical. Privately-held forestlands in Northwest California are essential to the recovery of species, for landscape-level integrity with habitat connectivity, and for resistance and resilience to climate change. Although privately-held forestlands regulatory mechanisms do not seek to achieve landscape-level connectivity, there are strategies that would significantly improve existing landscape conditions and allow for private lands to contribute to species recovery and biodiversity, and climate resiliency.
There are over 33 million acres of forestland in the State of California, comprising one-third of the total acreage of the entire state. Of these 33 million acres of forestland, approximately forty percent (13.3 million acres) are privately-held forestlands that are primarily managed for timber production. Of the 13.3 million acres, over 25 percent is in non-corporate private ownership, while a little over 14 percent in corporate private ownership.
The forests of Northwest California are some of the most biodiverse in the nation. Prior to European settlement, Northwest California’s forests were teeming with native flora and fauna that reflected millennia of natural growth and disturbance that created the mosaic of landscapes first encountered by settlers. Native fauna of Northwest California originally included numerous species dependent on large, dense, and complex forests and forest structures to complete life history behaviors. Some of these species are so specialized that the subsequent loss of the old-growth to logging has brought these iconic species to the brink of extinction. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, approximately 60 of California’s native wildlife is now “at-risk” and in need of conservation.
EPIC’s Connecting Wild Places Campaign
EPIC’s Connecting Wild Places campaign is designed to proactively address the need for habitat corridors to facilitate species’ movement and create micro-climactic refugia. Achieving connectivity across land-use allocations, i.e. both public and private lands is a daunting task, at least on-the-face of it. While large areas of public lands are designated as reserve, such as wilderness areas and late successional reserves, there are currently few mechanisms to achieve these goals on private lands, outside of outright land acquisition or securing conservation easements, or other voluntary measures. Private lands are a critically important piece to the connectivity puzzle, and changing the legal, regulatory, and policy-level landscapes will be essential to achieving long-term, landscape-level management changes.
Connectivity and the Private Lands Legal and Regulatory Landscape
Forest Practices on private lands in California have changed dramatically over time, particularly with the advent of the California Environmental Quality Act (1970), and the subsequent enactment of the modern California Forest Practice Act (1973). The Forest Practice Act brought into being the modern private lands Forest Practice Rules. While incremental improvements to the rules have been made over time, the private lands timber harvest regulatory system has utterly failed to give serious consideration to, or afford protections for, habitat connectivity on a landscape-level.
The Forest Practice Act articulates a duel mandate to at once achieve maximum sustained production of high-quality timber products, while protecting fish, wildlife, water, carbon sequestration, and aesthetic enjoyment. However, there is little in the modern Forest Practice Rules that would require private forest landowners to manage forests to achieve habitat connectivity and maintain species biodiversity. For example, in articulating the implementation of the Forest Practice Act’s intent, the Forest Practice Rules stipulate only that timber operations should maintain functional wildlife habitat in sufficient condition for continued use by existing wildlife communities, and that such operations maintain and recruit late and diverse seral stage habitat for wildlife, concentrated in stream zones. This is simply intent language, with no enforceable provisions or other guidance provided to achieve these goals.
Faced with this reality, federal and state regulators have fallen back on the development of voluntary conservation measures to improve forest heath and species habitat connectivity on privately-held forestlands. The primary voluntary measure is the use of Habitat Conservation Plans for private landowners where activities may result in “take” of federally-listed species. While sometimes offering additional conservation measures above and beyond standard Forest Practice Rules, Habitat Conservation Plans also include the issuance of incidental “take” permits, which allow adverse modification of habitat for, and incidental death of, species listed as threatened or endangered.
Opportunities for Achieving Connectivity on Private Lands
While the legal, regulatory, and policy-level landscapes do not require the achievement of landscape connectivity on private lands, there are opportunities to improve land management activities for connectivity in Northwest California. There are areas where management for forest integrity and habitat connectivity could achieve significant benefits.
For example, Humboldt Redwood Company’s Mattole forestland holdings still contain a significant amount of late successional-stage forests, often referred to as “primary forests” i.e. forests that have never been managed for timber production. Appropriate management in these areas could serve to accelerate the development of old-growth forest characteristics, and provide for essential corridors between previously-managed areas and the primary forest areas. In addition, opportunities exist to conduct restorative forest management activities elsewhere on Humboldt Redwood Company lands, primarily in association with its so-called Marbled Murrelet Conservation Areas, which are old-growth forest stands set-aside as part of the company’s Habitat Conservation Plan. Appropriate management activities could serve to restore the connectivity between the fragmented patches of remaining old-growth redwood forest, thus facilitating species movement, and preparing for resiliency and resistance to climate change.
The following recommendations are aimed at improving forestland management on private lands for the purpose of achieving biodiversity, habitat connectivity, and resistance and resilience to climate change:
Federal and State regulators should seek to improve Forest Practice Rules governing private lands to prioritize species integrity, habitat connectivity and viability, and climate resistance and resilience;
Federal and State regulators, as well as private land trusts, should seek to work with private landowners to either acquire lands essential for forest health and habitat connectivity, or to secure conservation easements on such lands to achieve these goals;
Federal regulators’ issuance of new Habitat Conservation Plans must include safeguards to ensure that forest management activities conducted under these plans provide for biodiversity, connectivity, and climate resistance and resiliency; and
Federal and State regulators should work cooperatively to develop landscape-level management plans that would transcend land ownership and land allocation boundaries.
EPIC will work to identify, and advocate for, critical areas for achieving landscape connectivity on private lands. While the deck is stacked against us, and the challenges are many, opportunities remain to reform private lands forestry practices through regulations, legislation, policy changes, land acquisition, and voluntary measures. Working cooperatively with state and federal regulators, legislators, and private landowners represent the most promising possibilities for achieving the goals of landscape-level connectivity on private lands, and across ownership classification boundaries.