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New Film Profiles Immediate Actions to Restore California's Wildfire-vulnerable Forests

February 9, 2024
A forest fire is pictured in a photo from
With few ladder fuels and lower fuels loads, fire is less likely to jump from ground to canopy.

The new film "California's Watershed Healing" documents the huge benefits that result from restoring forests to healthier densities. UC Merced's Sierra Nevada Research Institute partnered with the nonprofit Chronicles Group to tell the story of these efforts, the science behind them, and pathways that dedicated individuals and groups are pioneering to scale up these urgent climate solutions.

"California's forests are at a tipping point, owing to both climate stress and past unsustainable management practices that suppressed wildfires and prioritized timber harvesting," explained UC Merced Professor Roger Bales, who was involved in developing the film.

Covering over 30 million acres - nearly a third of the state - these iconic ecosystems provide water, recreation, habitat, carbon storage and serve other needs. But they now contain too many trees, packed too closely together.

"California's diverse ecosystems are facing unprecedented challenges as rising temperatures intensify the threat of wildfires and disrupt the delicate balance of our natural resources," said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.

The overaccumulation of dead wood, leaves and other organic materials on the forest floor and buildup of small trees - which serve as "ladder fuels" moving fire from the forest floor up into the canopy - has been compounded in recent years by climate warming. Returning more low-severity fire to the landscape is one effective tool for combating heavy fuel loads.

"Restoring fire to these forests, which evolved to experience frequent fire, is critical, despite the risks associated with prescribed, intentional burning," said UC Merced Professor Crystal Kolden. "Partnerships help to give a voice to everyone involved, including historically excluded groups such as the tribes that have burned in these forests for millennia."

"The new production vividly documents the reality of the watersheds' demise and the hard work of new partnerships involving land managers, water agencies, the private sector, counties, universities, community groups and other public agencies to advance the pace and scale of forest restoration," said Jim Thebaut of the Chronicles Group, director and executive producer of the documentary.

"Restoration efforts focus on removing fuels, which lowers the projected severity when a fire does occur," Bales said. "Yet these thinning projects are very expensive. That is where partnerships that can develop creative financing and monetize the benefits of restoration come in."

"We need to use all of the collaborative forest-management, scientific and financial tools at our disposal if we are to address the wildfire challenge at a meaningful scale," said Phil Saksa, chief scientist at Blue Forest, a nonprofit organization focused on creating sustainable investment solutions to environmental challenges. "Leveraging the value provided by all the beneficial outcomes from this work is essential for motivating long-term investments in the natural infrastructure that is our forests and watersheds."

The film explores how scaling up promising investments can ensure a more sustainable future.

"This documentary serves as a poignant reminder that the health of our forests is intrinsically linked to the well-being of our communities," said Crowfoot. "As we confront the impacts of climate change, it is imperative that we scale up our efforts to restore resilient forests, safeguard our water sources and foster thriving communities. By prioritizing sustainable practices, we can forge a path toward a more resilient and sustainable future for all Californians."

"The watershed is a vital component of California's economy, which is interlinked and linked to the United States and the rest of the world," said Thebaut. "It is the foundation for the state's water supply, which is critical to its far-reaching businesses and food security. The current state of the watershed is evidently grave, and unless fast measures are taken, the United States' national security would be jeopardized."

The current film is a sequel to the Chronicles Group's 2019 30-minute "California's Watershed" documentary, which was distributed on PBS and focused on the critical importance of forested headwaters to California's water security. That water supports the state's economy, equivalent to the fifth largest national economy in the world. It also supports the agriculture that is critically important to food security for the United States.

"California's Watershed: Healing" will be shown Sunday, Feb. 18 at the 22nd annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City and Grass Valley, followed by a panel discussion with scientists, decision makers and filmmakers. Event information, including the film trailer, is available online .