Sierra County Visited by California’s Natural Resources Agency Secretary, Wade Crowfoot

By Duncan A. Kennedy

SIERRA CITY – Saturday, April 30th, saw Sacramento big-shot Wade Crowfoot, Director of California’s Natural Resource Agency, traveling to Sierra City for a special meet-and-greet hosted by Sierra Pines Resort. The event was set-up and moderated by District Two Supervisor candidate Sandy Sanders, a longtime friend of Crowfoot.

Crowfoot is a native of northern Michigan who moved to California in the mid-1990s. His formal education consists of a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science (University of Wisconsin – Madison, 1996) and a Master of Public Policy (London School of Economics, 2004). Crowfoot has previously worked as West Coast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund and as a senior environmental advisor for Gavin Newsom during his tenure as Mayor of San Francisco. Wade met Sanders on a men’s soccer team around two decades ago; according to Sanders, “Crowfoot and [Rob] Bonta [currently California’s Attorney General] were our two best players.”

Crowfoot began with of primer on the history of fire in the West and how putting all fires out by “10 AM the next day” rule was the wrong approach, both from an ecological and fire safety standpoint. According to Crowfoot, “we now know the notion of healthy forests as untouched to be absolutely wrong,” a stance defying modern conservationist dogma but backed heavily by scientific research in fire ecology and Native American oral histories on land and fire use.

Because of this, California’s Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) is investing massively more money into forest treatment projects – $3 billion between 2022 and 2024 – while advocating for deregulation and simplification of the environmental review process for these projects. This investment is the result of the state government “finding some religion” regarding fires and deciding they need to maintain forests more as “green infrastructure” than as untouched “wilderness.” The state is currently aiming for the “ambitious but achievable” goal of treating two million forested acres a year. To achieve this target, his agency is asking local Resource Conservation Districts and Fire Safe Councils to submit requests for funding of projects where they already know would be useful. and Crowfoot hopes the ongoing North Yuba Project will be a “statewide model for success” in this regard.

The reaction to this stance is mixed across the spectrum. Crowfoot says the CNRA is finally wrangling the air quality boards into agreement and cooperation. After many years of debate, thanks to the air quality issues caused by wildfires outright destroying forests that could be saved by treatment, air quality managers are revising their thoughts about the reintroduction of fires within the forest. The Forest Service is currently the primary beneficiary of these efforts since their forestland is in the greatest need of treatment.

Meanwhile, clean energy proponents and timber advocates are perhaps the most uniquely affected groups involved. The former has the opportunity of biomass energy gaining steam ahead of them and are more than happy to argue the pricing of biomass energy should internalize the benefits of wildfire risk reduction to become more economical. Current biomass technology is small-scale, efficient, and inexpensive; however, converting old cogeneration plants is not nearly as easy or cost-effective. One approach the state has looked at is subsidizing building small biomass plants in a more even statewide distribution, slashing transportation costs while powering local microgrids attached to the larger regional grid. However, this will be neither cheap nor easy to market.

Timber advocates are wisely taking this opportunity to better market the new face of logging and timber – for the most part, the days of hundred-acre clearcuts are long in the past, as are big tree harvests. Instead, small-log mills are rapidly becoming the industry standard, and the state is willing to subsidize dozens or hundreds statewide to better process material from salvage logging and fuel reduction projects.

Crowfoot emphasized the need for more of these mills and will be present at the ribbon-cutting of such a facility operated by the Sierra Institute in Crescent Mills on May 18th. More wood construction is also being encouraged, as timber buildings are a carbon sink (in contrast to concrete, a carbon source) and a safer construction option in earthquake-prone areas. “Mass timber” construction is rapidly gaining popularity in these areas, using small logs less than a foot in diameter to build entire buildings – one can only hope this trend will reach the Lost Sierra.

These fuel reduction plans are permanent and will continue in near-perpetuity if successful. Crowfoot would like to see more initiative taken by private landholders on this front and says that “we’re surprised how hard it is to get money from us” for forest improvement measures. Still, he is optimistic about the future of California’s forests with the plans in development. He hopes to see more improvement soon while trying not to fail at this, saying that “utter failure would be if I came back three years from now to find nothing had changed.”

Despite a particularly passionate audience member’s frequent interjections, the symposium was a success for Crowfoot, Sanders and the two dozen or so attendees. Crowfoot has expressed interest in returning to the area in the future to supply Sierra County residents with whatever support and information he can feasibly provide.

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