Forest Resilience: Science, Strategy, and the Arts

A living laboratory within the eastern bounds of the Tahoe National Forest is cultivating connections among scientists, forest managers, and artists. The collective intention is to foster deeper understanding of, community connection to, and new ways of thinking about forest resilience, which is one of the most important topics of our time.

Landscape viewed from above with trees

Sagehen Basin (at upper center of photo), viewed from above the Sierra Crest. Photo courtesy of: UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station

The 9000-acre Sagehen Experimental Forest provides opportunities for U.S. Forest Service and external researchers to conduct bold, innovative studies that can be applied to future forest management.  Since its designation in 2005, it has been managed in partnership between the University of California, the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, and the Tahoe National Forest.

red cabins near trees

Cabins at Sagehen Creek Field Station. Photo courtesy of: UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station

The experimental forest includes the UC Berkeley – Sagehen Creek Field Station, which the University of California, Berkeley has operated under special use permit since 1951. As an area with over seventy years of data collection, Sagehen is exceptionally valuable for research and can be used as a testing ground for techniques to improve forest health and resilience.

“In 2001, after seeing large wildfires in the surrounding area, UC Berkeley researchers John Battles, Scott Stephens and I started talking with the Truckee District Ranger about the risks created by forest density,” Jeff Brown, Director emeritus, Sagehen Creek Field Station (2001-2020) recalled.

From these early discussions between the Tahoe National Forest, UC Berkeley, the Pacific Southwest Research Station, and community groups, the Sagehen Forest Project was born. Among its innovations and successes, the project demonstrates the importance of including diverse partners at the table from day one, before the plan is made.  Representing academic, NGO, environmentalist, industry, state, and federal perspectives, the project partners utilized a restoration prescription that manages for seemingly oppositional objectives: reducing fire risk, maintaining a small-tree timber industry, and protecting wildlife habitat.

The lessons learned from this project are being scaled-up within the Tahoe Central-Sierra Initiative. The initiative’s partners have created a “Framework for Resilience” to accelerate large-landscape forest restoration. It outlines ten interdependent components of resilience that are being used when planning and implementing projects, such as the North Yuba Forest Partnership’s effort to restore a 313,000-acre landscape within the Tahoe National Forest. This area is one of the ten landscapes selected for early implementation of the U.S. Forest Service’s 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy.

Infographic in shape of wheel with a variety of colors and illustrations

“Collaboration and a shared concept of resilience are essential to increasing the effectiveness of forest restoration,” said Eli Ilano, Forest Supervisor, Tahoe National Forest. “We are excited to continue engaging with our partners and the public in this work.”

Our understanding of these science-informed projects and strategies is enhanced by the arts. In partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art – Center for Art & Environment, the Sagehen Creek Field Station hosts their Artist-in-Residency Program. Here, artists from around the world create work inspired the field station’s research, providing a human dimension to and engaging new audiences with a variety of topics, including prescribed fire. Recognizing the exceptional ability of artists to help us make emotional connections to forest and fire ecology, Sagehen began discussions with curators Michael and Heather Llewellyn in 2017 for what became the FOREST⇌FIRE Project.

Two people standing in front of a table

Michael and Heather Llewellyn with their exhibit scale model at Sagehen, June 2018. Photo courtesy of: UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station

“The overall intention of the FOREST⇌FIRE Project is to support forest restoration by inspiring a cultural shift in our perception of, in our relationship with and our responsibility to the forest we live in,” the Llewellyns summarized.

The FOREST⇌FIRE interpretive exhibit – currently housed at the Truckee Community Recreation Center, but intended to travel to other California locations – draws gazes up to a forest above. Faux logs made from printed cottonwood, plywood, and paint hang from the ceiling, creating a timeline of four key phases in the history of Sierra Nevada forest stand structure, which coincide with the four chapters of the FOREST⇌FIRE narrative:

1. What the Forest Was: Pre-European Settlement: under the care of indigenous people, forests were dominated by large, shade-intolerant, fire-resistant tree species, with a patchy forest structure that had open spaces, which supported plants, animals, and humans.

2. What Happened to the Forest – Unsustainable Logging: unsustainable timber practices supporting railroads and extractive industries resulted in forests having too-few trees.

3. What the Forest has Become – Effects of Exhaustive Fire Exclusion: decades of fire exclusion, along with an expanding wildland urban interface and climate instability have created our present condition of dense, dry, forests of shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant species.

4. What the Forest can Become with our Help – Restored to Resilience: The combination of science, market-based solutions and community support can enable ecological thinning and the reintroduction of low-intensity fire to restore our forests to the open and patchy structures that favor large, shade-intolerant, fire-resistant trees. This will help to increase the diversity of species in the understory and augment efforts to address climate instability.

Fake logs hanging from a ceiling

Below the logs, visitors go deeper into this history through textual and visual responses to each phase. Written reflections in English, Spanish, and the native language of the Washoe Tribe provide information about smoke, ecological thinning, prescribed fire, Indigenous use of fire, species diversity, wood products, and more. These written pieces are paired with artwork by 20 artists, eleven of whom were participants in the Sagehen Artist-in-Residency Program.

The FOREST⇌FIRE Project reaches beyond the exhibit. In addition to educational programming for youth, a book, animated video, and a speakers series with U.S. Forest Service specialists, plans are in the works for a permanent installation of this story through the creation of an interpretive trail, with stops within the Tahoe National Forest and around Lake Tahoe.

As is being demonstrated in and around the Tahoe National Forest, when community, science, strategy, and the arts work together, our forests can have a hopeful future.

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