Member Highlight - The Watershed Research and Training Center

Thursday, April 9, 2015

How does the Watershed Center engage rural communities around climate change?

The Watershed Center’s mission is to promote healthy lands and communities. Our effort is to generate community-based solutions and programs of work that are informed by on-the-ground knowledge of the most essential issues facing the landscape in our region.

We are working to promote a culture of land stewardship that fosters our communities’ connection to the land and each other. By educating our local community about forest health, and engaging them in on the ground stewardship activities, we are able to communicate the importance of sustainable lifestyles, conservation, and long-term forest health, helping to raise awareness about the importance of land stewardship, and also fostering a greater sense of responsibility by rooting this work locally where the outcomes are clearly demonstrated.

Rural communities might not spring to mind as cutting-edge progressive innovators, but when it comes to climate change adaptation, our community is ahead of the curve. We haven’t always framed our work as climate change adaptation, but the reality is we’ve been adapting to complex changes (including the effects of a changing climate) for years. We live close to the land here and climate changes affect our livelihoods and our home. We see and feel those impacts because of our proximity and reliance on the natural systems that are experiencing changes. That makes climate immediately relevant to our community members.

The WRTC also engages local agencies, government and nonprofits to develop collaborative projects that address the key environmental challenges facing our region. In this way we are developing programs of work that will have the greatest positive impact on our lands by utilizing limited resources where they will have the greatest impact, and through collaborative efforts that strengthen our strategies and generate increased support for essential programs of work. These efforts are indispensible in the larger effort to protect the environment and preserve its health in the face of climate change.


How is the drought impacting the forest industry in California?

The nature of the forest industry in California is evolving. Once an industry focused on logging, land managers are looking anew at sustainable logging practices and forest thinning that improves forest health and fire safety. With drought concerns increasing, fire safety and forest restoration are an increasing priority for land management, resulting in the prioritization of programs of work that maximize benefit to forest health and watersheds, and serve as key barriers for fire protection.

Our management legacy (including fire suppression policy and logging practices) has created forests that are not very resilient. Trees—already stressed by competition and unnatural stand structure, are left extremely vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire and pest infestations. Layer on a historic drought and you have a big problem. The silver lining is that the drought is making it impossible to ignore the state of our forests. We need management solutions that will help us move the forest back toward its natural range of variability—increasing resilience to wildfire, reducing competition and thereby increasing water quantity.


The WRTC is based on both economic and natural resource concerns – what are some of the ways that the organization integrates those in their work?

The WRTC’s programs take a three-pronged approach; we take actions that are good for the land, the people and the economy.  When we design a project, each of these factors is a component we strive to address. One example of how this manifests is in our fire program.  Projects in that program have to pass three tests. Will the project help restore natural fire process to the land? Will local people have access to the work—and to relevant training? Will people learn and adapt based on the project so that we instill a long-term relationship between local people and land management? Those are the outcomes we’re after and what we consider when thinking about how to get work done.

To this end, the WRTC has developed multiple programs that seek to create jobs implementing restoration and land management work including forest thinning and restoration, and the facilitation of business development that will fund forest thinning and management by converting harvested timber into value-added products, helping to create local jobs while helping to make sound forest management economically feasible.


What policies would the WRTC like to see in response to climate change?

Curbing emissions has been the focus of much of the proposed climate change policy, but we’re focused on policies that enable smart land management. Policies that protect existing natural resources, and fund the stewardship of public and private lands are an indispensible component of climate adaptation.  Rural counties are challenged to access funding, often owing to limited population base, but these rural communities are the stewards of our natural resources—our forests, rivers, and watersheds. Policies that prioritize the effort of rural communities to protect and care for their lands are an essential part of long-term climate change strategy. This need is two-fold, requiring much-needed funds for restoration, care, research, and education, and also requiring the development of resource management policy that is informed by input of rural economies, reflecting the learning and input of local actors, whose proximity and experience offer the surest way to address the most significant threats the landscape and create meaningful change in the protection of our land.