Healthy, resilient wildland and urban forests provide critical ecosystem services that are essential to climate adaptation in California, including green space, public health benefits, and drinking water. Climate change is compounding the already critical health of California’s forests. Drought stress, pests and diseases, and catastrophic megafires threaten forest ecosystems, are impacting water and air quality, and endanger public health and safety. For additional background information and discussion of climate impacts and vulnerabilities of the Forests Sector, visit the Background & Climate Impacts information excerpted from the Adaptation Planning Guide and explore the Topic search below.

California forests are central to the state’s strategy to mitigate the wildfire crisis and make our communities, watersheds, and habitats resilient to the growing climate threat. Given the variety of wildland and urban forest ecosystems and land ownership patterns in California, and the challenges brought on by climate change, there is no single prescription that will restore forest health on its own.[1] Instead, there is a need for strategies that work across state, federal, tribal, nonprofit, and private management partners and are tailored to address regional needs and ecosystem conditions. Examples of adaptation strategies are provided on the Adaptation Strategies page and can be found in many of the resources available by search below.

Defining the Sector

The Forests sector encompasses forested lands, which cover approximately one-third (32 million acres) of California and are managed by the federal government (58 percent), State and local governments (3 percent), and private landowners (39 percent).25 Major considerations in this sector include the wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and water filtration that forests provide for human and biological communities throughout the state. The forestry industry and sustainable forest management is also a key component of this sector, because it supports many communities in northern and eastern California. The primary goals of this sector are to encourage restoration and protection of forest ecosystems, support community resilience, and foster creative solutions to fuel reduction activities.

Major Vulnerabilities

Historically, forest management practices have varied. In particular, the practice of suppressing any and all fires in forested areas has led to overgrown forests, with high densities of small trees competing for resources and stunting tree growth, leading to less carbon sequestration and less resiliency to climate change hazards.26 Other practices have degraded forests and caused loss of older trees, simplified forest structures, and fragmented forests, all of which leave forests vulnerable to climate change hazards such as pests and diseases, drought, extreme heat, and wildfire.27 Severe drought and extreme heat increase stress in trees and leave them more susceptible to diseases and pests such as bark beetles, which have devastated 147 million trees since 2010.28 Years that fall within a multiple-year drought cycle and extreme heat conditions exacerbate these diseases. Weakened trees are more susceptible to frequent and severe wildfires and less able to recover from them, as forest ecosystems have in the past.

The habitat and biodiversity of forest areas is also vulnerable to climate change effects. As temperatures continue to warm, forests are beginning to regenerate at higher elevations. Warmer temperatures can cause a complete loss of the ecosystem if trees are unable to find suitable habitat to grow. Fragmented forests make conditions more difficult for the ecosystem to survive, as these ecosystems may not have the ability to move if the temperature and precipitation are not suitable at their current location.

A devastated forest ecosystem can leave the communities that live within or near them more vulnerable as well. Not only are these communities at a higher risk for wildfires, they may also be vulnerable to economic losses and damage from weakened forests. Communities living within the wildland-urban interface have a higher risk of damage from wildfires if the surrounding forest systems are weakened. This can cause devastating impacts because entire neighborhoods or bordering agricultural lands could be lost to wildfires. Timber harvesting and forestry management economic drivers also depend on forests to continue operations, and therefore are vulnerable to the pests and diseases, drought, extreme heat, and wildfire that threaten forests.

Appendix C provides examples of ways that communities can restore and protect forest ecosystems, support community resilience, and foster creative solutions to fuel reduction activities. These strategies are generalized approaches that can be refined for the specific forest programs and forestry activities in a community.

Extreme heat and drought in conifer forests has increased tree vulnerability to bark beetles. Between 2010 and 2017, approximately 147 million trees died from bark beetle infestations.29 Warming temperatures year-round promote the survival of bark beetles through winter and cause them to fly earlier in spring, increasing their reproductive frequency. Forests that have high tree mortality rates from bark beetle may experience more frequent and intense wildfires in the future.30

Climate hazards Adaptation Strategy Factors to Consider Category Sector overlap Responsible Agencies Funding Examples & Sources
Forests Sector
Pests and Diseases, Wildfire Strategy FOR-1: Develop a local forest management taskforce to manage fuel loads, thinning, brush removal, and prescribed burns. A forest management taskforce is a group of forestry and fire management professionals, local government stakeholders, private businesses, local community members, and non-profits that collaborate to effectively manage wildfire fuel loads. The taskforce can work together to conduct thinning, brush removal, and prescribed burns, while also working with community members to reduce fuel loads on private properties and in developed areas. This could expand capacity to restore forest health on private and public lands, which includes active management to reduce fire risk, including removal and disposal of diseased trees and other fuels. Local governments can also use this taskforce to work with public and private partners to identify appropriate locations for mills, biomass facilities, or other facilities that support the reuse of trees for other uses, including composting and renewable energy. An important factor to consider when managing fuel loads in forests is the indirect impacts on the residents and businesses in the community. Prescribed burns can cause smoke and poor air quality conditions, and logging trucks can cause congestion on small mountain roadways. It is also important to coordinate with contractors and biomass facilities, to integrate biomass facilities into the fuel management process. Local governments can work with these facilities to process woody materials from tree mortalities to expedite removal. To minimize the impacts of transporting cleared woody material, including the GHG emissions from trucks, consider locating facilities that can use or process this material near forested areas, as environmental conditions and other constraints allow. Operational Programmatic Education, Outreach, Coordination Energy Biodiversity and Habitat Cities and Counties Fire Departments CAL FIRE CAL FIRE Fuel Reduction Project Grants CAL FIRE Forest Health Grants FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Placer County Sustainability Plan (2020) Safeguarding California: 2018 Update California Forest Management Taskforce
Wildfire Strategy FOR-2: Provide information to homeowners about statutory vegetation management requirements and promote fuel breaks to slow fire spread in forested and WUI areas. California law requires landowners in areas with flammable groundcover (e.g., forest, brush, grasslands) to maintain defensible space around buildings that can help slow or prevent the spread of wildfire. Local communities and fire protection agencies should strengthen standards as needed to provide adequate protection in response to changing fire regimes. Standards should include retrofitting structures with fire-resistant or fire-proof building materials, for both new construction and retrofits to existing buildings. While these standards can reduce wildfire risk, not all landowners may be aware of them and may not take appropriate action. Local jurisdictions should encourage landowners in forested areas and the WUI to establish fuel breaks that can slow the spread of fire, in addition to maintaining fire safe landscaping around structures Local communities can work with fire protection agencies to provide information to landowners about creating defensible space and fuel breaks. Homeowners may be unaware that the State has vegetation management requirements for homes throughout. The Wildfire Mitigation Program (AB 38) is intended to promote structure hardening and retrofitting, as well as other mitigation techniques. Local governments should provide flyers to all homeowners within their jurisdictions that are reflective of the languages spoken in their communities. It is also important for jurisdictions and their strategic partners to provide educational opportunities for homeowners to learn about vegetation management on their properties. For cultural and historic resources, jurisdictions should consider local and regional preservation plans and guidelines to ensure cultural value of buildings and sites remains intact. In the case of rental properties, especially those owned by remote landlords, communities may need to conduct additional outreach to engage with landlords and ensure they comply with vegetation management requirements and best practices. Some property owners may require assistance from others to conduct vegetation management activities, including those who may be considered vulnerable populations. Incentive programs that subsidize vegetation clearing may be helpful in these cases. Education, Outreach, Coordination Plans, Regulations, and Policy Development Land Use and Community Development Emergency Management Cities and Counties CAL FIRE Fire Departments Forest Improvement Program FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant The Wildfire Mitigation Financial Assistance Program (Fire Hardened Homes Revolving Loan Fund) Resilient IE (2020) CAL FIRE: Fire and Fuels Treatment OPR: Fire Hazard Planning General Plan Technical Advice Series National Park Service: Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy
Wildfire, Pests and Diseases Strategy FOR-3: Establish partnerships to apply prescribed burns in priority areas and manage forests at an ecologically meaningful scale. Local governments can establish local partnerships with CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, tribal governments, and local fire departments to identify priority areas and conduct prescribed burns as applicable. Priority areas could include overgrown forests and forest understories and floor that are littered with debris. Priority areas could occur on federal, State, tribal, local, or privately-owned lands, and therefore it is essential to create partnerships to implement prescribed burns on a large scale. It is essential to include tribal partners where applicable, as in many cases they have previously conducted prescribed burns on lands throughout the state. One factor to consider is the air quality impacts of prescribed burns. Local and regional air quality could decline due to smoke conditions created by these burns. Communities should also closely monitor weather conditions, as hot, dry, and windy conditions could cause the prescribed burn to launch into an uncontrollable wildfire. Education, Outreach, Coordination Programmatic Biodiversity and Habitat Cities and Counties CAL FIRE Fire Departments CAL FIRE Fuel Reduction Project Grants USDA Forest Service CAL FIRE Forest Health Grants Safeguarding California: 2018 Update Sauls Creek, Colorado USDA Forest Service South Bench Prescribed Burn
Wildfire, Pests and Diseases Strategy FOR-4: Provide private landowners with incentives for forest protection through easements and working forests that can return revenue from timber harvesting to cover taxes and other expenses of maintaining forest lands, thereby preventing land fragmentation and conversion to non-forest land uses. To prevent the fragmentation or conversion of forested land, local governments can provide private property owners with incentives to prevent an economic loss. These incentives can include timber harvesting, which can also help reduce fuel loads on private properties and prevent uncontrollable wildfires. Local governments and private property owners can partner with local land conservancies or the Wildlife Conservation Board to place land in forest protection easements. Local governments should consider the economic viability of timber harvesting on lands before proceeding with an easement. Properties should have a certain quantity and quality of trees to support timber harvesting that can cover taxes and other expenses on the land. Properties protected by timber easements should also be located near mills that can process the wood products to the extent possible, to avoid significant construction of new infrastructure. Programmatic Education, Outreach, Coordination Land Use and Community Development Biodiversity and Habitat Cities and Counties Land Trusts or Conservancies State and Private Forestry Grants Wildlife Conservation Board’s Land Acquisition Program California Forest Legacy Program
Extreme Heat, Flooding Strategy FOR-5: Establish policies and management plans to develop urban forests and incentivize the use of best practices for long-term maintenance and preservation of urban trees. Urban forests can not only increase natural habitat within urban areas, but also lower surface temperatures and provide pervious surfaces that reduce flooding. Local government should develop new or update older policies and plans to increase and manage urban forests within their communities. These policies can be integrated into updated general plan elements, zoning codes, or stand-alone documents with enforceable measures. These measures should include priority areas for new urban tree programs, preservation policies for existing urban forests, and long-term maintenance strategies to ensure the health of the urban forest ecosystem. When establishing policies for urban forestry programs, local governments should not only ensure that budget is available to plant trees and install watering systems, but also provide budget for staffing and equipment for the maintenance of the urban forests. Local governments can provide educational programs to teach community members to care for the trees in their neighborhoods, which can provide public support during the implementation phase of an urban forestry plan. Urban forestry plans and policies should also consider areas that may have a low quantity or quality of trees or tree canopy as priorities for implementation. Plans, Regulations, and Policy Development Education, Outreach, Coordination Land Use and Community Development Biodiversity and Habitat Cities and Counties Urban and Community Forestry Grant Program California Natural Resources Agency Urban Greening Grant Program Safeguarding California: 2018 Update City of Los Angeles: First Step City and County of San Francisco: Urban Forest Plan

Featured State Resources

All Resources for Forests