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Nonprofit aims to build self-sustaining forest restoration economy

Will the CHIPS model catch fire across Central Sierra?

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  • 6 min to read

With $5.5 million recently secured in grants, Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS) is planning for its biggest year yet.

The nonprofit formed in 2004 to spur job growth in economically depressed, former logging communities and end traditional rivalries between environmental and timber interests. Its focus originated on forest restoration and fire prevention work in Calaveras and Amador counties, but has since expanded to areas as far south as Mariposa County, Butte County to the north and as far east as the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The organization has contracts and agreements with private landowners, local fire-safe councils, tribal partners, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and a number of national forests and parks.

Since its inception, CHIPS has put more than 40 people to work, many of whom were at-risk individuals and members of local indigenous communities.

That number grows to 70 employees with the new funding, which is also buying new chippers, a loader, crew cabs, saws and other equipment. The grants will also allow CHIPS workers to become certified to support and monitor prescribed burning operations, which would offer opportunities for year-round work.

“We’re ready for what is going to be by far our biggest year,” founder Steve Wilensky told the Enterprise in Glencoe on March 19.

Wilensky credited partnerships with the Eldorado and Stanislaus national forests, the Amador Calaveras Consensus Group and Executive Director Regine Miller for landing the grant awards.

The CHIPS model

Wilensky’s vision for CHIPS to catalyze a local, self-sustaining economy based on forest restoration might be best described as “holistic” or “integrated.”

The concept, which involves a range of stakeholders and an active acknowledgement of the ecological and social history of the area, could be gaining traction.

In the wake of devastating wildfires over the past few years, state funding has been increasingly funnelled into fuels-reduction efforts.

In response, some local logging companies are starting to fine tune equipment for forest thinning, rather than more intensive treatments.

Such has been the case for Tanner Logging, Inc. of Murphys, the contractor for a project in Glencoe that treated about 140 acres of BLM property last summer.

Owner Dick Tanner credited the work of the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team for securing the grant funding that has fueled much of the company’s expansion into fuels-reduction work.

“Last year we got a little skid steer with a masticating head, and we’re renting a machine this year with the purpose of masticating brush,” Tanner said. “We’re expanding in that direction.”

After moving operations from Calaveras County to Southern California in the early 2000s, Sullivan Logging Company reopened business locally about four years ago as revenues were coming in for fire-safety work. The company has been contracted for numerous fuels-reduction projects – including Butte Fire clean-up efforts – and has been able to put local youth to work in the process, Vice President Joe Sullivan told the Enterprise.

“We were able to come back home and stay in business,” he said.

Individuals certified to conduct the environmental studies required for these forest-thinning projects to proceed – plant, wildlife and archaeological monitoring, to name a few – are in high demand. According to Wilensky, CHIPS is working to diversify certifications for its workforce to increase pace and scale, and some community members have stepped up to receive training as well.

CHIPS crews have also been participating in “traditional ecological knowledge” training in Butte County in partnership with other tribal communities. The idea is to consult indigenous knowledge on the best practices for sustaining local resources, such as what species of tree should be planted after a forest-thinning project.

“The last time there was a local economy based on restoration was the 10,000 years of Miwok control,” Wilensky said. “Maybe we need to think about that. Maybe the first nations had some kind of an idea that makes sense to borrow and learn from today.”

As a long-term solution for the surplus of small trees and shrubs these projects produce, a biomass cogeneration plant planned for a site in Wilseyville is still on Wilensky’s queue. CHIPS has a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., but investors have been hesitant due to economic uncertainty with the utility giant’s bankruptcy, according to Wilensky.

On top of a projected recession following the novel coronavirus pandemic that would dry up federal funding sources, Wilensky said the biggest challenge for the CHIPS model is “still policy.”

“Our policies right now are kind of a whack-a-mole,” Wilensky said. “A hazard pops up, we whack it, like hazard trees after a fire. These are very linear and narrow approaches. Our problem is a landscape scale problem. It’s watersheds, it’s meadows, it’s fire, it’s carbon sequestration, it’s habitat, it’s healthy and resilient forests. There’s every reason to think that as a species, we’re capable of embracing a whole rather than arguing the fine points between them. If you have that global perspective, which our policies and our funding streams do not, then we’ll be better off and able to do this for a long time to come.”

Restoration and fire safety work

The organization’s first project in 2008 was on the crowded site of a BLM pine plantation that was abandoned after the local Associated Lumber and Box Company mill at Sandy Gulch shut down in the 1970s. Located down the road from Wilensky’s apple farm in Glencoe, the pilot project took 90% of the parcel’s densely planted trees – many of which were infested with bark beetle and competing for nutrients, Wilensky said on a tour of the property.

The access road built through the site allowed firefighters to stop the 2015 Butte Fire from scorching Glencoe, Wilensky added.

Twelve years later, Cedars, Douglas firs and oaks have sprouted up.

A young sugar pine tree on the hillside captured Wilensky’s attention.

“Look at there, actually I hadn’t seen that before. After we thinned it out, that is a sugar pine growing,” Wilensky said with an optimistic chuckle. “So things are coming back in the way we’d hoped.”

Since that first project, CHIPS has served as the fiscal agent for a number of grant awards for local fuels- reduction projects, most recently including one to maintain a fuel break along the Highway 4 corridor.

Wilensky is also coordinating with 50 homeowners living on the cusp of BLM land near Glencoe in areas that were “logged mercilessly” decades ago, abandoned and grew up even-aged, he said.

A longer-term initiative, CHIPS and other stakeholders are in negotiations with BLM to establish a 17,000-acre community forest, which would be a partnership between community members and the agency to do land management.

“Most of Glencoe has some fuel break on the perimeter, but now we’re moving into the interior to do restoration on a landscape scale,” said Wilensky, who is aspiring for Glencoe to become the “first fire safe community in the Central Sierra. I think we’ve got a good shot given the money coming in over the next three years of having a true fire strategy, an ingress/egress for fire assets and people so we don't burn up trying to drive along these roads if something does happen. We’ll have a good shot at community safety and a healthy and more resilient forest.”

Jobs

The roar of chainsaws and smell of smoke filled the air as a crew of seven removed Butte Fire-killed trees and lit piles of debris on a hillside property in Glencoe.

Rail Road Flat native and CHIPS foreman Cory Sweet watched carefully as his crew tended to the piles. As a foreman, he’s responsible for supervising and making sure the workers get to the job site.

“Keeping them going consistently, making sure everybody gets to work. A lot of guys don’t have licenses, so I pick them up myself. It’s a lot of organizing,” he said on the property.

Sweet said it was hard to find work before he discovered CHIPS, his employer of five years.

The nonprofit “gave me an opportunity and I’m pretty thankful,” he said, adding that it’s been rewarding to help homeowners clean up their properties. “People need help cleaning up their yards around here. I can’t imagine doing this myself.”

Sweet’s story is not uncommon for residents of former logging communities without the infrastructure in place to support them, according to Wilensky.

A central component to Wilensky’s forest restoration economy concept is building a local workforce, inclusive of tribal communities.

Irvin Jim is the Chair of the Woodfords Community Council for the southern band of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. The group, based in Alpine County near the unincorporated community of Woodfords, is also known as the Hung A Lel Ti community.

Jim expressed interest in collaborating with CHIPS in 2015.

Since then, the community’s unemployment rate has been cut in half, according to Wilensky, who plans to present the CHIPS model with the Hung A Lel Ti to indigenous communities across the Central Sierra.

Sierra Nevada Alliance fellow Thurman Roberts, 38, of the Hung A Lel Ti, has been a sawyer with CHIPS for two field seasons on the Woodfords crew. The group does forest and meadow restoration, fuel reduction and cultural site work.

Growing up in a rural area, “sometimes it feels like there’s no chance” of breaking generational cycles of alcoholism and poverty, but it can be done, Roberts said.

“This job is almost handed to people,” Roberts said. “There’s training and certification, but just knowing that there’s an option gives a sense of hope. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, but there’s people that want to help.”

Foreman Samuel Simmons, 32, worked at a warehouse in Reno before joining the Woodfords crew, where he’s been for the past five years.

“It’s a really good thing to come home and work our own backyard where we’re from,” he said of restoring meadows around Lake Tahoe. “Our whole crew has been getting better and better every year.”

Formerly incarcerated, foreman Waylon Dondero, 38, joined the Woodfords crew two years ago. He said the experience has “changed everything.”

“I’m a three-time felon, I sold drugs and I lived a criminal lifestyle because there was no work and I didn’t want to take the motivation and get up and do it myself,” Dondero said. “It helps when you get out of prison to be able to come home and get a good job and work and give yourself a sense of pride. What CHIPS did for me is it allowed me to become a father and productive member of this community.”

This story was updated on April 3 to include the correct spelling of Eldorado National Forest. A former version of this story incorrectly referred to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest as "Humboldt-Toiyabe National Park."

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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