As Calaveras County enters the first fire season since the devastating Butte Fire, we need to ask ourselves what’s changed. It’s still hot, still dry and, except for the 70,000 acres that burned in the Butte Fire, it’s still pretty crowded in the forest. We’re not out of the woods. In fact, we’ll never be out of the woods until we start managing our forests and reducing the fuel load that surrounds us on all sides. If we don’t, Mother Nature will do it for us, and we know how ruthless she can be. For neglecting our lands over the past century, she gave us a good spanking, and her hand is still up in the air ready to smack us again.

Twelve years ago on the run up to his first supervisorial campaign, Steve Wilensky was schooled in forest health by the loggers, environmentalists and Miwoks, and he’s been trying to protect us from our own ignorance, inertia and greed ever since. Back in 2004, the Miwoks invited him to their Sourgrass convocation, where on sacred grounds the tribe recants its history and passes its culture and traditions on from the elder to younger generation in an oral tradition that has spanned centuries. Steve’s epiphany as he prepared to start his vision quest into local politics was that he could restore the health of the forests, the community and the local economy with one dynamic endeavor. He brought together the Miwok elders, the unemployed mill workers and loggers, forestry experts and environmentalists and with his mediation skills still intact from his union days, he helped them come to the consensus that if they worked together, they could reach their goal of putting people back to work while restoring our most valuable local resource, our forests, and make us all safer from the ravages of fire. Thus was born Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions, CHIPS.

How our forests got to the condition they’re now in is a long story that goes back thousands of years to a time when random lightning strikes were the agent that thinned the forests naturally. The Miwoks imitated that process by purposely setting small, controllable ground fires during the transition periods between the cool wet and hot dry seasons. In that way, they improved habitat for fish and forest animals, opened spaces for meadows, increased species diversity, improved conditions for oaks and protected their lands from the devastation of uncontrollable forest fires. They used fired as a friendly tool rather than treating it as the enemy, and see themselves as the natural stewards of the streams, meadows and forests of our county.

Since then, it’s been mostly downhill.

The Gold Rush brought the extraction industry to California in full force. Not only were a third of all Sierra trees cut down in the first 20 years for mining, housing and railroads in the rush for wealth, but hydraulic mining washed away the healthy soils and disrupted the natural succession of the past, leaving manzanita and buck brush the predominant vegetation. The turn of the century brought clear-cut logging to support continuing mining operations. What forests grew back were cut down in the name of progress, development and industry. No one, though, was managing the forests and regulating the timber industry. By mid-century, there were over 20 mills in the region. Old-growth forests were falling prey to a rapacious industry plucking the fat, ripe low-hanging fruits of the forest that would be used to support the war and the housing boom to follow. American Forest Products bought up thousands of acres in Amador and Calaveras and when the low-hanging fruit of the forest had been harvested, sold the lands to Georgia Pacific, which turned around and sold part of it for all the 20-acre subdivisions in the area: Diamond XX and Circle XX. The rest they sold to Sierra Pacific Industries, which introduced silviculture to the Sierra, the systematic planting and harvesting of timber. But, as is so often the case, privatization led to trouble, as the cart follows the horse when the profit motive controls our natural resources. SPI bio-engineered the Sierra into tree plantations, created expressly for production and harvest, the best tree being the ponderosa pine. This ended the natural biodiversity of the area and turned it into the same type of monoculture now pervasive in the big agriculture corn industry. SPI now farms the Sierra the way the ag industry farms Iowa. Anticipating a lumber boom lasting for decades, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management followed suit planting ponderosas, firs and cedars depending on what the flavor of the decade was for the building industry.

That’s where things stood 50 years ago. We can leave our story here while the mills are still running and jobs are plentiful. When we pick it up again, such will not be the case.

Jim Pesout is a retired high school teacher who formerly lived in Mountain Ranch and now resides in Mokelumne Hill. You can reach him at jpesout@gmail.com.

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