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RCDs play key role in forest health incentive program

In California’s North Bay, resource conservation districts (RCDs) have partnered with Rebuild North Bay Foundation and the Clear Lake Environmental Research Center to form the North Bay Forest Improvement Program (NBFIP) to help non-industrial forest landowners with less than 500 acres implement fuels treatments and forest restoration projects on their properties.

NBFIP is being launched with $1.5 million from a CAL FIRE Wildfire Resilience and Forestry Assistance grant, which will provide three years of funding to develop an incentive program and award projects to mitigate fire and improve forest health in the highly fire-prone region.

Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa County RCDs are forming a steering committee to begin structuring an incentive program similar to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Project application and selection will follow with on-the-ground landscape work carrying through 2023. RCDs will be contributing about $277,000 in matching dollars.

“We view it as a pilot project, and we’re excited to build and refine a regional strategy for identifying and funding forest health and fire resiliency projects in partnership with CAL FIRE,” said  Lucas Patzek, project steering committee member and Napa County RCD district manager.

“Everyone knows we can’t do it alone,” Patzek said. “We all need to collaborate, and local folks with local knowledge and relationships really are able to accelerate things.”

In total, the partnership will support the treatment of 500-700 acres across more than 30 properties in the counties. At least 20 percent of the program dollars will benefit disadvantaged communities. Possible treatments include forest management planning, site preparation, tree planting and protection, and forest thinning and pruning. Projects will occur on land with forest types consisting of coastal oak woodland, redwood forests, mixed evergreen and ponderosa pine.

The grant dollars come at a crucial time, as two of the five most destructive fires in the state’s history burned through the project area over the past two years, including devastating more than 40 percent of Napa County, Patzek said.

“RCDs have been developing forest management plans for a range of projects, but we don’t want to limit the program to just the projects we’re providing technical assistance on,” he said. “There are other projects that need funding.”

“RCDs are concerned with wildfire and fuels management, but there are other considerations that we also focus on, including hazards with pollutants going into the water and habitat corridors,” he said. “We have to think holistically.”

Steering committee members have been touching base with one another, but January 2021 will kick off the group work, tackling project criteria. Patzek said steering committee members will look at all angles to determine priorities, including where the crucial target areas in disadvantaged communities will be.

“Where are the zones in each county that are really critical and should be a priority? Maybe they haven’t burned yet, but they have a high fire risk. Maybe there are critical watersheds. We wanted to take time to create that project ranking and selection infrastructure. There may be better ways we can spend the money from a community protection standpoint.”

“We know what CAL FIRE thinks, what the water managers for reservoir protection are saying, what the county is saying and what the fire safe councils are saying,” Patzek said. “We want to take all perspectives into consideration and find where project priorities intersect.”

The goal, along with implementing projects that restore areas and improve forest habitat and fire protection, is to develop a process and a way of looking at projects collectively with the hopes of uncovering regional projects to implement in the future, he said.

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