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Executive Director’s Report, March 2020

By Chris Morrill, Executive Director

This past month has held mind-bending changes. Although describing something as “unprecedented” is surprisingly common nowadays (we’re guilty of it), that word is apt for the current crisis.

Unfortunately, I fear we are only at the beginning of the process of solving this pandemic.

CalWild joined businesses all over California in instituting a work-from-home order just before the Bay Area issued the first shelter-in-place order.

As with many of you, we are working to figure out what this means for our families, our colleagues, and our communities.

I’ve watched the bungled response to this pandemic with a mixture of concern and predictability. From a lack of testing kits (and a seeming inability to create them) to a lack of clear, steady leadership, this situation emphasizes why we need good, competent people dealing with our important public challenges and the resources to properly do the job they’ve been tasked with.

While the impacts from COVID-19 are life and death and are thus at the top of our priorities, we continue to be concerned about our public lands. We’ve already seen the Administration move forward on rolling back conservation areas to protect the sage grouse as well as a number of other environmental policies, despite groups repeated calls to pause these processes given our current situation.

When the experts deem that it is safe to return to the outdoors en masse, we will all be turning to our public lands for solace and rejuvenation, so we continue to be concerned about our public lands.

The public lands agencies that are responsible for managing over 40 percent of California’s land are perpetually under-resourced and under-staffed. For years, Democrats and Republicans have undervalued our public lands by slowly eroding the agencies’ budgets. That has led to the loss of many talented individuals and a lack of programs to properly manage and restore these treasured places.

In the last few years, CalWild has begun to catalogue and monitor the impacts of this lack of funding. We’ve seen many campgrounds closed, other recreation facilities removed or left in a state of disrepair, and the agencies lack of resources to properly protect or restore the lands that they are tasked with managing.

Perhaps the biggest impact is the lack of response to California’s forest health challenges and the threat of high severity fire. For decades we’ve known and government scientists have written about the troubled condition of our state’s forests. Burdened with excessive fuel (mostly as the result of logging, not due to a supposed lack of cutting as is so often claimed) and stressed by repeated droughts and a hotter climate, our forests need a dramatically new approach and significant investment.

The natural fire cycles to which forest species adapted, were altered by an historic emphasis on fire suppression, and as fires grew in frequency, size and scale, agencies were forced to “fire borrow” using funds intended for restoration and other ecological programs to suppress fire.

A lack of proper funding and the growing use of most programmatic funding to suppress fires, meant the forests could never get ahead of the problem. The agencies’ scientists have known that they needed to get fire back on the land through prescribed burns and managed wildfire, but without the proper staffing and funding they just can’t get make much progress.

That is the challenge of today. Having not listened to scientists and other experts and having failed to properly fund the public health agencies at the local, state, and federal level, we were caught flat-footed by this pandemic.

Again, the management of public lands doesn’t have the same life or death implications as investing in good public health infrastructure. However, what we see is that when it comes to something as dramatic as forest health and fire management, if not properly resourced with technical experts, the problems that grow silently often become beyond our capacity to cope when the public notices them.

Please let me know your thoughts, comments, and questions by emailing me at