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High Roads to Resilience

building equitable forest restoration economies in California and beyond

by Sara Nelson, Patrick Bigger, Micah Elias, and Andrew Schuldt

August 2022

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California wildfires are emblematic of the climate crisis and a harbinger of a dangerous future. The stakes could not be higher for communities across California, and the US West: in addition to the existential risks and air quality impacts posed by severe wildfire, functional forest ecosystems are critical for regulating water supplies and trapping carbon dioxide. These ecological risks compound and complicate an equally vast set of social problems, many of which date back to colonization and the genocide of Indigenous peoples, followed by shifting forest management regimes that have left forests and communities degraded. Significant action is needed for forest restoration, and state and federal funding for restoration is beginning to pick up, but there is no guarantee that more money alone will maximize benefits for communities at the wildland-urban interface or the workers doing forest restoration on the ground.


This report, a collaboration with the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Climate Justice, is based on four years of research in the Tahoe-Central Sierra region of California. It takes stock of the state of forest restoration governance and implementation, offering detailed recommendations to put communities, workers, and the land itself on a High Road to Resilience. This pivotal moment is an opportunity for transformative forest management that is socially and ecologically restorative, not only reducing wildfire severity and enhancing forest resilience, but to sustain long-term employment and reinvigorate forest-based industries in areas that have suffered from the decline of the timber industry. This effort will require a diverse range of expertise, particularly Traditional Ecological Knowledge implemented by Indigenous practitioners according to principles of self-determination. 


The qualitative and quantitative evidence in this report shows that effective climate policy must deliberately prioritize holistic, restorative solutions for both forests and communities. It is possible to envision a ‘low road’ approach to restoration that relies on lowest-cost labor, poor working conditions, and contracting decisions that send the economic benefits of restoration to far-away cities. But a high road approach to forest restoration is within reach by prioritizing benefits for disadvantaged communities, beginning to redress past harms, and offering workers livable wages in dignified working and living conditions. Doing so could create new industries in communities suffering the impacts of past economic decline, and deliver quality, long-term employment in diversified forest-based economies. The vision we offer here is a program of  transformative, systemic investments in public lands and the communities that care for them. 


We offer findings across four main areas, with companion recommendations to put forest restoration on the high road: 


  • First, California’s forest restoration funding offers essential resources, but key changes to the grant system, as well as increased transparency and accountability, are needed to ensure funds are supporting local workers and workforce development. We offer specific recommendations to increase the flexibility in the use of state grant funds for forest restoration while developing non-competitive and coordinated funding approaches to a variety of forest restoration practitioners. 


  • Second, labor shortages are being felt across the restoration sector as a result of low wages, difficult working conditions, loss of forestry knowledge due to industrial decline, and structural economic problems for rural communities. Our recommendations on workforce center on building a more equitable forest restoration industry - especially by foregrounding partnerships with Tribes, improving opportunities for formerly incarcerated firefighters who want to work in restoration, and lifting all workers through improved wages, conditions, and training.

  • Third, limited US Forest Service (USFS) capacity poses challenges for implementing restoration work and building the workforce, and limits the effectiveness of new state and federal funding coming into the system. To rectify this situation, USFS should focus hiring efforts on key positions that maximize community and Tribal partnership, and improve capacity for permitting and monitoring restoration projects, while reevaluating contracting costs to better understand what capacities should be brought back in-house. 

  • Finally, there are an array of structural political and economic factors that limit the pace and scale of forest restoration in ways that contribute to local economies. Rural and Indigenous communities disproportionately suffer the impacts of poverty, including limited access to housing, health care, transportation, and telecommunications, and increased exposure to the criminal justice system – all of which pose challenges in workforce development and equity for workers.  Many of these issues can only be rectified through broad-based, investment-forward policy responses grounded in a holistic green industrial policy that can reshape public lands management and rural economic development. 


Ultimately, this report lays out a roadmap for reinvestment in rural communities and landscapes by a range of stakeholders – including community nonprofits, Tribal organizations, and state and federal agencies – that can put forest restoration on the high road to a safer, more vibrant future in a warming world.

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