Economic factors play an important role in land use decisions. However, often the goods and services provided by ecosystems are not accounted for. These ecosystem services can provide real value to people, but often these values are not captured in economic market. Payment for ecosystem services has been touted as the “last, best hope” for conservation, and they may hold considerable potential for protecting California’s landscapes. While ecosystem services are acknowledged by scholars and policy makers alike as a potentially useful tool, from a practical perspective the concept of ecosystem services has largely failed to provide benefits to California land owners themselves. We believe payments for ecosystem services have failed to deliver on their considerable promise due to the lack of consistent methods for calculating ecosystem service values across broad extents, even in data rich environments such as California. This scientific bottleneck has led to low capacity for funding agencies to integrate payment for ecosystem services into their portfolios, ultimately leading to a lack of actual payments flowing from those who benefit from ecosystem services to the service providers. We are currently working to use the InVEST methodology to value ecosystem services for California rangelands. Preliminary results for Sonoma country indicate substantial values for rangelands.
California’s headwater forests are not thriving under current management practices, and changes are needed to make them more resilient to periodic drought and long-term climate change. More active management of these lands is needed to improve forest health, reduce the risk of major wildfires and pest infestations, and maintain the flow of benefits provided by this critical natural infrastructure. Decades of fire suppression, an emphasis on short-term management priorities, weather extremes, and a warming climate have set the stage for the decline in forest resilience. Two-thirds of the state’s surface water supply originates in these mountainous forests. California stands to lose timber production, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and water supply if this vital natural infrastructure continues to decline. Management options exist—prescribed fire, managed wildfire, mechanical thinning, and forest pest treatments—that can help rebuild resilience in these forests and prepare them for a challenging future. California needs to increase the pace and scale of efforts to improve forest health. The strategic removal of high-density smaller trees and fuels is essential to increasing long-term resilience of headwater forests. This will require management, regulatory, and legal reforms. We suggest changes in three areas:
- Make long-term forest health the top priority for guiding agency rules, policy, and management practices.
- Define forest treatment needs and make the most of available funds.
- Make greater use of tools that create opportunities for collaboration.
Within each of these broad themes, we suggest specific reforms and actions to implement them. Many of these actions can take place without major legislation or large increases in funding, relying instead on changes in rules or administrative decisions. Taken together, implementing these reforms will improve the health of California’s headwaters and ensure the environmental, social, and economic benefits they provide.