North Bay Program Leverages Revolving Loan Funds to Help Landowners with Forest Management

by Molly Curley O’Brien

Across the State of California,

40% of forest lands are privately owned, however the percentage is much higher in the North Bay. Take Sonoma County for example: only 11% of forested land in Sonoma County is owned by local, state, or federal government – meaning nearly 90% of forest land here is privately owned, most on relatively small parcels. This is significant because landowners may lack the funds, coordination, and expertise to both address this forest management challenge and make sure their property’s vegetation management projects are shovel ready. They want to protect their land and their neighbors land but need help doing so, specifically the financial help required at the start of these important projects to begin implementation.

Enter: the North Bay Forest Improvement Program. The North Bay Forest Improvement Program is an innovative landowner incentive pilot program funded by a $1.5M CALFIRE Wildfire Resilience and Forestry Assistance grant. It supports planning and implementation of projects on private forest lands to reduce wildfire risk. But what makes it really unique is that it provides financial incentives, via a Revolving Loan Fund, for landowners to conduct this critical work.

Revolving Loan Funds Explained

A revolving loan fund (RLF) is a self-replenishing financing mechanism that can be used to fund a variety of programs, ranging from small business development to clean water infrastructure. Though RLFs can vary greatly depending on their mission and scope, they all share the same basic structure. RLFs start with a base level of capital, often as either a private investment or grant from the federal government or state. This capital is then loaned out to several borrowers. Over time, as these borrowers make repayments on their loans, the capital is replenished. When enough repayments are made, the fund uses its reaccumulated capital to issue new loans (Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 2021).

Revolving Loan Funds are a community-based lending tool that promote community development, enhance economic sustainability, and promote prosperity of both non-profits and communities by linking investors with borrowers located in:

  • Low-income communities otherwise not able to access resources
  • Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI) and Rural Communities
  • Consumers, producers, and secondary markets directly impacted by work
  • Agriculture: ranching, viticulture, etc

And why does this matter? RLFs enable small capacity teams to make larger positive impact for the communities they serve. And within the world of wildfire resilience, RLFs help remove the barriers of paying the total upfront costs required for home hardening, creating defensible space, and managing vegetation on private property and get these projects happening.

The North Bay Forest Improvement Program’s RLF will accelerate pathway to forest health

With the North Bay Forest Improvement Program, setting up a RLF means that both our partnering Resource Conservation Districts and participating property owners are compensated early for their time labor and resources, mitigating the stressful gap between expending the money and waiting for reimbursement. Of course, these projects would be covered by the grant eventually, but with our RLF, we create an internal repayment process to pay out invoices as soon as they are approved. This timeline allows for more to happen, for more to happen more quickly, and builds economic resilience into our collective pursuit towards wildfire resilience.

Molly Curley O'Brien

Molly Curley O’Brien

Director of Grants and Government Programs for After the Fire: Recover. Rebuild. Reimagine.