"We had to understand that things were changing whether we like it or not. We want to keep things the way they were but to be resilient in the future, we need to adapt to the fact that fire is a necessary part of the ecosystem." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D
SERIES: Role of the Non-Profit
The 3 most expensive words are: equity, sustainability and resiliency. We are now in a period where we are paying for the lack of stewardship with high costs, but there is still a hope. This week, Dr. Lisa Micheli, joins the stage to talk about how to connect each individual landowner to their community and to resource opportunities. Dr. Micheli is the CEO and President of Pepperwood Preserve Foundation and has also served on the board of Rebuild NorthBay Foundation since 2018. In terms of long-term recovery, a wider scope and a more aggressive approach is required. Dr. Micheli shares more about the work they do on education and resiliency strategies and how it can be duplicated by other communities. As a scientist and researcher, she also discusses the nature of fires and why it is beneficial for the ecosystem, how fire travels, and landscape solutions to scale up the area of treatment. If landowners, funders, developers, and communities team up together and start meaningful conversations instead of arguments, they can change the framework of how we catch up with the backlog on stewardship. Tune in and find out how to save time on planning and move resources forward with a more cost effective approach.
- 03:57: Chosen by Fire
- 09:54: The Problem with Lack of Stewardship
- 14:42: From the Ground Up
- 25:41: Public Funds for Mitigation
- 28:23: Prioritization of Resources and Strategies
- 33:31: Equity Issues on Land Management
- 39:19: Conversation for Win-Wins
- 44:44: What About a Landscape Reset
- 49:21: 3 of the Most Expensive Words
11:58: "We had to understand that things were changing whether we like it or not. We want to keep things the way they were but to be resilient in the future, we need to adapt to the fact that fire is a necessary part of the ecosystem." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
18:26: "Fire doesn't care about your county line or personal line, it's going to go where the fuel is. It is important to map out where the greatest risks are so we can use data to target where we should be spending our resources." -Jennifer Thompson
24:31: "The housing and the developments in the rural areas end up being the hottest and most intense burning areas. It's not just that we're protecting houses against fire that comes from the trees, but the houses become a big conflagration that is igniting the forest downwind of them." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
26:10: "When you work on your property, you're benefiting everybody downwind of that property. And the benefit of you investing in that work on site goes beyond your individual property." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
28:36: "Do the work before you can get reimbursed for the work." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
32:37: "We're in this very systemic crisis but we're going to have to be aggressive in our innovation and in our treatment… It's not just land management, it's also about equity and ensuring safety for all." -Jennifer Thompson
39:57: "There's a lot of members in the environmental community who still think taking the life of any tree is a horrible thing. And this is where the education outreach and awareness is so important about the fact that we interrupted the natural cycle where trees came to life, but they would be wiped out by fire." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
41:28: "Let's talk about how to get YES and do what we need instead of trying to win an argument that we're all at the end of the day losing." -Jennifer Thompson
46:00: "We've got to be thinking on a century scale. There's a lot of money now getting put up to try to deal with this fire challenge. But besides spending it fast on things that seem like an emergency, we can take a longer term view." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
48:42: "One of the hardest things is that funders often want to see results on the ground. But what they're missing is the planning and the prioritization. That's our biggest challenge." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
50:09: "The three most expensive words in the world are equity, sustainability and resiliency." -Jennifer Thompson
Meet Dr. Micheli:
Dr. Micheli joined Sonoma County's Pepperwood Preserve Foundation in October of 2009 as its inaugural Executive Director and now serves as the organization's President and CEO. She brings more than 30 years of experience applying her technical, policy, and fundraising expertise to the design and implementation of ecological restoration, research, and education programs. She started her career at the US Environmental Protection Agency and then completed her graduate studies at UC Berkeley as a NASA Earth Systems Research Fellow in 2000. She now focuses her research on relationships between climate, watershed health, and biodiversity and has published numerous peer-reviewed studies on river restoration, climate adaptation, and community-based approaches to biodiversity conservation.
Micheli specializes in facilitating interdisciplinary collaborations focused on using relevant research to craft collective solutions to today's most pressing landscape conservation challenges. She serves as the co-chair of Pepperwood's Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3), a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Bay Area climate adaptation research initiative, with Dr. David Ackerly, Dean of UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. She also chairs the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve team of the international Large Landscape Conservation Peer Network facilitated by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. She has been recognized as a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, a Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation Environmental Leader, a Bay Nature Institute Local Hero for Environmental Education, and a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. She is a member of the American Geophysical Union and the Society for Conservation Biology. Dr. Micheli serves as a director of the Rebuild North Bay Foundation and as a science advisor to the Sempervirens Fund, the Chile-California Conservation Network, the Bay Area Open Space Council, and the Water Research Foundation.
Connect with Pepperwood Foundation:
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to How To Disaster. I'm so pleased to have Dr. Lisa Micheli. Dr. Micheli is a leader in the area of forest resiliency and restoration, especially when it comes to wildfires. She is the CEO and President of Pepperwood Preserve and has been a board member for ReBuild North Bay for over three years. I really loved working with Lisa because she has an innovative approach. She's collaborative, and she's always curious about how we can make this process better and more accessible in order to build our resiliency. So once again, I'm so pleased to welcome to the podcast, Dr. Lisa Micheli. Well, once again, thank you, Dr. Lisa Micheli, for being on the podcast.
Lisa Micheli: Thank you, Jen, for having me come visit you today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm very excited because I've actually loved working with you over the past three years, and I'm hoping that you can tell our audience and our listeners a little bit about your background, the work that you do in your current position with Pepperwood Preserve.
Lisa Micheli: Sure. I am an Environmental Scientist, I've spent my whole career really working for government, universities and agencies. I started my career at the US Environmental Protection Agency. My specialty area within scientific research is really understanding the relationship between water and ecosystems. And one of the things I like to share is, I chose water as a study area, and to some extent, fire chose me. But especially given that we are wrestling with drought and the relationship between drought and fire, my background is really as a Physical Scientist understanding how water cycles through the land. And now, I'm doing a lot of work looking at the relationships between hydrology, climate change, forests, both in terms of fire resilience, but also biodiversity protection and climate resilience in general.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So one of the interesting things to watch from an outsider's perspective is that he's not a scientist, that you've had to navigate multiple fires at Pepperwood Preserve. Can you actually talk to us about what Pepperwood Preserve is and the history of fire, especially over the last three and a half years there, and some of the more innovative things you've done including placing welfare cameras on there?
Lisa Micheli: Sure. I have the incredible privilege of working at what's known as Pepperwood Preserve. We have a center there called the Dwight Center for Conservation Science. We were originally founded as the field station for the California Academy of Sciences, and we continue a relationship with the Academy. But luckily for us local philanthropist, Herman [inaudible] Dwight, kind of adopted the preserve and the property and created a foundation specifically focused on boosting the educational and scientific value of the property as a living laboratory. So we have an incredibly small team on site of educators who are also trained in the sciences and scientific researchers, and they're really land management specialists. We utilize the preserve as a venue for education, but also for demonstrating resilience strategies. And what I love to do, my dream as part of the job, I put together these ideal teams of scientists from different disciplines to answer very applied questions. So we host a lot of university researchers.
But as a research facility, we're really focused on recruiting the scientists that we need to answer pressing questions, including the fire resilience challenge that we're facing today. We know historically that Pepperwood had burned over in the 1965 Hanley Fire that started in Calistoga and then worked its way to Santa Rosa. And we're located in that mountain range directly in between for the Napa Valley, Knights Valley in the Santa Rosa area. And that fire took several days to spread, took no lives and took out about 100 structures. So in 2017, the Tubbs fire, which occupied very much the same footprint as the Hanley Fire ripped through in a matter of hours, devastated our community in terms of loss of life and property. And our property was really in the headwaters. So we are one of the first properties on the Sonoma County site impacted. My team sprang into action and helped to evacuate our community, which is very rural and a lot of elders in our community. We lost six of our structures in 2017, our barn or barn office, all of our equipment, our research equipment and two residences in addition to some outbuildings. So we really had the experience of being impacted directly by the fire.
We had been threatened in 2015 by the Valley Fire. At that time, I called my insurance company, and I said: "Well, we have all this scientific equipment out to play on the preserve because we have instruments all over the preserve to monitor weather and biological indicators over time." And she assured me that it was covered by my insurance policy. So we have an incredible data set of conditions on the landscape before the fire, what happened during the fire, and now we're monitoring the recovery, the landscape after the fire. So we're neighbors were part of the community. We had members of our staff whose families lost lives in the fire. And so we really are at the frontlines of the direct impact within, we're also the hub for the science that we can do in the wake of that impact. And we're really sitting on a goldmine of data because most of the scientific research on fire in California has been based in either Southern California or the Sierra. And this is one of the first times that a scientific community has been able to capture the impacts of fire in the coast range that characterizes the Sonoma, Napa, Lake Mendocino areas.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that's actually a really important place to put a pin in because forest restoration is critical. No matter what type of forest or land you have, what the treatments that you use, your approach has to actually be appropriate for that wildfire area. I like it as a metaphor for how we serve communities, while there are certain best practices there. Also, every community has its own characteristics and its own path to recovery. What has surprised you the most and what you've learned over the last three and a half years because you have been burned, not as extensively, but you've had three burns in three and a half years. So what has surprised you the most about that work?
Lisa Micheli: Well, I think what first surprised me is that we were even surprised. Because as scientists, we knew that we limited a fire adapted ecosystem, and it was likely to happen to us sooner or later. And even though we had that information, we were just as shocked and impacted as anyone else in the community. We've been doing a lot of work to connect indigenous people and indigenous knowledge to our Western scientific knowledge. And I think, first of all, just understanding that the state of the forest as we in the 20th century look at it, that actually reflects from a Native American point of view, a lack of stewardship. So we knew at Pepperwood that we had about 10 times as many trees per unit area as probably where they're historically under native stewardship. And this is because we largely stopped fire from coming in, we've been really good at putting fires out. So in our area, which is characterized by these gorgeous oak woodlands, hardwood and mixed montane hardwood, say compared to this year, as we have mostly coniferous trees, meaning like Christmas trees, the forest has really changed dramatically from what would have been a more sustainable framework. And yet, we're very attached to the way it looks today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Most people haven't seen it unless you've been in a wildfire affected area. You don't grow up, generations that have not grown up with what a forest is supposed to look like and how clean it's supposed to be. And we thought for so long that every tree was precious. It's very difficult to change that paradigm. But I appreciate the fact that people like you and us, specifically, are working on changing that very important paradigm about land management and return to its indigenous practices at the center, not as inputs.
"We had to understand that things were changing whether we like it or not. We want to keep things the way they were but to be resilient in the future, we need to adapt to the fact that fire is a necessary part of the ecosystem." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
Lisa Micheli: Well, I think the field of conservation, and we're Conservation Science Center, that gives you the idea that things are frozen. But we already knew under climate change that we had to understand that things were changing whether we like it or not. We want to keep things the way they were. But to really be resilient in the future, we need to adapt to the fact that fire is a necessary part of the ecosystem. And that with climate change, the dynamics behind fire are changing. And in fact, our risks are going up largely because of the impact of this excess heat that we're generating through our greenhouse gas emissions that really dries out the soil, sort of like a blow dryer blowing on the soils. The biggest surprise I had, I think, after the fires came through is how quickly nature does rebound.
Basically, one little rainstorm, this incredible unfolding of life in the landscape, and I think that was really a balm for our community members to be able to come to the preserve and see how nature actually thrives after fire. In some cases, you're basically clearing away a lot of dead material that fire normally refreshes and renews, and then that material turns into a fertilizer for the seabed that's there. And we had an anticipation that we'd see many rare plants and flowers that hadn't been seen for a long time because we do have these species that are fire adapted or even require fire to reproduce. So there were certain flowers that hadn't bloomed on the preserve for over 50 to 53 years when they'd been dormant since the day I was born, and then this was their chance to bloom. I think one of the biggest surprises though, was the number of invasive plants and weeds that also popped out of the ground. And that the fire did not just favor native species, but there was a whole lot of really difficult to deal with and very flammable weeds like broom, scotch broom, French broom, thistles that just sort of were waiting for this opportunity as well. So there are no rules of thumb about exactly what was going to happen next. And I guess, I will say there are pros and cons from the idea of land management, the fire coming through and how we respond.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I think it was actually a good segue to bring us into the North Bay Forest Improvement Program, which is under the auspices of ReBuild North Bay Foundation, but it was really brought to us through you. And it's a pilot program. It's innovative, collaborative and it addresses the very real issue of how to do forest restoration or in land management in a way that is ecologically responsible. So can you talk about that program, and what it can actually mean for people?
Lisa Micheli: Well, one of the things that's different about our part of California from the rest of the US West is that the majority of the forest resources and natural vegetation is privately owned. In many parts of the US, it's the US Forest Service that is managing your local forests and they have a pretty well structured management system that has been woefully underfunded. And a lot of nonprofits and NGO's have stepped in to help provide stewardship resources to that forest. But it's more of a straight path because you have one large property owner, the US government who owns the whole landscape and has the power to make changes about how it's managed. And Snow County, we think about 80% of our natural lands are on private parcels, and there's about 17,000 different parcels. So imagine, there's at least 17,000 different owners of this land, and a lot of these folks are private landowners, this is their backyard, it's a residential site. So the challenge in helping to come up with a landscape when a whole landscape scales such solutions, which is really what fire requires, because it's responding to the whole mountain range, it's not just a parcel by parcel. How do we get to those private landowners and give them technical assistance, and some financial incentives to do this work because the work is very expensive.
So I was delighted to be working with our resource conservation districts or folks who don't know what that is. It's a special district that was formed first in response to the dust bowl crisis, and they were created as local hubs in rural communities where technical assistance and funds could be distributed to farmers to work on soil erosion. We're losing our soil. So these groups now actually, and it's been a big push in our community to make sure that the local resource conservation districts have foresters now available to people in our neighborhood. So the North Bay Forest Improvement Program is really a coalition of resource conservation districts across four counties. And through teamwork, ReBuild North Bay was able to serve as the fiscal sponsor, apply for a grant on behalf of those districts and then set up an application process where private landowners can apply for a project. And that project is vetted by our foresters. And then we're able to provide a matching fund for them to be able to get some of the work done. So I love this project. It was a very collaborative project, it filled an obvious need.
CAL FIRE is very happy about it because it's typical for us, the funding pathway doesn't necessarily serve this small private landowner as well as it should. And what's nice is this is a vehicle for some of them, there's a landowner coalition forming right now. I mean, one thing is we, I know you've emphasized in this podcast is the need for neighbors to know one another, and to have that neighborhood connectivity and capacity building, and those are really the same groups. The disaster response groups and the fire safe councils that are forming are the same groups that we're working with. Instead of reaching one landowner at a time, we can support maybe 200 landowners in one basin or on one mountain with planning. And the goal here is to achieve economies of scale. It's expensive to write these plans, and there aren't that many foresters to work on them. So if we can scale up the area of treatment and get landowners to team up together, then we can save time in terms of planning and environmental compliance.
"Fire doesn't care about your county line or personal line, it's going to go where the fuel is. It is important to map out where the greatest risks are so we can use data to target where we should be spending our resources." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: From a practical perspective, it also honors the fact that fire really doesn't care about your county line. It doesn't care about your personal life, it's going to go where it wants to go, it's going to go where the fuel is. And one of the things I've learned from you over the past three years is how important it is to actually map out where the greatest risks are so we can use data to actually target where we should be spending our resources. So can you talk about that work too, because I think that's important. And I think it's something that could be and should be applied throughout the American West or most wildfire vulnerable.
Lisa Micheli: This is one of my favorite topics to talk about. So when I first got involved with this work, I think you always need to go to the boots on the ground people to figure out what's going on. So I talked to our local CAL FIRE, vegetation management team members and I said: "Well, how do you prioritize where work needs to happen?" And they said: "Well, we get in our trucks, and we drive around, and we look for problem areas." And I said: "But you have maps, theoretically of where fuels are hazardous or where there's high fire severity risks." And they said: "Yeah, but those are statewide maps, and this is a lot of the work that Apple gets involved with statewide maps. It's intended to give decision makers in Sacramento a snapshot of conditions. It's not really meant to be used for planning exactly where to do work on the ground." So we were excited because we've been very involved with using new kinds of data sources, sensors that can be put on airplanes, sensors that can be put on satellites to help map these forest resources. And that technology is just getting good enough now that you can really start to see individual trees. And we can fly an airplane over with a laser and get through a 3D map of the forest structure, which is not just the top of the canopy and the number of trees. And that's been a big focus, but what's underneath.
So a lot of what we've learned is that the risk of fire is really correlated with how dense what we call the vegetation fuels are in the sub canopy, the stuff that's growing close to the ground. It's shrubby, it's young dug for saplings, and we call those ladder fuels, those are fuels that the fire will climb up on those smaller trees or shrubs and get up into the canopy. And we're able to show that these ladder fuels combined with a drought metric, which my team had developed, are the two best predictors of where the canopy burned off in 2017. That was a study done with NASA.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: For people who are not scientists, and just to back up for one second, the way that I try to explain it as you've explained it to me is, it's an amazing thing to see beneath the canopy to what I call the garbage forest. First, it shouldn't be there, and it can be mitigated because, explain to our audience what's the danger when the fire reaches all the way up into the canopy and burns too hot and too fast.
Lisa Micheli: Yeah. The ladder fuels are the vehicle of creating a really big mega fire. Native American burns, controlled burns, cultural burns kind of burns, Pepperwood is what we call a ground fire. And the ground fire, literally, the fire scientist talking about the flame links are under foot. You've got these little flames beeping along the ground, and they're just going to help recycle the data or the garbage that you're talking about on the ground. Some people would call it something else. But what the ladder fuel does is let those flames climb up and become 30, or 40, or 100 foot high conflagrations because that starts to ignite the whole tree. And especially oak trees and redwood trees in our area, they have very thick bark and you can have a pretty hot fire burning around their base, and they're going to be just fine. But if that fire climbs up into the canopy, it will likely kill the tree. So canopy burn is one of the most important indicators of a very severe or very hot fire because these trees can survive a typical kind of fire, but the canopy burn has the potential to actually kill the tree. And sometimes, a little tree will get burned up. But often, that tree will be standing and dead. And that means that when the next fire comes, like in 2019, when Kincade came to us, there were standing dead trees leftover from the previous fire, and they're very flammable because they're no longer green, they're no longer holding water. So this idea that once a fire burns, there's not much left to burn. Sometimes, that's true. And sometimes, it's not, it's very patchy. And in places where you have canopy burn is sort of a little counterintuitive, but you've had a very hot burn and are leaving behind fuel that could burn in a subsequent fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So ember cast is much, much worse than a lot of the damage. And the wildfires spread, mega fire spread comes from ember cast specifically.
"The housing and the developments in the rural areas end up being the hottest and most intense burning areas. It's not just that we're protecting houses against fire that comes from the trees, but the houses become a big conflagration that is igniting the forest downwind of them." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
Lisa Micheli: I mentioned the term ground driven fire. Well, the other kind of fires, the wind driven fire. The first 24 hours of the Tubbs fire was a little wind driven fire, measured 77 miles per hour at one of our weather stations. That's even in a slightly protected area. So once you're in that situation where the fire is moving quickly and you start getting that canopy burn, the fire moving up the trees, then you have the perfect source of embers for those wicked winds to be spreading. And one tree on fire could spread thousands of embers. But I also want, we're talking a lot about trees catching on fire and spreading the fire. What we learned in 2017 is that homes actually are a bigger source of fire and heat intensity, and that's something that the scientific literature hasn't really captured. Fire models usually assume the fire is going to burn, but that subdivision won't necessarily, and that's something we learned that we get these ember driven events and the houses catch fire. The housing and the developments in the rural areas end up being the hottest and most intense burning areas, and they in turn become probably the major source of embers and spread as well. So our local fire departments that, it's not just that we're protecting houses against fire that come from the trees, but really, the houses become a big conflagration like that, what is igniting the forest downwind of them.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That brings up two things. The first thing I think about is how do we, why should we spend public funds? I was just asked this question by a reporter and he said: "Why should a nurse in [inaudible] pay for through her taxes wildland fuel mitigation on private lands? And also, why should they help with home hardening?" Because there are programs that are coming down the line already, some exist, and we've done this with floods for generations and generations, but not wildfire. How do you actually, why should you use public funds in order to mitigate the risk in the wild lands on privately owned land? You should answer that question, not me.
"When you work on your property, you're benefiting everybody downwind of that property. And the benefit of you investing in that work on site goes beyond your individual property." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
Lisa Micheli: I think that's a great question, why should an individual in one location be helping to invest in a private property and prevent a program that is reducing fire hazards? And it really gets to the issue that I've been learning from [inaudible] is the mismatch between the risk and the benefits, and who bears the cost. And that's the thing is, if you live in a rural landscape and you're a private landowner, when you work on your property, you're benefiting everybody downwind of that property. And the benefit of you investing in that work on site goes beyond your individual property. So that's why we're promoting these financial and governance innovations around how we can meet this problem. Because part of why we're stuck in this situation is, it's overwhelming for that individual to force the landowner to do the work that's needed. And yet, we all benefit from the water supply, we all benefit from the fire hazard reduction and the biodiversity that that property is retaining. So I think the idea is sharing the cost, and seeing a collective value to the work that we're doing, and being willing to invest in that person who maybe is in a critical position to help reduce our hazard. Because they're not just reducing the hazard on their land, they're reducing the hazard for all of us.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And the cost of the forest restoration or treatment to do fuel mitigation is actually very high. So that's one of the things that I was talking to the same reporter about was, I said, someone may have a 7 million net worth, or say $7 million. But if it's going to cost them $2 million to mitigate their fuel and to have any kind of ongoing program to mitigate the fuel, they're not very likely to do it. So it is a matter of also ensuring that we are incentivizing and partnering for the safety of everyone, including their long term recology. So that's why I love the [inaudible] to ReBuild North Bay. Now, one of the barriers to entry for a lot of nonprofits would be that we also had to put up, to really put forth $200,000 in a revolving loan fund that will come back to us. But we had to be able to afford to do that. A lot of smaller nonprofits would not have been able to put up a revolving loan fund or commit that money for a three year term. And so I applaud you for coming in early and saying, here's how we should allocate these funds. And it took time. What is your hope to see this actually, because it is scalable to actually see this replicated in other areas across the state and even across the American West?
"Do the work before you can get reimbursed for the work." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
Lisa Micheli: Just to explain what the challenge is, for an NGO that's trying to step into this really public service gap, if you get a public grant on a reimbursable basis. So you do the work before you can get reimbursed for the work. So you have to have a pretty large reserve as an individual organization to cover that. And we wanted to be able to get the resources to the landowners in a timely fashion too so that it really helps defray the costs. I think the opportunity is that, I understand that there's a lot of green and sort of angel investors out there who are interested in loan situations that either be a no interest or low interest loan. And I think for those investors, these kinds of programs are an incredible opportunity to facilitate something happening that otherwise basically can't happen because of bureaucracy. And of course, the onus is on the public agencies to do their due diligence to make sure what public funds are going towards are truly happening, but to keep the process going, and to provide incentives for people rather than just penalties. We need that ability to move resources forward. And I do know that the cost of treating landscape might potentially go down over time. I think we're right now in a very big catch up period, we're catching up on a big backlog of stewardship.
And I think once we get over the hump, and particularly there's a lot of groups right now. I was trying to say, well, where it is safe to use [inaudible] fire once you've established those safe conditions, that could be a more cost effective approach. And so we'll really be working on the ground and seeing how much it costs to do this work. And I think the other thing is that access is a big issue too, like a property with better access is easier to deal with than a property that's very difficult to access. So we really have to start prioritizing these treatments adjacent to communities and denser communities like on [inaudible], I keep talking about downwind of the wind driven fire. Well, we're starting to really map those wind patterns. That's a very cutting edge part of science. But to really prioritize the first places we need to work and reach out to the landowners in those really strategic locations that you're super high priority, and we're willing to bring public funds to the table to match this because there might be tens or thousands of people downwind of that particular zone that will benefit from that work. So that's where the sort of prioritization comes in. And be able to make a map of the whole county and what are the hotspots, get the buy-in, provide everyone the same information about what the priorities are.
I personally am working on the Technical Advisory Committee for the multi jurisdictional integrated hazard mitigation plan for Sonoma County, which is the FEMA document, and making sure that that document reflects this high resolution data we have, and then the next step is our community wildfire protection plan process. And again, I think the role of philanthropy and community based organizations to assist with the outreach for these plans, because our county is pretty strapped and has had to deal with a lot of disasters, and one after another. So I think supporting county staff and electeds by getting the word out, because we're involved in a lot of grassroots organizations like, hey, this great project, you need to get onto the CWPP website and put it on there.
"We're in this very systemic crisis but we're going to have to be aggressive in our innovation and in our treatment… It's not just land management, it's also about equity and ensuring safety for all." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: This is really important, though, the point that you're making is that often in all work in government, public, private, nonprofit sectors we're so siloed. We're siloed within our silos even. And what you're talking about is d siloing, sharing a less turfy like, no place for turf wars at this time. Making sure that everyone understands that we not only have a role to play, but a responsibility to play in mitigating this crisis point that we're at where climate change is meeting historical lack of land management, and it seems that we have to put resources into responding to mega fires. So we're in this very systemic crisis, if we can actually get through it. But we're going to have to be aggressive in our innovation and aggressive in our treatment. And one of the things that I see as unfortunate is when the issue of equity is put up against the issue of land management. And we've seen this play out because you have allocation of funds. And one of the things that I'm concerned about is if it keeps all burning down, and we know for a fact that people who are in any way marginalized will maybe never recover from a disaster, they're more likely to be exposed to the chemicals in the air, they're less likely to have mobility to move. And especially in a tight, it gets into all these other issues. So it's not just land management, it's also about equity and ensuring safety for all. So that's my soapbox.
Lisa Micheli: I think it's hugely important. And one of the things that we've been working on this organization, we've done a lot of work for county agencies. But what about the voices of frontline communities? Someone at the Water Agency is going to have a different set of priorities, very important. But what about the frontline communities, including our Latinx communities who are often the outdoor workers doing this work. By the way, one of the projects we're excited to be working on right now is a Spanish language video about how to do fuels treatments in a way that is also sensitive to environmental needs. Because who is doing this work? A lot of it is our Latinx workforce who's out there. And then what I'm really interested in, we haven't succeeded yet. We've written a couple of proposals, and I'm still looking for fires. But how do we actually have the time to sit down with those folks and get a better sense of what their concerns, risks and hazards are, so that we can also bring science to bear on those issues. And a big part of that is going to be the air quality. We know, part of the fire challenge is the exposures to outdoor workers that arise from exposure. But also, if you are a traditionally economically disadvantaged community, you really need those economic incentives and partnerships to get the work done in your community. So I think it's both in terms of people as homeowners or property managers, but also the frontline workers who are out there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think so much of this goes back to, I appreciate all your efforts on collaboration in strange bedfellows. And I also like that I've learned a lot from you in terms of wanting a global view of how all of these things intersect and interact. I appreciate that very much. So one of the things that I'd like to note is that when you brought us the idea of this CAL FIRE grants, the $1.5 million over three years that will really realistically only help probably 40 landowners across four counties. But you talked to our board about the importance of actually investing in the system, if we can build the system and people that like open source at that point, and if other agencies or other NGOs want to take the system that we built the application system, we invested a lot of money in attorneys and making sure that everything was, everything was ecologically sound and very collaborative. We listened to the forester that also ensured that the money was well accounted for. That's a pretty large investment for a small NGO. But our hope, as you said from the very beginning is that other NGOs could actually take this system and either scale it up or adapt to their own area. Can you talk about the importance of sharing these best practices not being protective about, and just to ensure that we get to the other side of this systemic crisis that we're in?
Lisa Micheli: Sure. Well, I think our program is really a model program that can work. And I think the investment we made in part was, yes, there's a tranche of funds coming from CAL FIRE. For this right now from 2020 or whatever year we got it, but once this structure is in place, it's the vehicle for dispersing funds so that other donors can invest and their funds will go directly into the incentives program rather than the program administration because we've got the administrative kinks figured out. And we certainly were a model, and Sonoma County ag open space district, wanted to provide an incentives program that they needed to come directly from their house. But they basically took our whole structure, and then retrofitted it for their needs. And I just think it is a great example of how we can sort of pay it forward with models that were and save other communities the time, effort and research that it took to develop those. And of course, you can always customize it for your own community, but why not cut and paste or recycle. And this is something ever since I've been in the NGO world, we need to collaborate to share tools, share templates and expand the footprint beyond where our sort of grassroots efforts land. I think the other thing I want to mention about strange bedfellows perhaps is this work of working on the landscape. Right now, this incentives program is somewhat opportunistic based on who's prepared to tackle it, but creating a large-scale vision of what our landscape needs to look like to be resilient.
Personally, I am now in collaboratives that include equity and workforce, the economy. I used to just sit in a room with a bunch of other natural resource managers and advocates. But what I really came to realize in the wake of these fires is that I couldn't be ignorant around the housing and development solutions that are needed for our community to be able to retain people. I mean, we're in a crisis right now where I know the local businesses in my community can't find people to hire because people cannot afford to live in this area. I'm really open to my mind and doors to, let's talk to the development community, let's talk to the folks that need to come in and do infill and understand that it's dangerous to put more homes in this wildland urban interface. Then we need an economically viable solution to put the home somewhere else. And I think that biting the bullet as a conservationist is like you have to also be pro development in those appropriate places.
"There's a lot of members in the environmental community who still think taking the life of any tree is a horrible thing. And this is where the education outreach and awareness is so important about the fact that we interrupted the natural cycle where trees came to life, but they would be wiped out by fire." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
And right now, we're in a collaboration with the Greenbelt Alliance and an open space district. We're not policy people, we don't do land use policy, we provide the information. But how do we tighten that circle so we get it into us by the policy advocates? And what we're envisioning right now is actually making a map of Sonoma County that shows where we can be doing these forest treatments, shows where we should be protecting for our food and water supply, shows where you could actually put those homes that we so desperately need and create alignment between all the different parties who used to be in their silos so we can go through the general plan update with the county, and the politicians, and the county staff can benefit from the fact that the community has aligned around a vision and have those conversations about trade offs. So I think it's important. I do think there's a lot of members in the environmental community who still think you're taking the life of any tree is a horrible thing. And this is where I think the education outreach and awareness is so important about the fact that we interrupted the natural cycle that would have been a disturbance cycle where trees came to life, but they would be wiped out by fire. And then that would give a smaller number of trees the chance to thrive, and really sequester carbon, and be resilient to fire and long term. And so it's interesting, even within my silo, there's important conversations to have.
"Let's talk about how to get YES and do what we need instead of trying to win an argument that we're all at the end of the day losing." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think, yeah, one of the things I like to say is, when you do a zero sum game, most of the time everybody loses. But if you collaborate and people listen to each other, then you can actually learn a lot even if you think you know everything about your particular area. I mean, developers should be sitting with environmentalists to figure out how to do this better. We have a lot of housing that is built exactly the way that it's always been, and there are other technologies out there and opportunities. But if developers have to sit on a property and hold it for 5 to 10 years because they keep getting opposed by environmentalists instead of saying, we need, we want to provide housing, how can we do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable, and that is wildfire resistant for lack of a better term. Home hardening uses best practices, is beautiful, is near transportation, is better for the environment. Let's talk about how to get to yes and do what we need instead of trying to win an argument that we're all at the end of the day just losing.
I mean, it is a point of frustration for me, it was when people showed up to oppose every single housing development and they always mentioned these things. And then they go home to sleep in a meadow. No, they go home and they sleep in a home. We are not environmental mentalists, and developers should be at the table always together to talk about these things because we are kind of waiting for them to get to the other side, you all to get to the other side. So I appreciate that. And this actually came up in a project that you brought to us also a couple of years ago, called taking action for living systems. And if you could just briefly touch on that, I really enjoyed that. I learned a lot through that project, and I've also seen in the documentary, The West is Burning, that some of those principles have been successfully applied.
Lisa Micheli: Yeah. Well, taking action for living systems was wonderful, and is a wonderful collaboration between people with forestry expertise, grassroots organizers, landscape designers, climate folks and private landowners. And I think they're taking this idea of the vision of what the resilient vision looks like. And what is the terminology they taking action likes to use is the enterprise complex. What is not just the threats are the things we can't do. What are the opportunities in this landscape to enhance our water supply, to enhance carbon sequestration, to put homes in. So we're working quite closely with them in our community that is about 70,000 acres. So it was not small, it's two fire safe councils. One based on the Napa side, Mayacamas Mountains border, and one based on that Sonoma side. And we've coordinated those folks into one team. They were impacted by the Tubbs fire, and again by Glass to come up with a plan at the scale of, again, about probably 500 homeowners and landowners to develop the solution.
So taking action has served the concept of this enterprise complex. And now, they're really down in the trenches working with people to try to realize that. And the first step really is coming up with, what is this, you can call it a treatment plan or a landscape stewardship overlay. And that's where we really end up helping with some of these data sources we were talking about like, where would you go do a project in this landscape? Where would you start in terms of the highest priority? And I do feel like these were also regional units. Some counties that add up are where you connect each individual landowner to their community and to the resource opportunities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And to be part of the solution. Everybody given the opportunity, most people will step up if you have a clear path for how to be part of this solution. It's just hard to innovate in the meantime. As we have maybe 10 minutes left, I would actually like you to go into, what do you see over the next 5 to 10 years in this area of mega fire. It is an era of mega fires, what do you see? And what are your hopes? And what are your fears? And what's your advice? I know it's a lot.
"We've got to be thinking on a century scale. There's a lot of money now getting put up to try to deal with this fire challenge. But besides spending it fast on things that seem like an emergency, we can take a longer term view." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
Lisa Micheli: I've been thinking a lot about this idea of the reset, the landscape reset. And so Pepperwood sits directly in an overlap of two fires. I mentioned that can happen. Your place can burn again. But if you start to look at the fire pattern of the North Bay, it's almost a cookie cutter effect. These overlap areas don't tend to be very deep. So in some ways, the mega fires are catching up on that backlog for us, whether we like it or not. And I think it's really giving us the challenge of, as I said, I think that our, I think over the long term, the expense and the effort going into landscape stewardship could reduce over time. But we've got to jump on these burn areas. We also need to serve those areas that are very prone to fire, haven't burned yet and are threatened. So it's sort of a two pronged approach. But I think, yeah, this fire season is almost upon us. There's been this sort of urgency, and I would say, almost verging on panic like, what do we do before August? And that's really important. But we can't let that eclipse or longer term vision, we can't let it eclipse the fact that we want a landscape that is really, we've got to be thinking in a century scale. And that's kind of what Pepperwood is about is thinking about bigger pieces of the landscape over longer terms. Honestly, it's such an odd way to put it, but the real, there's a lot of money now getting put up to try to deal with this fire challenge. But I hope that besides spending it fast on things that seem like an emergency, we can take a longer term view. And that's really why I'm trying to be at the table to provide that perspective, contributing to statewide efforts around this issue. And there's no doubt that we need to do both.
But I think one of the challenges he raised in terms of environmental compliance, the California Environmental Quality Act, is really a difficult hurdle for, especially projects that we wanted to start in March and really get done, to get that done in six months. So I do hope that the environmental agencies and environmental community can help solve some of those problems. Certainly, we don't want projects going forward without environmental review. But again, how can we at scale, address some of those issues are great examples like the spotted owl. You don't want to be doing a field treatment even if it's well designed in the spotted owl habitat when it's happening. It's actually very hard to get that information. It's very expensive to get that information. Is there a way we can stream like that? We do want to protect spotted owls, which have been the victims of horrible crimes against endangered species of the past. But is there a way you could create a centralized location for a community that could help them get that data fast and say yes, now, is the spotted owl at risk from this project or not? And if it's not, let's make it move forward. And is there a way that it cannot take 12 to 18 months to get that answer?
"One of the hardest things is that funders often want to see results on the ground. But what they're missing is the planning and the prioritization. That's our biggest challenge." -Lisa Micheli Ph.D.
So I think for me, within my silo, that's what we kind of need to work on. The air quality issues are similar. It can be hard to get a prescribed burn permit because of emissions, and we don't quite yet know how to account for the fact that those short term emissions will be hopefully preventing a longer term permission source. When I look at the state of California's carbon reduction objectives and their greenhouse gas objectives are doing great. A lot of friends are reducing our emissions, except for wildfires. So that's got to come into the longer term planning. I guess keeping the short and the long term in view, making sure the investments that are coming out fast that we don't kind of squander them on what feels good or looks good, but doesn't invest in planning. I think that one of the hardest things is that funders often want to see results on the ground.
But when I talk to my CAL FIRE colleagues, what they're missing is the planning and the prioritization. So I think that's our biggest challenge. How do we meet what feels like a very immediate emergency situation, but also get into the planning mode where we are resourced to have the conversations we need to have, to do some of this sort of analysis we need to do that I think people can get frustrated like, oh, why are we spending time on this when there could be a fire, but we'd really need to do that work to do to achieve our goal in a cost effective fashion.
"The three most expensive words in the world are equity, sustainability and resiliency." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What's interesting is, as we are opening up our charter to include 11 states, some of this work, we might be more successful in learning outside of California and bringing it to California. Again, the wildfire risk is not just as specific to California. Oregon had their very worst wildfire season they've ever had on record. And we count 11 states in our new charter because they're the most wildfire vulnerable, and they are almost all of experiencing severe drought at this time. So I look forward to working with you on that project as well, and just appreciate so much on a personal, professional level. And I think the work that you're doing is groundbreaking and should be emulated and desilo, and shared and open source. But again, I always say the three most expensive words in the world are equity, sustainability and resiliency. So we have to share how we do it on each of those things so that we can in fact reduce the cost if we share knowledge, use data and facts, and we lose our sacred cows.
Lisa Micheli: Well, thanks for being a champion for a science-based approach, and for having the patience to figure it out, I mean, there's a lot of translation work that needs to happen between the silos and I think I'm making this work accessible. And also the emphasis of the human spin on it. Even scientists are human. We hate to admit it, but it is true. And that's the sort of collaboration is relationships I think will make us successful. I couldn't agree with you more. We have as much to learn from people working at this larger scale, I think is that two-way thing. What's going to work for that individual person at their home, but how does that relate to the globe as a whole, and they're the sort of intermediate scales that need to talk to each other so that we share the knowledge and get it implemented as swiftly as possible.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Innovates, we can do this. Well, thank you again, Dr. Lisa Micheli, CEO, President of Pepperwood Preserve. You can find her contact information at the very beginning of this podcast. And thank you for being on How To Disaster.
Lisa Micheli: Thank you so much. And thanks for your creativity.