By Liz Harper

Dana Walsh
Walsh in the Stumpy Meadows area of the King Fire overlooking the Rubicon Canyon, where areas had been mechanically site prepped on the Georgetown Ranger District of the Eldorado National Forest in the spring of 2018. Credit: Eric Sprague.

KEEPING GREEN FORESTS GREEN (and healthy) has been a priority for Dana Walsh for more than a decade. Currently a silviculturist in Eldorado National Forest, Walsh has worked for the U.S. Forest Service for the entirety of her career and, in recent years, has found herself on the cutting edge of climate- informed forest restoration.

After graduating from Sierra College in 2002 with an associate’s degree in forestry, Walsh attended Humboldt State University to continue her studies. During that time she was a student trainee for the Forest Service. Upon graduating in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in forestry, Walsh started working for the Forest Service, where she has been for the last 12 years in a number of capacities.

“The more I learned about forestry, the more I was enthralled with it and knew that it was something that I wanted to work in, study and continue to learn about,” Walsh explains.

Working in Eldorado National Forest puts a good chunk of her life in the Sierra Nevada, although she is sometimes called to work in other areas of the country. A recent trip had her working on fire restoration efforts on the South Oregon coast for four months, giving her a chance to use her skills in a different location, but she’s always glad to return home to California.

“The Sierra Nevada are a beautiful, wonderful landscape to begin with,” Walsh says. “Plus, I really like restoration forestry, and the ecology of the Sierra Nevada aligns really well with what needs to be done to make it a resilient system.”

For a significant period of time, Walsh’s work focused on restoration in forests unaffected by forest fire, making them healthier and more resilient. Thick forests that exist due to years of fire suppression can be managed to make them less susceptible to fire, an important task as wildfires become increasingly more prominent and powerful. Deciding how to manage forests is a multifaceted question that doesn’t always have one answer.

“I am a big proponent of using multiple different tools,” Walsh says. “So, I don’t think that any one method should be done everywhere. I think there’s good reason for different tools to be used, depending on what your objective is for the future.”

Management treatments that help advance forests toward resiliency vary, and Walsh’s work dealt extensively with fuel reduction through a variety of methods. Ladder fuels are reduced with the removal of trees in overly dense areas. Surface fuels can be eliminated through mastication or through piling and burning. Prescribed fire is used as a treatment on its own and as a follow-up to other fuel-reduction efforts. Such components of forest management are complex to begin with and they tend to intersect during implementation.

However, with the onset of the King Fire in 2014, her focus changed.

“I went from working on all of these thinning fuel-reduction projects with a fire component to restore ecosystem function and health for several years to the King Fire burning up or burning over almost every project that I’d worked on in the first 10 years of my career,” Walsh says.

A number of projects Walsh was working on at the time weren’t fully implemented and, thus, suffered when the 97,771-acre wildfire burned through El Dorado County. Only completed projects performed well though, according to Walsh, with resilient forest structure remaining even after the fire came through.

Following the King Fire, Walsh found herself working in the world of post-fire forest restoration efforts. Knowing that they couldn’t restore the entire fire area, Walsh and her colleagues focused on certain aspects of the land within the burn area to determine which areas to restore and which to leave to natural restoration.

One important aspect of the assessment and decision-making process is determining how to manage the restoration to best benefit the forest. The original dominant forest type is a fator as well, in addition to accounting for a stand’s vulnerability to climate change and future wildfires. Areas that are likely to naturally regenerate aren’t as high priority as areas that won’t.

“We wanted to look for where we could be successful and where it made the most sense to restore,” Walsh says. “We really looked at different topographic positions and different vulnerabilities to design the reforestation and the projects.”

In some cases, the original dominant forest type of an area has disappeared due to competing species and over-growth. In areas where fire suppression caused conifers to overtake populations of California black oak, the ideal situation would return that area to hardwoods rather than conifers. Walsh didn’t want to actively restore those areas in hopes that the California black oak makes a reappearance.

Areas restored through active management can create a resilient condition that Walsh says should be able to sustain itself and survive future fires. That is, after all, the goal of all the restoration work she’s done both in green forests and forests affected by wildfire.

“What keeps me going is the hope that we still have the ability to get ahead of some of these stand-replacing fires and create conditions where these landscapes will be resilient,” Walsh says. “We need to speed things up a lot, and I think there is some motivation and momentum going on in the Sierra Nevadas right now to do so.”

Liz Harper was an American Forests fall editorial intern and is a senior at Ohio University, studying journalism with a minor in English and a specialization in communication studies.