Saturday, June 9. 2007
As a long-time Oregon boy, I have found California to be the land of BIG. Big mountains, big parks, big companies, many rich people, big highways, big government. Unfortunately, this attitude seems to carry over into habitat protection. We've got some awesome national parks and monuments. But if it isn't awesome, it seems to be just ignored. Small parcels or unglamorous places seem to be of no concern to anyone. "Brush" is considered a fire hazard to be eliminated. If a piece of habitat isn't the best example of its kind, it receives no respect at all.
But think about a bird - a California gnatcatcher, for example. Or a Roadrunner. Or even a California Towhee. Or what about a Wood rat? Or a Gopher snake. These creatures do not need a national park. They do not need a thousand acres of wetlands or a stand of towering old growth forest. They just need a little patch of healthy habitat. Any one of those creatures can live in half an acre of good healthy chaparral. In fact, all of them can and more! And it's just those little patches that are being erased in our panic-stricken wholesale assault on the "brush" that people seem to think is the cause of our massive wildfires. (Remember: most of these fires are started by people, not nature, and the species which replace natural chaparral after brush clearing are usually even more flammable!)
So what can we do?
I am tired of fighting these defensive fights. Defensive fights always result in compromise and lost ground. I want to make progress, not lose it.
I think we need to seek actual PROTECTION for small parcels. I am not suggesting that Big Brother make some blanket rule outlawing brush clearing. That may make some of us happy, but we know it would never succeed. I am suggesting a plan which a homeowner can enroll in to protect the brush in his/her property.
The state of Washington has a "Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary" program. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife uses this program as a means of encouraging people to landscape for wildlife and disseminating information about how to do it.
The state of Oregon has tax incentives for small woodlot owners who keep a minimum amount of land in forest production. I used to own ten acres of forest land in that state and nine of my acres were assessed only a few dollars a year in taxes as long as I kept it timbered.
I don't suggest copying either of these programs, but using them as examples of what others have done. We should learn from them and formulate our own program for our own problems.
My first suggestion is that the state of California, at the owner's request, should formally recognize any parcel of natural habitat, no matter how small, and offer formal protection for it. The owner would be responsible to document the general type of habitat, its size, and its location (a sketch on a plat map should suffice) and would be responsible to maintain it in a healthy state. The state would protect these parcels from agencies or individuals who might seek to force their clearing and would offer educational assistance like the Washington program does.
What does that mean? It means that you could not be forced to clear your natural habitat by any government agency or their private contractors. It also means that you could not damage or reduce the protected habitat, either. If you did, you would have to pay back the taxes that you saved while the property was protected. (See tax incentives, detailed below.)
I would like to see some sort of tax incentive because that would really increase the participation rate. The way the Oregon system works (or did when I owned my property): the portion of your property which was kept forested was taxed at a lower level. But if you removed the forest you had to repay the tax savings for the past five years.
The program I am proposing would protect even smaller parcels than the 10 acre minimum of Oregon forest tax deferrals, but could still work similarly. I propose that the non-protected portion of the property would
Finally, the law should provide liability protection for parcels included in the program. A fire can start in any dry vegetation, not just in native stands, but ignorant people will blame the native plants when a man throws a cigarette into it and lights it on fire.
I have been thinking about this since talking to Rick Halsey in early 2006, but this is the first time I've attempted to write it down. So I'm sure there is much I have not thought of. I am interested to hear what others think of this idea. I'm pretty sure the comments are working now, so let's hear them!
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