Fighting fire with fire

Posted by Dylan Kruse on September 5, 2013

The next generation in Trinity County, CA is adapting to climate change.


Trinity County is a rugged landscape nestled in northern California. At 2 million acres, it is nearly twice the size of Delaware and home to fewer than 14,000 residents. There are no traffic lights, freeways, parking meters, or incorporated cities. But ecological marvels make the county a striking place. Its diverse coniferous forests are home to numerous native species, and its rivers shelter endangered salmon. The landscape is a wrinkled tapestry of peaks and valleys, with dark red clay soil and features shaped by ancient forces of fire and water. 

However, a historical boom and bust cycle of mining, ranching, and logging, paired with a legacy of fire suppression, left a significantly degraded landscape.  In the late 1980s and early 90s, logging operations shut down due to concerns about the health of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl on the EPA's endangered species list. This contributed to a severe loss of 40% of the payroll in Hayfork, Trinity County's second largest community. 

In response to this devastation, Lynn Jungwirth, a pioneer of the community-based forestry movement, founded the Watershed Research & Training Center in 1995 with the goal of rebuilding the local economy based on an ethic of land stewardship and restoration. 

In recent years, climate change has become an important issue.  Higher temperatures and lower precipitation are increasing the risk of long and extreme wildfire seasons.

"We've literally been on the burning edge of climate change for 25 years in Trinity County," says Lynn. "In 1987 we had the biggest fire event in living memory. We didn't know it was climate change at the time, but we can't deny the trends we have seen since then." 

Passing the torch

Adapting to change requires unprecedented foresight, ingenuity, and a holistic approach to caring for the land and its people.  Recently, Lynn Jungwirth looked to the next generation, and chose Michelle Medley-Daniel to inherit Trinity County's legacy and preserve it in the face of a changing climate. 

"Climate change is the language of my generation. I want people to become stewards of these landscapes and find new ways to connect to the land. Responding to climate change gives people an opportunity to achieve that goal."

Recipe for Success

The WRTC is working on a plan to manage future conditions like increased temperatures and reduced snowpack. 

Michelle points out that the local community stands behind this work. "Adaptation has always been important to rural America. Climate change is a loaded term that has been politicized, but if I talk to someone down the street about changes on the land, they will not deny what they see. What is causing those changes may create debate, but this approach isn't trying to determine a cause, it's about acknowledging differences on the ground and doing something about them."

That's why WRTC has pioneered the field of collaborative land management, culminating in the recent convening of a Trinity National Forest collaborative group. Under WRTC's guidance, diverse parties from environmentalists to loggers that have feuded for years are now coming together to develop principles for forest and watershed restoration. Years of paralysis have shown that a zero-sum game of winners and losers is no longer acceptable. 

Michelle has also worked with the county to expand business development and increase opportunities for young people. Cultivating entrepreneurship is essential not only to encourage job creation, but also expand the population and tax base to diversify the county's economy and meet its social needs. All of this will help make the local community more self-sufficient and independent in the face of climate change.

Connecting the Dots

Creating unity out of diversity will be the most important ingredient in helping Trinity County restore the health of its communities and landscape, and Michelle has incredibly high hopes for success.

But what if local resources aren't enough?  In order to reach their goals, Michelle points to the power of networks. For instance, reintroducing fire on the landscape is essential to improving Trinity County's fire-adapted ecosystem, but it is also a source of apprehension. WRTC is now partnering with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy to access the most current research on prescribed fire. Their participation has helped them leverage resources to reintroduce fire and build agreement around this controversial, but critical tool. Given diminishing local and federal resources, networks and their web of partnerships will be the key to a world of opportunity for Trinity County.

The ultimate lesson is that approaches to climate change vary from place to place and should be grounded in local context. No community is so simple that it can be reduced to a one-size-fits-all policy. The important thing is to recognize that each community has resources to approach these challenges. As Michelle has demonstrated, great things can be accomplished when committed leaders emerge and make change where possible. The torch has been passed to a new generation, and rural leaders are proud to be carrying it forward.

To learn more about climate change adaptation in Trinity County, read the full story: The Kid