I want to thank Katherine, Pete, Cecily and all of you for inviting me to speak tonight. It is an honor to stand here with you to help celebrate the Conservancy’s 25th Anniversary, and especially your most recent victory: the enactment of the Mokelumne River Wild and Scenic Study Bill. Woohoo!
I have admired your work for so long -- actually for a quarter of a century! But my admiration is not founded just on your effective advocacy to protect the Mokelumne River. What I admire is your love for this place – for this special watershed -- and for the people and resources that are all part of it. It is your vision for the future, and your ongoing commitment to supporting and strengthening all aspects of your community that we are celebrating tonight.
It is impossible for me to stand here and not same something about the devastating impact of the Butte Fire has had on your community. I am so sorry. Our hearts broke with yours as we watched the images of the flames on the news; and our hearts are with you today as you start the process of healing the damage to homes, and lives and the very land itself. It takes courage to rise from the ashes.
But it is the Butte Fire that has got me thinking about how fast our world is changing and the challenges we face with it. Particularly when we so deeply love the places in which we live.
It was just two years ago -- maybe three – that the words “climate change” raised the specter of distant problems – far, far into the future. That’s not true any longer, at least not for me.
Yesterday the Department of Water Resources announced the dubious news that California had set a “new” record for warm temperatures – beating out 2014 and 2013. This is not just about the drought. Today’s drought, while painful, is part of a normal weather pattern for California. Higher year-round temperatures are not. Warmer temperatures are now part of what people are calling the “new normal.”
You can feel the change; you can see it. I like to look at the stars at night – and when I go outside it is now “unnaturally” warm – the temperature at night is not dropping like it used to. I like to bird watch. I am now hearing lower elevation birds at higher elevations, like Blue jays squawking above 7,000 feet in areas where I only used to hear Clark’s nutcrackers. I see changes in the places and timing that plants are growing – have you ever seen a snow plant blooming in October? I just saw one last weekend.
Most people who live in urban areas miss these signs of the changes that are upon us, but I bet you don’t. You are here on the front line of the change that is occurring. And as that change affects the places and people that we love, we need to think about how we will cope.
It seems so overwhelming. And it makes me think of my mother, bless her, who used to quote the serenity prayer when I started to stress over stuff. You know the one: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
As California and the rest of the world work to reverse the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving up temperatures, we have to cope with what the warmer climate is doing to our communities. Sadly, that is our reality.
What does coping mean? It will be different for each community, but I have at least three areas in which I think we can make changes that will help our communities adapt: water resources, forest management and community engagement.
Let me start with something I know a little about: water resources.
- We need to only use the water that we need. There are so many ways in which we waste water in our homes and businesses. We need to get serious about permanent efficient water use (not just saving water during this drought) and we need to make sure that everyone knows what is a reasonable amount of water to use.
- We need to use native and climate appropriate plants in our yards. The Governor is right that we can’t afford to throw water on green lawns that are merely decorative. We need to think about landscaping from the perspective of both water and of the habitat needs of birds and wildlife that are being impacted by this drought and climate change.
- We need to find more ways to allow the soil to hold in and hold back water like a sponge, especially in our urban communities where we pave and “hard-surface” so much of the land. Similarly restoration projects that reduce erosion and build back wetlands are vital.
- We need to make sure that there is enough water flowing in our streams and rivers that we can help fish and wildlife species hang on while we go through the worst of the climate change impacts.
Let me move to forest management:
- We need to better understand what a healthy and fire-resilient forest is and what it looks like. You know more intimately that I that the old cutting and fire management practices created problems and our forests today are choked with hazardous growth. But as we work to undo the problems created by the past, we need a clear vision of what we are managing the forests to become, especially under conditions of climate change. For example, I’ve seen thinning cuts that now produce fire-explosive Manzanita, in place of the fire-resistant forest that would otherwise grow there. The cuts created too much light, too much heat, and with climate change, resulted in a complete shift of the species composition. Ultimately the definition of a healthy and fire-resilient forest will be different for each part of the state because we have such different combinations of trees and local conditions.
- We need to avoid single purpose fuel management strategies. When I hear people talking about how “we can produce more water” or some other single outcome, I get worried – really worried. Our forests are part of our natural and human communities. That means we need a community-based approach to improve fuel management hat embraces multiple goals. The new Forest Collaborative initiatives offer hope that we can better connect appropriate thinning and other actions with a landscape level management program.
Which brings me to my third and final point: the role of community in coping with the reality of what we have to deal with.
As you experienced here with the Butte Fire, coping means everyone coming together to help one another when the worst happens. We also need to purposefully reach across old divides and work together to anticipate the worst. And then we need to strive to put into place the programs and actions that will help families when the worst happens. We need to do this because, with climate change, we can no longer assume that the worst won’t happen to the places and people we love.
Let me close by urging that we make our goal for coping with effects of climate change be resiliency – not sustainability but resiliency -- because resiliency is a measure of our ability to adapt to stress and adversity.
We do not know what the future holds for us – but if we have the strength and capacity to take on the hardships while we hold true to a vision of a healthy environment and strong communities, we can get through this. And we will leave to our children not just a world – but a special watershed like the Mokelumne – in which they will want to live. Let us make resiliency the Foothill Conservancy’s goal for the next 25 years!
Thank you again for allowing me to speak tonight. Congratulations on your 25th anniversary and many happy returns!