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Saving the West

The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure

We are in a crisis of despair, as climate change appears too vast a problem for individuals or even governments to cope with. Our work is designed to counter this despair. Imagine a Forest Industry of the 21st Century where the act of harvesting preserves the system and the act of preserving the system provides meaningful work for the human community.

The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, brings together artists, scientists, engineers, planners, and visionaries to design mitigation systems and policies that respond to the issues raised by global temperature rise at the scale that they present. We are artists whose work combines cutting edge science with a global perspective.

We are developing a plan that will reduce fire danger and protect water supplies throughout the Western states while supporting revitalized local economies. The plan was built with remarkable and widespread community support, and unified historically contentious groups in working for a common goal. We call it Saving the West.

The genius of the plan is its simplicity, its scalability, and its basic common sense. The core of the plan relies on selectively reducing the number of trees and brush in any given watershed. Years of fire suppression have created forests that have way too many trees, spread in too regular a pattern. There’s nowhere for a fire’s path to be interrupted by open space, and nowhere for wildlife to forage. The trees are stressed by competition for water, making them more vulnerable to disease and insect infestation. Increasing temperatures caused by greenhouse effects only make the situation worse.

Fortunately, there are a few stands of natural forest left in U.S. and Mexican National Parks that we can study to understand how nature works and what desirable natural conditions look like. For example, Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, in Baja California, provides a rich example of what a natural fire regime can look like. Furthermore, paleo-historical research reveals that people have successfully used fire to manage western forests for thousands of years; current practices and traditions from the Wa:šiw and other first peoples native to the Sierra and Western mountain regions also provide a remarkable resource base from which to draw.

Restructuring our forests scientifically based on these patterns dramatically lowers the risk of large-scale fire and at the same time improves the ability of the mountain forests to retain water, instead of allowing it to run off and erode away topsoil in the aftermath of large wildfires. This in turn helps preserve water supplies downstream. The fires that do happen burn at cooler temperatures and largely put themselves out on their own. Furthermore, fires are vital to recycling nutrients, since wood debris does not rot fast enough to keep up with regeneration in dry western forests. The irregular forest structure produced by natural low intensity fire creates density in shadier, cooler areas, and thinning in hotter, drier areas. It regenerates open foraging and dense denning habitat for the native species in the area. It creates a resilient mix of tree species of all ages, rather than a vulnerable, dense cornfield of identical trees. The research is clear: managing the forest for ecological function provides more habitat, more wood product, more fire resiliency, increased species diversity, more water retention and easier implementation than conventional forestry techniques.

If this plan is fully implemented, we are looking at delivering real, positive and enduring change to the human and natural environment of a region of 1,350,000 square miles, nearly one-third of the country.

Sagehen restoration begins. Photo: Faerthen Felix.


Where the shape of catastrophe becomes the shape of opportunity

The major immediate environmental issues in California and much of the West are drought, fire and water. 2016 was perhaps the worst fire season ever recorded in California; there were 6,986 individual fires, consuming over 564,835 acres. 2017 promises to be even worse. That compares to 191,000 acres in 2014 and a 5-year average of 109,000 acres burned per year.

In 2016, Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency regarding tree mortality. California is simultaneously in a deep crisis over water and the rest of the west is not far behind. Despite the recent rains, the reservoirs remain at historic lows. In fact the heavy rains in the Spring of 2016 and 2017 have contributed to the vast amounts of flammable plants burning now. Due to lack of or inconsistent snowmelt, cities and farms are pumping out groundwater faster than it can be replenished and are now extracting fossil waters, especially in farming areas, at a rate much faster than it can be sustained. At the same time, cities throughout California and the West are in water emergencies. Furthermore, the vast areas of land denuded by fire can’t hold as much rainwater or snowmelt, resulting in increased flooding and erosion even when the rains do come. And finally, large fires end up releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, reversing much of the beneficial effects of living trees, and actually increasing the total amount of carbon in the air. While California may be dominating the news, the entire Western region of the U.S. is in a similar state, as is much of the other Mediterranean climate zone throughout the world.

As a result, water districts and management organizations are facing unprecedented stress on current supplies and delivery systems throughout the West. Agencies typically focus on water demand rather than supply even though a great amount of their water comes from national forests and other forested watersheds. A comprehensive solution that addresses forest, ground cover, wildlife, rangeland, water, economic, societal, and related issues at a scale large enough to be meaningful is essential for long-term health of the mountain ecosystems.


Only a fool picks a fight with the ocean. Wise folk dance with the rising waters.

The current paradigm for addressing grand environmental challenges—like climate change, water quality and supply, severe wildfire, biodiversity, and habitat loss—recognizes the need to bridge the biological, physical, social, and political sciences to tackle complex environmental problems. But, it often marginalizes or overlooks the role of the Arts and Humanities.

There is a growing recognition that a new paradigm is needed, one in which authentic relationships among the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences are revitalized to bring together the combined expertise and problem-solving potential of these diverse disciplines to create a more unified approach to solving the ecological and social crises of the 21st century. By integrating these different means of inquiry and observation, these challenges may be met in the future with greater power and insight than each discipline can offer in isolation.

Sites of long-term ecological inquiry are a natural catalyst for such art/science interactions. Field stations and marine laboratories (FSMLs) have a long history of encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, serendipitous discovery, and creative abrasion through scientists living and working in close proximity in protected natural areas.

We at the Center for the Study of Force Majeure have over forty years of experience in working on major environmental issues, using art and creative insight to uncover effective solutions to a wide range of seemingly intractable issues. Our work over the past decades has pushed the boundaries of science and art to find more effective perspectives, different ideas, and innovative approaches to climate and other large environmental challenges.

Sagehen slash piles. Photo: Faerthen Felix.

One of our projects focuses on the Sagehen Creek Field Station and the Sagehen Experimental Forest, which form a 9,000-acre research facility near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sagehen is cooperatively managed by the University of California at Berkeley, Tahoe National Forest, and the Pacific Southwest Research Station.

Sagehen along with other U.S. Forest Service research sites, including Dinkey Creek, the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group, and Burnie Hat Creek have been field testing new approaches to creating and managing sustainable forests. These collaboratives also form part of a supra-collaborative known as the Sierra-Cascade All Lands Enhancement project, or SCALE. Together there are over twenty-six forest collaboratives working on locally effective approaches to sustainable forest management.

Our art/science project at Sagehen (the Sagehen Experiment) is part of a larger series of research projects run by UC Berkeley looking at a range of forest and mountain ecology issues. The Sagehen Experiment addresses a process we call “the upward movement of species,” and looks at ways to identify what indigenous plant communities or “palettes” will thrive as temperatures increase and snow and icepack declines.

If we can successfully return the forest at Sagehen to a resilient state, then building upon that model, we can massively reduce the danger from fires throughout California while at the same time improving the Sierra Nevada’s ability to support ecological function, provide wildlife habitat, and retain water as the snowmelt shrinks. The amount of potential lumber to be removed is substantial, and, if managed in an environmentally sustainable way, the logging can continue indefinitely. This means that logging (and its related timber jobs) can actually support healthy forest ecosystems as well as generate income. If it works in California, the scalable science and parallel issues in the rest of the mountain states indicate that we can expand the program quickly and efficiently to cover the entire Western USA.



Joshua Harrison

Joshua Harrison is the co-director, with Newton and Helen Harrison, of the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, an art/science research institution focusing on climate issues based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Josh has a lifetime engagement in the intersection of art, science, policy and the environment. In 1977, he founded Students for Solar Energy and organized the first alternative energy fair in Southern California. He later became policy director for the Ecology Center of Southern California, while serving as the youngest member of the California Democratic Central Committee. Josh was a Fulbright fellow in Argentina in 1995 and 1996, investigating the relationship between the author Jorge Luis Borges and the then emerging world-wide web. Joshua Harrison is the co-director, with Newton and Helen Harrison, of the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure. Josh recently formed English For a Song, a social purpose venture, which is developing a mobile adult literacy app directed at improving life skills for the more than 80 million Americans who read at or below 8th grade level.        

Newton & Helen Harrison

Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison (often referred to simply as “the Harrisons”) are pioneers of the eco-art movement. The Harrisons have worked for over forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to initiate collaborative dialogues to uncover ideas and solutions which support biodiversity and community development. They are co-directors, with Joshua Harrison, of the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure.


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