America boasts 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands that provide one-of-a-kind opportunities for families to recreate and spend time together outdoors. The wildlife, clean water and scenery offered by our national forests are crucial to our way of life and our multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation economy - especially in California.
National forest lands cover about 20 percent of California. They provide 50 percent of the state's drinking water, support 38,000 jobs and draw millions of visitors each year to hike, fish, ski, picnic, view wildlife and otherwise enjoy our forest lands. The importance of California's forests extends beyond the many benefits they provide for the state's communities, however.
Two years ago, the Obama administration announced new planning standards to guide how America's national forests and grasslands will be used and protected in the future. Three national forests in California - the Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra - are among the first in the nation to go through the new planning process; the Forest Service is holding public meetings this week in Fresno, Lake Isabella and Bishop to gather input on the new plans.
What happens in California could set the precedent for how other forests across the country can be used and enjoyed for the next two decades.
Though forest planning may sound abstract, the implications are very real and will be felt deeply in California and elsewhere. Water supply and quality, continued and expanded recreation opportunities, fire management and local economies will all be affected by these California national forest plans.
As the Forest Service has realized, it's vital that the agency get this right, both for this generation and the next. The new plans must reflect the needs and interests of local communities, be based on the best available science and include monitoring measures to make sure they are being implemented appropriately.
Sustainable, high-quality recreation for local residents and visitors alike should be a priority, as should safeguarding water quality by protecting mountain meadows, lakes and streams. Also safeguarded should be areas important for wildlife, including the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep; historic and cultural sites; and special places including wild and scenic rivers.
The Forest Service also has a great opportunity to create plans that update its approach to managing fire to better reflect advanced scientific thinking. Using fire as a natural process, instead of artificially suppressing it, can improve forest health while protecting communities.
Now is our time to get it right. It's possible to create California forest plans that protect wildlife, sustain surrounding communities, and ensure clean and plentiful drinking water for Californians. Let's do it.
Dan Chu is senior director for the Sierra Club's Our Wild America Campaign.