Resilient California: An Interview with Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot
Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot wants to elevate biodiversity.
By Liv O’Keeffe
Note: This interview took place in February 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. The full ramifications of the pandemic for the 2020 California budget and election are still unknown, but will be covered in Flora’s summer and fall issues.
California is a dynamic place at a time of immense change. The world’s fifth largest economy is home to the nation’s most diverse population of people — and plants and animals. That diversity is our strength, says California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, and we’re going to need it as California approaches a generational moment of truth.
Even as we grapple with emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change is a defining issue of our time. Sec. Crowfoot and other California leaders are tasked with addressing those impacts in real time. The word “resilience” comes up frequently as shorthand for this body of work, which reaches far beyond carbon footprints and solar energy.
We have two planetary crises. We spend a lot of time talking about climate change and a lot less time talking about mass extinction.”
“We have two planetary crises,” Crowfoot says. “We spend a lot of time talking about climate change and a lot less time talking about mass extinction.” To address both, Crowfoot wants to see California “elevate” biodiversity in our conversations as well as policy.
Crowfoot’s vision for California’s natural resources is far-reaching. He oversees 26 different agencies and 19,000 employees, including CAL FIRE, Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Water Resources, and multiple conservancies. Together, the natural resource agencies are responsible for the state’s forests, natural lands, waterways, rivers, ocean waters, coastlines, wildlife, fish, and energy development. That jurisdiction requires Crowfoot’s agency to balance the management and utilization of natural resources with their very preservation.
Crowfoot’s team is working with other agencies on a first-of-its-kind resilience bond proposal, originally slated for the November ballot. The California Bonds for Climate Impact Mitigation Initiative (2020) aims to secure nearly $8 billion for wildfire resilience, safe drinking water, protection of natural and working lands, and climate resilience workforce development and education.
Recently, we sat down with Crowfoot to talk about the big work ahead and the role California’s diversity plays in achieving our goals.
Q: What does it mean for California to be resilient? Can you give some examples of what a resilient California will look like?
Crowfoot: When I talk about resilience, I’m talking about climate change resilience and protecting California’s people and natural places from the effects of climate change. We’re also talking about the ability to weather the changes and adapt. I think this is an important moment for California. Both residents and policy makers understand the threats we face: drought, flood, wildfire, extreme heat, sea level rise. Californians get it. It’s an important time to drive more ambition on climate resilience.
Q: You’ve talked about four priorities under your leadership: climate resilience, biodiversity protection, access for all, and cutting the green tape. Can you talk about the intersection between the four? For example, how will the proposed Climate Resilience Bond support biodiversity and access?
Crowfoot: This proposed bond is the first of its kind focused squarely on building climate resilience. It also will advance our priorities on biodiversity and access to natural lands for all Californians. There is a lot we need to do in coming decades to allow our natural places and people to thrive amidst climate change. This bond is an important down payment, and it’s exciting that the legislature and the governor are aligned around this investment priority. We need to make the case to California voters that these are smart investments that will build resilience. It will create broader habitat restoration and habitat protection, strengthen wildlife migration corridors, and improve the science that helps us make our decisions.
Q: Wildfire resilience is a big part of the bond, and CAL FIRE has been busy working on the 35 emergency projects Gov. Newsom put in motion shortly into his tenure. Those projects are largely focused on vegetation management like tree and brush removal, but we know that we’ve also got to focus on the hardening of structures and where people actually live. How are you thinking about that mix?
Crowfoot: Clearly, there’s no silver bullet to build our wildfire resilience. It’s not about stopping fire. It’s not about keeping communities from ever having to contend with fire. It’s about helping them withstand and adapt and thrive amidst fire. It does require an all-of-the-above approach. We have to do more within our communities to build resilience – home hardening, defensible space, and community hardening like locations of refuge and transportation corridors.
On vegetation management, we need to be very clear that it needs to be scientifically based and ecologically sensitive. We always point out that while firebreaks around communities make sense, we have to consider the environmental impacts they may have. In some cases, fire breaks done right can have a positive result. We also need to introduce more fire into the landscape; that’s been a challenge, but one that we need to break through.
We all need to get out of our comfort zones and listen to communities that don’t currently have access right now.”
Q: Your point about scientifically based actions is key. For example, what works for our northern California forests may be a disaster for coastal chaparral. What is the best way to ensure science is informing action like the state’s Vegetation Treatment Plans (VTP) as agency staff face real-time impacts related to climate change?
Crowfoot: It’s a great question. We clearly need to rely on the best available science. At the same time, climate change forces us to take expeditious actions. There’s a tension. We pursued the CalVTP (California Vegetation Treatment Plan) review as a means to garner input and believe it will improve the scientific basis of the projects. Projects can use that review but also need to do their own site specific work. CEQA can be helpful in this respect because it enforces a discipline of transparency and review. Our goal is to infuse that CEQA process with the most holistic, updated science.
The 35 emergency projects were a challenge for many, but my sense is that our teams were able to integrate community groups and environmental organizations to really understand what the guidelines for those projects were. In the case of Colfax again, CNPS volunteers helped the CAL FIRE ecologist identify where there were threatened or endangered plants. We are very sensitive to this balance.
Q: At some level, everyone wants to save the diversity of our plant and animal species. But in real life, the application of those protections can become difficult. For example, Santa Barbara County’s leaders just approved a wind energy project that would reduce the county’s carbon footprint, but may trigger the extinction of the rare and endangered Gaviota tarplant, according to scientists. As we work toward goals like carbon neutrality, how can we do a better job of protecting our most vulnerable species?
Crowfoot: I think first of all, we have to back up and elevate biodiversity. I think we can be much clearer about the value of biodiversity and the threats it faces. I’ve been educated over the past year, in part by CNPS and others, about just how biodiverse our state is. We’re known for our coast, our mountains, but I don’t think most people know about our biodiversity.
First, we elevate, then we come up with a realistic strategy to maintain it. If we don’t understand where the most fragile species are in advance, we end up with difficult situations like Santa Barbara. But when we know, it can help steer good projects. One of the things Dan [CNPS Executive Director Dan Gluesenkamp] has talked about is a much better inventory of diversity. I think that will be quite helpful. There are places where we’ve done a really good job, like the DRECP [Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan]. That’s a good example where we recognized the need for renewables, recognized the sensitive natural places, and figured out a way to expand in a thoughtful way. The more we can implement these approaches through habitat and natural community conservation plans on a county by county basis, the better off we’ll be. So rather than approaching projects parcel by parcel, we’re stepping back and understanding what is the most valuable habitat at a landscape level and therefore protect against loss of biodiversity.
California will continue to have development pressure, but if we can be more proactive about the protection of our natural places, we won’t be facing these difficult decisions at the eleventh hour. We need a map of yellow light, red light, green light that looks at where we can develop and what we need to protect.
Q: Another of your priorities is increasing access to public lands for underserved populations. What do you believe is needed to ensure all Californians experience a greater sense of shared ownership of California’s natural resources?
Crowfoot: We all need to get out of our comfort zones and listen to communities that don’t currently have access right now. Everyone pays into our state taxes, but not everyone is utilizing these spaces. Candidly, my team is still challenging itself to understand this better. How can we ensure that the places we’re protecting for their biological value actually provide access as well?
So we need to identify what communities aren’t able to use our natural resources and places and get them involved. CNPS has a great opportunity to help with local efforts like invasive weed removal, park restoration.
We also need to increasingly diversify our organizations, bring people with different perspectives into the movement, and elevate those people in the movement. We need to be elevating the goals of biodiversity and access at the same time.
Q: I’ve heard you talk about the connection between California’s cultural and biological diversity. Can you speak to that a bit for our readers?
Crowfoot: In California, we don’t tolerate our diversity, we celebrate it, and we should be doing the same in nature. Not enough people in California understand that natural diversity mirrors our cultural diversity. It’s not about us explaining, it’s about others experiencing the natural diversity in ways that are relevant to them.
Q: It seems to be a time of both great peril and opportunity for the environment. What is your advice for people who care deeply about our natural resources?
Crowfoot: Lean in. We are being attacked. Our environment is being attacked by the Trump administration in deeply concerning ways. Making our voice heard and registering that concern is critical. At the same time, in California we can provide an example to the world of maintaining a thriving economy, supporting our communities, and being one of the most protected places in the world for biodiversity. That’s our goal. We definitely need help. We need organizations and leaders to elevate the importance of biodiversity as a core California value. We need the engagement of organizations like CNPS and others to help us do the work.
Liv O’Keeffe is the Senior Director of Communications and Engagement for CNPS.