Funding the Future of Forest Health

As California wildfires continue to ravage the state with increased frequency and devastation, Cal Poly is taking a holistic approach to the issue that includes preparing future stewards of the state's natural resources in the classroom and creating a more sustainable future through faculty and student research focused on the state's most pressing needs.

An increased effort to raise the funding needed to pursue solutions has led to more than $10 million in donations last year for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences' forestry and fire science programs — money that will be used to find ways to create more fire-resilient communities, protect natural resources and restore what has already been lost.


Through this work we are improving our forests and establishing leadership and expertise at the Central Coast's premier outreach forests to create more resilient forests for demonstration, research and teaching.

— Grey Hayes

Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch was recently awarded a multimillion-dollar grant from Cal Fire’s Forest Health Program to assist with post-fire recovery efforts. The grant is the second of two Cal Fire grants totaling more than $8 million awarded to further the ranch’s efforts to bring about sustainable, long-term solutions to the management and stewardship of working landscapes.

The grant funding comes one year after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire swept through Swanton Pacific Ranch in Davenport, California, destroying much of the structures and surrounding forest. 

Cal Poly partnered with nearby Cal Fire Soquel Demonstration State Forest to seek the Cal Fire Forest Health Program’s $4.7 million grant, which provides critical funding for fire-resilience planning and creates key opportunities for students to assist in implementing treatments to restore and maintain healthy forests while enhancing carbon storage. The funding will facilitate increased efforts in forest health and resilience and increased wildfire safety by implementing treatments such as reforestation, forest thinning, tree pruning and removal of dead trees and other potential fire fuels on more than 930 acres of redwood forest between the two sites, both of which are designated as outreach forests in coastal redwood systems.

“Through this work, we are improving our forests and establishing leadership and expertise at the Central Coast's premier outreach forests to create more resilient forests for demonstration, research and teaching,” said Grey Hayes, Swanton Pacific Ranch’s research and education coordinator.


The extent and ferocity of recent catastrophic wildfires, including at Swanton Pacific Ranch, have elevated the need for improving the health and resiliency of forests prior to and after wildfire, especially in California’s coastal redwood ecosystems, as wildfires become more frequent. In 2020, more than 4 million acres burned throughout California, with 2021 on course to be equally as devastating.

“Swanton Pacific Ranch and the Soquel Demonstration State Forest have similar missions,” Grey said. “The only difference is that Swanton is focused mainly on workforce development and faculty research of sustainable management of coastal redwood forests, while the demonstration forest’s purpose is to teach the same to broader audiences.”

Cal Poly is doing additional hands-on research at the Soquel Demonstration State Forest as Assistant Professor Richard Cobb leads a student team in studying the efficiency of various methods used to reduce the impact of wide-scale fires.

At Swanton Pacific Ranch, the funding will be used to assist in restoring ecosystem services damaged by wildfire. At the nearby Soquel Demonstration State Forest, efforts will be focused on forest management and implementing fire-resilience strategies — preparing for future fires.

“This Forest Health Grant and partnership with Cal Poly will make possible an increased amount of fuel reduction and forest health treatments across Soquel Demonstration State Forest,” said Angela Bernheisel, who manages the state forest. “Additionally, research and monitoring of the treatments and effects will take place in partnership with Cal Poly. The local community and recreational visitors will have the opportunity to learn about the fire-resilience strategies through education and demonstration.”

This Cal Fire Forest Health Program grant is the latest of two large grants awarded to Swanton Pacific Ranch by Cal Fire. In June, Swanton Pacific Ranch received a $4.2 million grant to provide increased training for the current and future workforce in fire mitigation. Hayes and Jeremy James, head of Cal Poly’s Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, will lead the effort.

“This grant funding from Cal Fire will significantly enhance our ability to complete critical forest health treatments at Swanton Pacific Ranch following the CZU Lightning Complex Fire,” said Mark Swisher, director of Swanton Pacific Ranch. “Cal Poly faculty, student and staff involvement with the planning, execution and monitoring of those treatments will have far-reaching impacts on the pace and scale of fuel treatments in California.”

In the classroom, students will be taught practical lessons, such as designing vegetation management plans to make forests more resilient to fire. Curriculum in the forest and fire sciences program in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department provides hands-on lessons outside the classroom in topics from forest ecosystem management and dendrology to forest practices, environmental protection, fire ecology and watershed management.

Students will also partake in fire recovery research and aid in reforestation efforts that include planting 55,000 trees across 270 acres. Outside the classroom, a series of workshops, headed by a program coordinator and overseen by Hayes, will be held throughout California. Students will be involved in that process as well.

“As we work to re-envision and rebuild Swanton Pacific Ranch for the future, the critical support we are receiving from our partners along the way ensures that our students will continue to receive unparalleled hands-on learning and research opportunities for understanding sustainable land management practices,” said Andrew Thulin, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.


Cal Poly’s Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) FIRE Institute, currently under development and the first-of-its kind at a California university, is getting critical support from three of California’s six investor-owned electric utility companies. Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison have pledged a total of $1 million over a three-year period to assist in launching the center, which will be focused on developing holistic solutions to prevent destructive wildfires and help build more resilient communities.

The Cal Poly WUI FIRE Institute will be comprised of an interdisciplinary group of Cal Poly faculty, staff and students, partnered with industry and community members, that will develop and evaluate methods of managing forests and designing communities in ways that reduce wildfire severity and threats to human welfare and property while maintaining environmental and community health.

The support of the three investor-owned utilities is part of a larger strategic effort by Cal Poly to collaborate with a broad cross-section of stakeholders that includes agencies, industry, policy makers, community planning and design, forest management and response organizations.

“These stakeholders are integral to better connecting problems with solutions and preparing the future workforce for these challenges,” said Dan Turner, a retired Cal Fire chief and business manager of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council who is helping to lead the WUI FIRE Institute effort. “The investment of these utility companies in the Institute is a new path forward toward reducing community damages from wildland-urban interface fires, including advances in planning, prevention, mitigation, response and recovery. Their financial support will enable research, recruitment of graduate students, educational outreach and administrative support of the institute.”


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