Wildfires: It's that Time of the Season, Part II

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:05/24/2013 Updated:06/05/2013

Preventative medicine for our forests.

In Part I of this blog, I mentioned that selective timber harvesting as a land management tool, especially on Forest Service land, is very controversial, but it is actually a win-win. Selective timber harvesting administered by professional foresters creates healthier forests with more biodiversity and fire resistance. The sale of harvested timber generates revenue, which can cover operating costs, making it a cost-neutral program, and contribute funds to rural counties around America.

In the past, forest management was a priority on federal lands, but in the last few decades management priorities have shifted from forest management to fire suppression, which is prohibitively expensive and now makes up a large majority of the budget. Firefighting is vital to the protection of land and, more importantly property and lives; but would it not make sense to allocate more money for strategies to prevent, or at least lessen the strength of, wildfires in the first place? It is analogous to human health. Preventative medicine, exercise and a proper diet prevent heart attacks and diabetes, so we should be applying the same collective preventative management to our forests.

As wildfire bears down on community, the best defense is notifying residents to evacuate to a safe area. (NPS Photo, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California; 2002)Part of this management objective should be expanded to the private landowner. As mentioned in the press release by Secretaries Vilsack and Jewell, communities and individuals in what the USDA, in its paper Wildfire, Wildlands, and People, called Wildland-Urban Interfaces (WUIs) - essentially suburban areas that abut, or intermingle with forests or rangelands - need to be prepared for and help prevent wildfires.

However, those are largely local and community level responsibilities; the Forest Service should work closely with private landowners who own large tracts of lands, often abutting National Forests.

In a speech last night in Portland, Maine for the Royal Bank of Canada’s Blue Water Project, Alexandra Cousteau – granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau – emphasized that one of her favorite things about American environmentalism was its entrepreneurial spirit. She explained that in Europe – she is French – people pay their taxes and expect the government to solve their environmental problems, while in the United States individuals and communities work to improve the health of themselves and their environment of their own initiative, and the government subsidizes these efforts.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency realizes that it cannot conduct water quality monitoring across the entire country, so it encourages groups like the Friends of Casco Bay in Maine to do the majority of the testing.

It seems that the Forest Service is being steered in the opposite direction and needs to make a U-turn.

Instead of buying additional forest land, which is a costly endeavor, and one we have already seen the Forest Service is incapacitated by under current budgetary circumstances, they should help landowners by providing additional funding for programs like the Forest Stewardship program, which provides technical assistance for nonindustrial private landowners, and cost-share assistant programs for landowners to design harvest management plans with a professional forester, such as the WoodWISE plan offered by the Maine Forest Service.

Common or Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) finds life in a freshly burned area.<br />NPS Photo. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, 2004.One of the most important things to remember is that fires are a natural phenomenon and have always played an ecological role in America’s wildlands. Ecosystems have evolved around them, and some depend on them. For example, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) and the Bachman’s sparrow (Aimophila aestivalis) found in longleaf pine forests require low-severity fires every 3 to 4 years to maintain bare ground and herbaceous habitat for nesting, and lodgepole pines in the Rocky Mountains require fire to open their sticky cones (Kennedy and Fontaine 2009, Franklin and Van Pelt 2004).

Unfortunately, the nature of these wildfires has changed in frequency and severity; in large part as a result of deleterious human activity (about 90 percent of wildfires are started by humans). The increased severity can be attributed in part to the introduction of invasive plants that often burn at higher temperatures than native plants that have evolved with the fires, and the inaction of foresters in removing the excess fuel loads mentioned above.

Here I must come back to the political problems mentioned in Part I of this blog. Do not mistake the above paragraphs for a declaration of the Forest Service’s incompetence; in fact the opposite is true. The Forest Service knows what to do – conduct selective timber harvests and prescribed burns – how to do it, and why to do it, but they need a return of congressional mandates for active forest management and funding.

Photo Credits: National Park Service. Right - As wildfire bears down on community, the best defense is notifying residents to evacuate to a safe area (Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, 2002). Left - Common or Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) finds life in a freshly burned area (Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, 2004).