Western states need to implement restoration forestry practices on a large scale and fast. Restoration forestry backed by adequate public investment will pay back dividends in a four-pronged benefit package: 1) increased wildfire resilience, 2) habitat values and other ecosystem services, 3) economic invigoration, and 4) long-term carbon storage. The primary obstacles to a future of healthy, fire-resilient forests are political will and adequate investment.
The forests that covered our region historically were far more resilient to fire than forests today because they were mostly composed of large trees with thick bark and elevated canopies capable of allowing a fire to pass underneath without reaching the crown. The consequences of logging the majority of our large trees combined with years of snuffing out wildfires are forests that are more likely to have high-intensity, stand-replacing fires. While stand-replacing fires have always occurred, our forests are increasingly vulnerable to them, and that’s a problem for air pollution, habitat loss and increased risk of future fires in the dense young stands that follow.
A recent study of the 2013 Douglas Fire west of Glendale by forest scientists at Oregon State and Humboldt State universities confirmed what previous studies revealed: When other factors are equal, younger timber plantations burn more severely than older stands. Yet the timber industry and the politicians who represent them always take the opportunity to make their disingenuous argument for more logging to reduce the threat of fire. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently suggested that “environmental terrorist groups” were responsible for the large wildfires in the West while ignoring the role climate change and past forest management has played in the massive blazes the West is experiencing.
Let’s be clear. The clearcut forestry generally practiced by the timber industry is a big part of the problem, not the solution.
A primary goal of forest management should be to create and protect stands capable of withstanding fire. Public lands managers have taken commendable steps toward this end through thinning and fuels treatments in recent decades. But leading fire scientists explain that thinning treatments without reducing fuels through prescribed burning is of limited value in reducing fire risk. Says University of Washington forestry professor emeritus James Agee, “there’s no way you’re ever going to log your way out of the problem.”
We can restore our forests toward a healthy future full of large, fire-resilient trees through sensitive, site-specific, labor-intensive thinning and fuels reduction treatments, including prescribed burning. Many of the treatments that our forests need will not pay for themselves. Nor should they have to. We have degraded our forests over the past two centuries, and now we must restore the forest to a more fire-resilient state. When we thin too aggressively or create new clearcuts in order to make projects pay for themselves, we are shooting ourselves in the foot to save our toes. We have taken a great deal from our forests. Now we must give back so that they can persist and we can live among them. We do that by making big investments in restoration forestry.
This summer our forests are full of firefighters doing their best to keep us safe. These firefighters, along with many unemployed and underemployed workers, could have full-time, year-round jobs as restoration foresters, not simply responding to a crisis, but working to prevent future crises through effective forest management. These public investments will bring tremendous economic invigoration to the West, including in rural areas where unemployment is often the worst. The timber industry continues to insist that exploiting the forest is the key to prosperity, when the opposite is true. Investing in our forest is the key to prosperity for ourselves and for the forest itself.
We cannot completely prevent stand-replacing fires, nor should we. But if we make the necessary investments in our forests, we can tip the balance so that we have more beneficial fires that improve forest conditions when they do occur. And by helping to secure the future of the large, fire-resilient trees, we are maximizing our forests’ ability to sequester and store carbon for the long term, mitigating the effects of runaway climate change, which is driving the major fire events we are experiencing.
So where should these investments come from? Our national budgets are masterpieces of misguided priorities. We need fresh leadership that can help make the capital investment necessary to restore our degraded forests. Failure to adequately invest in our forests is a failure to recognize their true value.
Jason Clark is botanist who lives in Talent and works in forests across the Northwest.