Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment
|ICIE Newsletter December 2000
The next critical issue in Western land management
This year's fire season was, reportedly, the worst in five decades. Hundreds of large and small forest and range fires raged throughout the western United States. Regular fire crews, even supplemented by the military and firefighters from overseas, could do little more than protect structures - and even some historic-buildings were lost.
Why did it happen? What could have been done to prevent it? Can we expect more calamitous fire seasons in the future?
Historically, fire was nature's way of renewing the forest. Periodically, relatively small fires created a shifting mosaic of all types of tree cover including patches of seedlings, groups of young trees and open stands of mature groves.
For much of the past century, however, fire has been suppressed on western forests. This has allowed the buildup of massive fuel loads in many areas, fuels just waiting for an errant lightning strike, a tossed cigarette or a forgotten campfire. The U.S. Forest Service estimates some 39 million acres of National Forests in the interior West are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire.
According to a 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), "...large-scale fire suppression disrupted the historical occurrence of frequent, low-intensity fires, which had periodically removed flammable undergrowth without significantly damaging larger trees. As a result, vegetation has accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox." The number of large wildfires, and of acres burned by them, has increased over the last decade, as have the costs of attempting to put them out.
Those who have said this disaster could not have been foreseen or prevented haven't been paying attention. The GAO report was just the latest in a series of warnings that have come from professional foresters and others over the course of the last decade.
"Are our national forests healthy?"
In the winter of 1994-95, Evergreen Magazine devoted an issue to forest fires in the West. The issue was entitled "The West Is Burning Up! Should We Stop These Fires or Should We Let Nature Take Its Course?" Five years later the Winter 2000 issue is entitled "Should We Let Diseased National Forests Die and Bum?"
In the last five years, forest health has remained a major national issue. There have been GAO reports to Congress, a joint report on the health of Idaho forests by the Idaho Department of Lands and the U.S. Forest Service, Congressional hearings, numerous scientific studies and treatises - even a movie about fire fighting pilots.
The U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905 to manage the federal forest reserves which were established time "to im prove and protect the forests within their boundaries, or to secure favorable water flow conditions and provide a continuous supply of timber to citizens." (GAO Report, Forest Service Priorities, June 1999)
In 1910, massive wildfires scorched 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana and 86 people were killed. The public demanded action. Suppressing and aggressively fighting any and all fires on federal forestlands became an unquestioned policy. Almost a century later, the political cause of the day is forest health with public voices across the nation demanding a change.
National ad campaigns by environmental activists demand that no logging be allowed in our national forests in order to preserve them for future generations. Management has become a negative term along with logging, grazing, mining and multiple uses.
With more than 39 million of the 192 million acres of the national forest system ripe for catastrophic fires, a debate has raged for almost a decade on whether or not there is a problem and if there is one, how best to handle it.
One might dunk that determining the health of a forest would be easy. However, according to experts, there are 85 different definitions of forest health. The 2000 fire season has stirred the debate with more than six million acres burned along with homes and historic buildings across the West.
"The actions we take will have consequences, just as the political decision in 1910 to fight all fires did...
The number of large wildfires, and of acres burned by them, has increased over the last decade, as have the costs of attempting to put them out.
We are at a crossroads. As with many environmental issues, the political sometimes drowns out the scientific. The actions we take will have consequences just as the political decision in 1910 to fight all fires and the policy decision by the Clinton Administration to curtail logging on the national forests have consequences today.
Prior to settlement of the West by Europeans, fires played a role. These fires were moderate and more frequent, burning along the ground and clearing fuel and surplus plant life.
Can ailing forests heal themselves?
The consequences of the decision to exclude fire from the national forests that resulted from the 1910 fires, coupled with the more recent legal and policy decisions to reduce logging and active management on the forest, has given rise to a forest health crisis. Without less intense ground fires and without active management using thinning and logging, the forest has become overloaded with fuel. Fire requires three things: heat, oxygen and fuel. Of the three, only fuel can be controlled by man. More and more scientists are sounding the alarm: our national forests are overgrown.
The answer to this forest health problem would seem to be easy. All we need to do is go back to conditions that existed before 1850. If intense fire management has changed our forests, then re-introducing fire should take care of the problem. Right?
Wrong. More and more professional foresters and scientists are challenging the idea that fire is the solution. They question the value of turning back the clock to pre-1850, and even our ability to do that.
Analysis by the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Program scientists showed that the acres of federal forestlands at risk of catastrophic fires have tripled in the past century. Now 60% of the federal forests are in danger.
In scientific, peer reviewed studies and testimony before Congress, scientists and foresters call attention to the accumulated fuel. They point out the threat to ecosystem integrity, water quality, habitat and the long-term productivity of the forest if we do not do something to manage the fuel buildup. In 1999, professional foresters in eastern Washington and northern Idaho pointed out: "The severity of wild-fire, epidemic native insect populations and introduced diseases and insects have caused a serious decline in forest health ... Reintroducing fire as the only means of improving forest health is not a viable option." (IESAF 1999)
In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service announced its goal to improve forest health by resolving the problems of uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires on national forests by the end of fiscal year 2015.
But, according to a 1999 GAO report, the Forest Service lacks adequate data to develop the cohesive strategy it needs. And efforts to reduce accumulated fuels can adversely affect the agency's achievements of other stewardship objectives. For example:
"Controlled fires can be used to reduce fuels, but (1) such fires may get out of control, and (2) the smoke they produce can cause significant air pollution. As a result, mechanical methods, including commercial timber harvesting, will often be necessary to remove accumulated fuels. However," the report continues, "mechanical removals are problematic because the Forest Service's (1) incentives tend to focus efforts on areas that may not present the highest fire hazards and (2) timber sales and other contracting procedures are not designed for removing vast amounts of materials with little or no commercial value."
"A cohesive strategy is needed..."
The report says that removing accumulated fuels may cost the forest Service hundreds of millions of dollars per year. "But the problem is so extensive that even this level of effort may not be adequate to prevent many catastrophic fires over the next few decades. This report recommends the development of a cohesive strategy to reduce accumulated fuels on national forests of the interior West in an effort to limit the threat of catastrophic fires."
Such a cohesive strategy, forest experts now believe, will require active management, including commercial harvest.
In a report prepared for the Idaho Land Board this year by Professor Jay O'Laughlin, Director of the Idaho Forest, Wildlife and Range Policy Analysis Group, he notes that "...the means of attaining forest restoration goals through active management are logging and prescribed burning, and these methods are not universally accepted. Some people distrust federal land management agencies, programs and projects featuring active management."
O'Laughlin notes that the only two methods of reducing fuel loads on our forest are prescribed fire and logging - and many sites are too heavily choked with small trees and vegetation to use fire without longterm, possibly permanent damage.
Fires now bum hotter with more destructive potential than ever before, leaving effects on the terrain and in the soil that can last for generations and can even be permanent.
Other considerations also limit the use of prescribed fire to a fraction of the lands needing treatment. Professor William McKillop of the University of California, Berkeley, notes that "...air quality restrictions and budgetary constraints are major barriers to [fire's] large-scale implementation. In addition, there are limited periods when all of the factors such as fuel loads, moisture, existence of defensible perimeters and weather conditions are at levels appropriate to bum. Furthermore, ...the dangers of fire escapement require crews to stand by and have good access by road...
"Fires now burn hotter and with more destructive potential than ever before..."
What does all this mean for the future of our national forests? It means we can restore them to good health. It means we can provide jobs while protecting clean air and water.
It means, over time, allowing fire to resume its natural role in forest management.
However, none of this can happen if inaction prevails. Professor Robert Nelson teaches, environmental policy at the University of Maryland. He's written a book length critique of the Forest Service. Here's a short excerpt: "The Forest Service in recent years has shown a preference for prescribed burning over mechanical treatment." This has caused several problems, he says. Not least among these is a reluctance to use logging in areas, which aren't suitable for burning.
In other words, if it can't be burned, it's left alone - allowing still more crowding and build-up of fuels.
The time has come for action to restore our national forests to health, whether that means to their ancient conditions or something else. Continued inaction will mean more and larger catastrophic fires and the loss of one of our nation's greatest physical assets.
It's time for the policy makers, the agencies and the public to become educated on the issues and reach some decisions. The forests are too important to leave to chance.