Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What the Fires of 2013 Are Telling Us

By Will Whelan, Director of Government Relations
Editor's note: In recent years fires have spread across large swaths of Idaho's rangelands and forests. The following blog focuses on forest fires and the Conservancy's approach to proactive forest management. Stay tuned for a future blog that will discuss rangeland fires and issues related to them. 

Idahoans have been transfixed this month by images of towering walls of flame rising above the treetops and entire communities fleeing their homes.  In just two weeks, four massive fires raced through tinder dry high desert and forests in south central Idaho, burning more than 400,000 acres – 625 square miles.

The events of this month are part of a larger pattern. The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior spend around $2 billion per year to suppress fire.  These costs consume at least 40 percent of the Forest Service’s budget.  Just this week the agency had to freeze many of its programs in order to pay for fighting this year’s huge fires.  These costs dwarf the funding that the Forest Service is able to invest in forest thinning and hazardous fuels reduction projects that actually reduce the risk of large, damaging fires in the future.  This is not a sustainable model for managing the public’s forests.

Team from North Carolina offering assistance to Idaho, led by TNC-NC Fire Specialist and Land Steward Mike Norris. Photo ©Mike Norris/TNC

Fire in Idaho’s forests is nothing new, of course.  Our conifer forests evolved with wildfire, and fire plays a critical role in maintaining their health and resilience.  Not all natural fires are small, low intensity burns.  In fact, some of our forest types are naturally prone to larger fires that may kill entire stands of trees.  The huge firestorm of 1910, which burned three million acres in North Idaho, is a reminder that landscape-scale fire is not a new, or entirely human-driven, phenomenon in the mixed conifer forests.

But over the last century, Idaho’s forests have changed in ways that make them more vulnerable to large, very hot fires that are clearly outside of historic patterns. Three factors stand out: several decades of fire suppression have allowed fuels to build up; past logging often targeted the largest, more fire resistant trees for harvest; and a warming climate with hotter summers provides ideal conditions for megafires.  To make matters worse, these changes make large areas of Idaho’s forests more vulnerable to invasive species and insect infestations, which can promote damaging fires. 

Recent events have led to increasingly urgent calls from citizens and their elected officials for actions that can reduce the impact of huge, destructive forest fires.  The Nature Conservancy in Idaho is addressing these concerns through science, collaboration, and advocacy.

North Carolina crew observing fire aftermath near Baker Creek, Idaho. Photo ©Mike Norris/TNC

Our scientists are studying how forests have changed from their historic conditions in order to understand which areas would most benefit from active restoration, such as thinning, careful logging, and prescribed fire.  Conservancy scientists Ryan Haugo and Nathan Welch recently completed an assessment of the six-million acre Clearwater Basin in North Idaho.  They found that about twenty percent of the forested land of the Nez Perce - Clearwater National Forest is in need of active restoration to make it more resilient to fire and closer to its natural condition.

Not all restoration involves active management.  Another ten percent of this  national forest would benefit most from “passive” restoration – essentially allowing the forest to grow back from past disturbance such as fires and logging operations.  Ryan and Nathan’s work is being used by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative to shape recommendations to the Forest Service on how to improve the ecological and economic health of the Clearwater Basin.  Click here for their study. 

The Conservancy is also one of the most effective advocates for changes in the federal approach to fire. We champion proactive forest restoration to improve forest conditions while also reducing the need for costly emergency response.  The Conservancy’s Robyn Miller co-chairs the Clearwater Basin Collaborative’s Landscape Health Committee which designed an innovative ten-year restoration strategy for the 1.4 million acre Middle Fork Clearwater-Selway landscape.

The Clearwater Basin Collaborative team. Photo ©Robyn Miller/TNC

At the national level, the Conservancy’s forest policy specialists dig deep into detailed federal budget documents and advocate for science-based recommendations on how to improve forest health and prevent megafires. One effort we strongly support is the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which provides funding for collaboratively developed, large-scale forest restoration plans.  We like this program in part because it benefits both rural communities and forest health.  In the first three years of the program, projects resulted in: 383,000 acres of hazardous fuels reduction, 229,000 acres of fire-prone forest restoration, 94.1 million board feet of timber, 7,949 jobs created or maintained and 6,000 miles of roads treated to reduce sediment reaching streams.  We think this sort of pro-active, ecologically-driven program makes a lot of sense.  Click here to see the Conservancy’s forest restoration budget recommendations.

1 comment:

Steve Gurnsey said...

Conditions of the Clearwater drainage can not even be compared to the forests of South Central Idaho. The effective precipitation moisture SC ID is one-half that of the Clearwater. In the 1970's the U Of I Forestry School was teaching about the drought-climate change event that started in south ID over 10000 years ago and the environmental disaster that was facing the Central Id forests. Nothing has changed except the forest has grown denser and the effective precipitation has declined. Much of the area that burned this year could not be thinned economically, has never had active management except overgrazing since the Native Americans were exterminated and the only solution to the poor forest health conditions is let it burn and hope for the best. Fires larger than what we experienced this summer have happened in the past and will occur again. There is nothing mankind can do to prevent them, without spending more than the value of the resources we want to protect. The ground is extremely steep, very rocky and the trees that need to be removed have a high negative economic value. The best thing that could happen to this part of Idaho would be to take all the Forest Service employees and burn off the excessive fuel loads. Take a few thousand people give them drip torches and have them burn the excessive fuels in late October through November when fire can be managed. Without dramatic action we can save a few trees around the rich cats houses but we are still going to continue to
lose much of the forest.