Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Good Fire, Bad Fire

By Ryan Haugo, PhD; Forest Ecologist

The 2012 Pacific Northwest wildfire season was one for the record books. In Idaho, the Mustang Complex alone burned 300,000 acres. In my home state of Washington, over 350,000 total acres burned and fire suppression costs alone totaled more than $70 million dollars. Not exactly chump change in this time of fiscal cliffs and sequestration. Yet, fire always has been and always will be an integral part of our western forests. Fire is both inevitable and is the ultimate contradiction; often beautiful, terrifying, destructive, renewing and life-giving, all at the same time.   

In my role as a forest ecologist I spend a lot of time talking about the risks of “uncharacteristic fire” (bad!) and the importance of “prescribed fire” (good!) in restoring healthy and resilient forests. Our official tagline is “The Nature Conservancy works to maintain fire’s role where it benefits people and nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive.” An excellent sentiment, but the line between fire that “benefits people and nature” and fire that is “destructive” is often quite blurry.

Last September I was in Lewiston and Orofino about 2 weeks after an intense late summer lightning storm had rolled across Northwest. The weather was funneling smoke from the Wenatchee, Table Mountain, and Yakima Complex fires in the eastern Cascades directly into the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and the Clearwater Basin, where it mixed with smoke from the fires within the basin itself. During the day visibility was terrible and at night my eyes stung and my throat hurt even when holed up in my hotel room. No fun – that much smoke must certainly indicate a “bad fire,” right? 

Table Mountain Fire, September 2012

Not necessarily. This winter we were finally able to get out and take a look at some of the newly burned forests that had smoked-in my September travels. Matt Dahlgreen, TNC forester and intrepid explorer, shot a beautiful series of photos from one section of the Wenatchee Complex fires. His photos show rejuvenation and restoration, not death and destruction. These fires had burned with relatively low severity during a time of moderate weather conditions, and the net result were thinned forest stands that will be even more resilient to the next fire. There were other patches with nearly all of the trees killed, but this occurred in areas where the forest is adapted to “high severity fire” and the bear, elk and other wildlife will greatly benefit.

A winter look over the Peavine and Klone Peak fires. Mt. Rainier in the background. Photos ©Matt Dahlgreen/The Nature Conservancy

What determines if a wildfire is good or bad? Suppression costs? Property destruction? Air quality? Impacts on wildlife habitat? Can a fire be good and bad at the same time? I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions. Even a small, seemingly benign prescribed fire produces smoke that can be hazardous to sensitive populations. Even a massive “mega-fire” leaves behind habitat for a number of different wildlife species.  

The one thing that we know for certain is that in forests across the west there will be more wildfire in the coming years. In the face of this inevitability, our focus at the Conservancy is on promoting resilient natural and human communities. In the forests that have traditionally supported timber economies, we focus on smart restoration using tools such as mechanical harvests and prescribed fire. In other forests, we advocate letting wildfires burn when the conditions are right.  Just as there is often not a simple answer as to whether a fire is good or bad, there is no one single approach to conserving our forested landscapes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sustaining Our Global Food Supply

By Bas Hargrove, Senior Policy Representative

About 10,000,000,000. That will be the population on earth in 2050. How do we feed 10 billion people? How do we conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends while feeding all these folks? These questions have been on my mind lately as the Conservancy has taken an increasingly hard look at the role of agriculture and conservation. As part of that increased emphasis on sustainable agriculture, I’ve begun leading the Conservancy’s Grasslands Conservation Network in addition to my policy work in Idaho.

Gary and Sue Price of the 77 Ranch accept the 2013 NCBA Environmental 
Stewardship Award.  Photo ©NCBA

Earlier this month I joined several thousand ranchers and others involved in the beef industry at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) annual convention. In many ways, I was a stranger in a strange land. Hundreds of booths on the trade show floor touted specialized products ranging from new-fangled hay balers to portable ultrasounds that identify sex of fetal calves.

I was there representing the Conservancy on NCBA’s Environmental Stewardship Award selection committee, comprised of representatives from industry, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and conservation. Each year the committee selects seven regional winners and a single national winner from hundreds of nominated cattle operations.

Coming from Idaho – a battlefront for decades-long range wars – it was refreshing to meet the Environmental Stewardship Award winners. These seven operators from across the U.S. impressed me with their dedication to stewarding the land, pragmatic approach to conservation, and pride in winning the award. And no one impressed me more than the 2013 national award winners, Gary and Sue Price of Blooming Grove, Texas.

While conservationists and cattlemen may not always agree about land and water management, I am certain we won’t solve our global challenges without working together.

Let’s face it – hunger trumps nature for most people. If we conservationists are going to succeed in sustaining the natural systems that sustain humanity, our solutions will involve people, and particularly the people who live on the land and produce our food.

How do we conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends while feeding all 10 billion people?  That’s a work in progress. I do know that we’re not going to get there without working with folks like Gary and Sue Price who are doing their level best to produce the food we eat and take care of the land and water that sustains us.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A logger, a forester, an ATV enthusiast, and an environmentalist walk into a bar…

By Will Whelan, Director of Government Relations

This isn’t the set-up for yet another version of the old joke formula. It is what actually happened last week in Boise at the annual conference of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership.

A remarkable trend has emerged in recent years in the much fought-over national forests of Idaho. People with very different viewpoints are working together to support active land management that provides jobs and wood products while improving the ecological health of the forests. Once a year, citizen-driven forest restoration groups meet in Boise to trade stories, receiving training, and network with each other. Last week’s event drew eighty participants from across Idaho. They represented seven separate efforts in the Clearwater, Nez Perce, Payette, Boise, Panhandle, and Salmon-Challis national forests.

2013 Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership conference. Photo ©Will Whelan/The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is a founding member of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership and participates in groups in the Clearwater and Panhandle national forests.

Each collaborative group is distinct in its origins, make-up, and focus. But, all are finding ways to overcome a pattern of conflict and gridlock that has beset national forest management for most of the last two decades. Conservation groups, such as the Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society, have been willing to promote logging projects that thin small diameter trees and seek to make forests more resilient to fire. The timber industry and the Forest Service have been willing to adopt new, more ecologically-based forestry techniques and to focus timber harvest in the already roaded “front country” of the national forests. All parties are working to integrate watershed restoration– such as decommissioning old, unneeded roads that bleed sediment into local streams – into logging projects.

Right to left: Faye Krueger, Region 1 USFS Forester; David New, timber industry consultant; Gregg Servheen, IDFG biologist. Photo ©Will Whelan/The Nature Conservancy

Everyone who participated in the conference had a compelling story to tell. Here are a few highlights:

The Clearwater Basin Collaborative is helping the Forest Service carry out a ten-year project in the 1.4 million acre Middle Fork Clearwater-Selway River landscape. The plan includes carefully crafted logging, retirement of old roads, weed treatments, recreational improvements, and a wide range of other actions. The project is expected to create 127 jobs in economically depressed Clearwater and Idaho counties. The collaboration has been so effective that the Forest Service recently boosted its projections of future timber harvest in the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests by 50%, with the support of key environmental groups.

The Payette Forest Coalition’s project in the upper Weiser River Basin is moving forward without appeals or litigation – a remarkable achievement for a large-scale project to treat 24,000 acres with a combination of thinning, logging, prescribed fire, and watershed restoration. The Coalition won the U.S. Forest Service’s regional award for best public-private partnership and is now designing a new project northwest of McCall.

Last summer, the vast Mustang Complex Fire burned 300,000 acres near Salmon. Nothing seemed to slow the fire down during the hottest weeks of the summer. But, the fire calmed down when it encountered tree stands that had been thinned by the Hughes Creek Project championed by the Lemhi Forest Group.

None of this progress has come easily. Each group has endured through countless meetings and struggled through innumerable arguments. The long-term success of these efforts is hardly assured. But, the hardy band of unlikely allies that gathered in the bar last week will tell you that bridging the divides between environmentalist, logger, recreationist, and land manager offers the best hope for the future for the communities and the wildlife that depend on Idaho’s forests.

For more information, visit the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership website: