Era of Megafires

Era of Megafires

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the Colville showing of “Era of Megafires” at the Colville High School.  Considering that it was scheduled at the same time as the final 2016 presidential debate, attendance was good.  The presentation was a combination of the work of Dr. Paul Hessburg from the Northwest Research Station in Wenatchee, WA and the production genius of North40 Productions, also based in Wenatchee.  It was 90 minutes of lecture and description by Dr. Hessburg with HD video and animation to back up his years of research.

He’s found that people created a 50-year departure of natural occurring fire in the fire-prone forests of the west.  This was in response to the 1910 fire that claimed over 3 million acres and multiple lives while destroying entire communities.  It took until the early 50’s to really get fire under control, primarily by the US Forest Service.  This “control” came at a cost and now we’re paying for it.  Although we’re paying over $2 billion in fire suppression, the cost is excess of $50 billion.

Dr. Hessburg says the problem is getting worse.  Instead of having hot, dry conditions leading to a patchwork of fires, we now have so much built up fuel in our forests that entire forests are burning up.  In many cases hundreds of thousands of acres at a time.  Although this paints a pretty dire picture of the future, there are things we can do to help make necessary changes.

Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground

We can use mechanical thinning in areas that we are permitted to manage.  These areas are often in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) with existing road systems and prior management activities.  There are also many areas of the foothills that also have road systems and past management that can be thinned as well.  These necessary restoration treatments can get the forest back into a condition that can handle fire in a beneficial way, either by natural occurring fire or prescribed burning.

Using collaboration, we can get the necessary support from our local communities and conservation groups to do these treatments.   This was highlighted in the film by Mike Petersen of the Lands Council, a conservation group based in Spokane, talking about the benefits of coming together to talk about our interests in the forests.  Then I was interviewed and also talked about the benefits of the collaboration for forests and the community.   What a concept, the Forest Industry and the Environmental Community coming together to focus on their collective interests.  That’s what’s going on at the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC).  Getting together every month to make sure the projects on the ground are meeting ecological, economic, and social needs.


Under story burn to control fuels and maintain the forest
Understory burn to control fuels and maintain the forest

NEWFC has also been working with local land managers to do more prescribed burning while getting public input at the same time.  When we combine the benefits of restoration treatments with prescribed fire, we get a forest condition much like what has been natural for hundreds of years. On top of that, we can use the by-products of these treatments to supply mills.  The contractors doing the work in the forests, the workforce in the mills and everything before and after benefits.  It’s something that can breathe economic and social life back into these towns all while benefiting the forests.


Dr. Hessburg also shows a slide that demonstrates the difference between smoke from uncontrollable wildfires and prescribed burning.  The difference is amazing.  The image shows one shot of a minor haze while the other shot from the exact same location looks like a thick fog of smoke.  Something known all too well by residents of these rural western communities.  The issue is that prescribed fire has so many restrictions on when and how much can be burned.   Seems kind of crazy doesn’t it?  We can allow massive wildfires to choke out the sun for 3 weeks of our summer, but we can’t burn areas to remove fuels when we can control the flames.

We need to make some changes to allow both more mechanical treatments where it makes sense and allow for much more burning.  The science says it’s what we need to do.  I applaud Dr. Hessburg and the team at North40 Productions for making this happen.

Roads Are Not the Enemy

We need to stop acting as if every road on our national forest system is a blight on the landscape

.There shouldn't be an "End to maintained roads"

The Forest Service has come up with a system for road density that’s not well thought out.  It’s based on the number of miles of roads per square mile of land.  One major problem with this is that square miles are flat, the National Forest is not.  This means that if there are hills or mountains in a given square mile that the number of miles required to cover the same distance will be more than if they were on a flat surface.

Not all roads are good, nor are they all in the right place.  We should be removing some roads and replacing them with better roads that will do much more good than harm.  Some roads just need some TLC to keep the water flows clean and in the right places.  We see many cases where roads are just not maintained.  Channel from many years of rainAt first, when there’s a major storm you have a little water that crossed onto the surface of the road and it creates a small channel.  Not a big deal as long as you come back and either fix that areas of the road or use a grader to contour the surface back to it’s intended level.  Unfortunately, much like the forest, these roads have been left alone for 10, 15, and sometimes over 20 years.

Each year those storms create a larger and larger channel in the road until much of the surface is washing down the road like a stream bed. Road Wash-out On top of that, when water starts running on the road for extended periods of time rather than running in a ditch with strategically placed culverts or leaving the road by way of functioning water bars, we see more and more “wash-outs.”  This is where the entire road fails and washes down the bank.  Many times putting massive amounts of sediment into a stream.

There is a solution.  We need to look at strategically locating forest restoration projects in areas where the roads need the most attention.  When the Forest Service does this the contractor will, as part of the contract, fix and maintain the roads.  If the Forest Service used this strategy we could not only fix the roads, but the forest would be getting much-needed fuels reduction and restoration work done.  And just like your car, the forest and the system of roads within it, need preventative maintenance.  Putting projects routinely (Every 5 to 10 years) in the same drainage system would allow for regular maintenance of those roads and the forest.  The projects last between three and ten years, so it isn’t like they are being neglected for ten years, but getting necessary grading and fixing when problems arise.

The days of building road systems on the National Forest is over.  We aren’t going to see any new massive road networks built in our forests because we don’t need them.   That doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t build new roads based on science or need.  It means that we need to better manage the system of roads we have.  Make them better.

If we’re not going to use them as current or future roads, we need to look and see if they can be converted to trails.  This doesn’t have to be a massive financial undertaking by the Forest Service, as many of these community groups would love to volunteer time and energy to making sure these converted roads are safe for recreation travel as well as having the appropriate drainage systems.  If these are in areas of management, the contractors can easily do the work with equipment to convert them to the appropriate use with no cost to the Federal Government as long as there are retained receipts from the Stewardship Projects.  This a simple solution that could be put into action quickly.

Roadless areas should stay roadless.  There may be some exceptions to this, as I’ve heard from other forests across the country that some of the roadless areas that were controversial to begin with.  By enlarge, most of the Inventoried Roadless Areas are without roads and will stay that way.   That doesn’t mean that motorized recreation is off limits, it just means that we aren’t going to build roads there for the purposes of development. There may be exceptions, but that should be dealt with by collaborative groups that have knowledge of the areas and the needs of the forests and its community.

Well designed road

Roads are necessary, and left alone will cause much more harmful environmental issues than if we maintain them appropriately.


Collaborative Success: New Animated Video from Vaagen

Vaagen Bros Lumber has invested heavily in collaboration.  Over the last 14 years the Vaagen team has been working with conservation groups, local stakeholders, government officials, and other forest industry leaders to help foster trust and most importantly a collaborative culture of forest health.   A Forest Story is a simple way we can share this story with others and help spread the word that there is hope for our forests and our rural economies.  

Western Governors talk Forest Management 

The Western Governors Association held a workshop in Missoula, Montana September 20-21, 2016 on  the National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative.  There were a series of panels discussing how to effectively manage our forests.  Much of this is fueled by concerns for fires.  Many groups from all parts of the west came to share their stories.  

In the Bitterroot Valley of Montana there was a project that was discussed by one panel that was particularly compelling.  They talked about the years of collaborative effort to come up with a project called the Westside Collaborative Vegitation Project.  It was designed to thin the forest to improve forest spacing and overall health with a focus on restoration.  These efforts would reduce the fuels that would mitigate the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire.   

A panel discusses collaborative efforts near the Pike National Forest in Colorado

Unfortunately, they didn’t get to it in time.  The Roaring Lion fire started on July 31st 2016.  It burned about half of the Westside project.  Even worse is that 16 families lost their homes.  The project was set to sell before October this same year.  Now the conditions have changed and there’s a new evaluation of what is going to be done with the remaining portion of the project.  

This a reoccurring situation in much of the fire-prone forests of the western states.   It’s unacceptable.  We need to speed this process up and get to work.  Not only do we spend all that time and cost in preparing those projects, but when the fires gets there before the treatment the cost goes through the roof.  Many of these projects in the west are net positive financially.   The fire fighting cost of the Roaring Lion fire were well over  $5 million plus the loss of property and negative environmental impacts.  

Fires aren’t going away and that’s not the purpose of managing our national forests.  The purpose is to get them into a condition that allows the fires to behave like they have historically.  These are burns that don’t kill all the mature trees as they burn the understory grass and brush.  These post treatment fires can be beneficial for the landscape, helping reduce fuels and rejuvenate new growth.  Forest fires that burn in the understory are much easier and safer to manage as well. 

Many other topics were discussed like fire borrowing, legislative forest reforms, lawsuit reforms, and the need for more milling infrastructure.  Hopefully our Western Governors hear what was said and turn it into action that will help our forests and our communities.  It’s a worthwhile cause that needs change. 

Fund the flames or extinguish the problem?

It’s summertime or the tail end of it at least.  Fires are still an issue for some communities, while others move towards the cool fall nights and rainfall.  We had another season of massive wildfires. Fortunately, the season was much better for those of us in Northeast Washington, while others still face significant loss concerning property and forest land.
Massive Smoke  being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
This often brings up the subject of Fire Funding for US Forest Service.  At first look it makes lots of sense; fund the agency directly with the dollars necessary to fight these fires instead of continuing the practice of Fire Borrowing.  Fire Borrowing is where the agency looks at all of its other programs, Recreation, Vegetation Management (Forestry/Timber), Range, etc. to “borrow” money to pay for the cost overruns of firefighting.  Fire borrowing has been happening for years and as the fires get larger and more costly to fight the problem gets bigger.
So, if we fund firefighting fully then it won’t take away from those other programs, right?  In many cases, yes, but there’s still other costs and misuse of funding.  The largest issue is that the personnel and managers fighting the fires, managing the fighting of the fires, and anything else to do with fire season are now not doing their day jobs while they are out there.  They also spend a great deal of time training for those firefighting efforts.  These are resources that could have been otherwise spent designing forest stewardship projects that help us reduce fuels and make our forests healthier, safer, and more resilient to fire, insect and disease outbreak.
We also continue to fight fires that shouldn’t be fought.  Why are we paying to have crews of firefighters fighting, or in many cases watching fires in the wilderness and backcountry?  If fire suppression is a real problem, why are we doing it in areas that are only going to become a larger problem in the years to come?  Shouldn’t we have a comprehensive strategy to keep natural wildfires in the backcountry from coming into the managed lands and the wildland urban interface?  And at the same time shouldn’t we be focused intently on making sure the forests transitioning from managed lands to backcountry are in a condition that fire can be managed?
These are the concerns of many that are working collaboratively in the fire-prone forests of the west.  If Congress is going to act to fix fire borrowing and fund firefighting appropriately, some careful considerations need to be put into motion, so we don’t spend like drunken sailors and continue to be in this worsening mess of forest health.  If we are going to increase funding for fighting fires, we should equally increase the funding and efforts to restore our forests to a resilient condition.  Doing this has multiple benefits for the forest, the communities, and the workforce (both governmental and private sector).
I think Congress is well intentioned.  We just need to make sure they understand that moving fire funding forward without sound, collaborative forest management also moving forward will do the people and the forests a disservice.

Great Video

This video does a great job showing what’s wrong with our fire-dependant forests in the Intermountain West.  There is so much right with this, but it misses one small part of the needed solution.  Biomass is an excellent way to create clean, green energy.  The issue is that the problem is so massive, it alone cannot put a dent in the problem of our overstocked forest and National Forests in particular.  We need to pair biomass up with primary forest products for two reasons:

  1.  It takes a village of uses to fix our forests
    • We should always use the by-products of forest health in the highest a best use possible
    • Small-log sawmills with biomass and other wood users can create enough value to offset the cost of collaborative forest management
  2. The problem is too big for one solution alone
    • The forest health crisis is so daunting that we need to build the infrastructure to deal with it continually
    • Biomass is one part of the solution: others needed are lumber, plywood, pellets, pulp & paper, BioChar, landscape & decorative markets, and anything else that uses forest products from these efforts and adds value need to part of the effort

If we can help inform the popular opinion to reflect what is going on in our forests accurately, we will change the future.  Thinning our forests and turning the by-products of those efforts into what we need in our lives is a powerful thing.

I want to applaud the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for putting this together and sharing it.  A special thank you to Bruce Ward of Choose Outdoors for sending this along.  I think this helps show that these forest issues shouldn’t be political.  All sides love healthy, vibrant forests.  Now we need to pool our resources to turn this ship around.


Macro Solutions Needed

All too often we hear about Forest Service projects being delayed because of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance.  Why is this?

Forest Service specialists spend a great deal of time doing painstaking work to ensure that all of the micro level details are measured and addressed before a project can move forward.  This sounds good, right?  Hydrologists studying water flows, soil scientists trying to understand the impacts of differing activities, botanists identifying sensitive plants, and wildlife biologists making sure all considerations are met for the species of animals that live or might live there……all of this seems like the right thing to do.   In theory, it is.  In reality, something else happens.

Should we study forests like this....
Should we be making decisions from here…
Or should we be looking at them from this vantage point?
Or should we be making them from this vantage point?

It takes years to compile all of this work.  Even if Forest Service personnel or contractors are dedicating their time, it usually takes more than a year to get the requisite information together.  That doesn’t consider the interruptions created by staff movements and the impact of fire season (different, yet crucial topic).

So, if it takes a while so what?  Aren’t the forests important enough to take the time to get it right?

Under normal circumstances, it would seem logical to take our time to ensure that we are doing the right things when we manage forests.  The approach sounds good, but it can have disastrous consequences.

In 2015 we saw a project that spent over two years in planning, that was prepped for bid in October, burn in August.  Now, in the summer of 2016, the remaining unburned portions of the project still haven’t been offered for sale.  The mill that was counting on this volume had to shut down in part because of this missing volume, but also because the fire season shut down the forests for about a total of 7 weeks.  The small log mills in the area had a total of 7 weeks of log inventory.   Something had to give and it did.  One of the two mills was shut down for 6 months while the inventory replenished.

Just a few hundred yards from this sign, work was to be done, but now that it's burnt it needs to wait for more study.
Just a few hundred yards from this sign, thinning was to be done, but now that it’s burnt it needs to wait for more study.

If we were able to have the NEPA efforts streamlined into one field season, the project would have been sold and operated the year before the fire. This would have created multiple positive outcomes.  First, the mills would have has better inventory levels to weather the fire season disruption.  Second, the fire would have been much smaller because much of that heavy fuel load would have been managed.  The third and most important outcome is that we would still have green forests instead of charred remains of what was once a forest in line for thinning.

If we don’t change what we are doing and how we are conducting NEPA we will continue to see this outcome repeat itself over and over again.  Unless significant changes are made to address the macro level problem we will fail to reach the pace and scale of forest treatments necessary to create meaningful change.

On the flip side, solutions are available.  The benefits are great if we choose to make the necessary changes.

  1. Let’s honor our collaborative groups by funding their efforts. This will ensure that the projects are carried out in ways that not only meet economic needs but balance the needs of the community for healthy forests, improved recreation, and conservation.
  2. We need to allow dedicated third party contractors to carry out much of the scientific fact checking, so the work gets done promptly.  Forest Service employees regularly have to attend training for firefighting and fire preparedness.  They regularly transfer to improve their careers.  All of these issues slow the process down.  Having dedicated professional contractors that are committed to hitting deadlines, while still performing quality peer reviewed work will allow for needed work to done in one field season.
  3. We should also maintain a good set of records so when these areas are re-entered we just have to update a previous plan.  There is no reason we need to do a complete NEPA analysis on land that has had it completed in the past.
  4. Focus on long-term plans that include returning to projects to treat areas that were not part of the original harvest units.  All too often we see project areas that are 18,000 acres total with a harvest area of 3,200 acres.  There are more that 3,200 acres in the project areas that need addressing, and over time those need for treatment increase.  Including that as part of the original planning effort maks sense.

There are more things that need to be done than what I have outlined here.  This problem is much akin to eating an elephant; as we look at the task it can be overwhelming, but the only way is one bite at a time.

Forest Planning on National Forests

The following are my comments about the upcoming Forest Plan for the Colville National Forest.   These planning processes are entirely too involved and take up too many resources.  We need less time focused on Forest Planning efforts and more time, energy and dollars spent executing forest restoration projects.  In many of these forests, collaborative groups have agreement on what needs to be done and where it should take place.  My sincere hope is that this will be the last time we see Forest Planning done this way.  Instead, we need to support collaborative community efforts to direct the activities on our forests.


Colville National Forest

Forest Plan Comments


Forest Planning is inherently difficult due to the number of variables the Forest Service needs to consider.  That being said I still think the Forest Service’s ability to carry out Forest Planning efforts should be questioned at the highest levels. 


As interested parties of the National Forest we are asked and encouraged to collaborate on all things related to the way those forests are managed.  We form groups of people and organizations from various backgrounds to attempt to put aside our perceived differences and focus on our interests within those National Forest lands.  When Rick Brazell (Former Forest Supervisor of the Colville National Forest 2003 – 2009) asked the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC) and the counties to come together to collaborate the upcoming Forest Plan for the Colville National Forest in 2006 we all took it very seriously.  Over 100 people showed up at the Chewelah Peak Learning Center to kick off the meetings that were co-convened by NEWFC and the Stevens County Commissioners.  This started a series of Saturday meetings that continued to be well attended for months.  Topics included harvest levels, land allocations, Wilderness, recreation, roads, and a multitude of others.  This was the first time in a long time where local citizens felt like their voice was about to be heard. 


Unfortunately, the Forest Planning Team had other ideas.  About 2010 the team started conducting roll out meetings to share their findings with certain community groups to get feedback.  A group of NEWFC members including myself attended one of these meetings in Tonasket.  The plan that they chose to unveil had almost nothing to do with the meetings that we all took part in.  When we showed our displeasure in that meeting the group was surprised; as if we were supposed to just take their “professional opinions” and adopt them as being the best option.  There’s no real reason to hash out all of the details, but needless to say, everyone was dismayed in the community.  Unfortunately, we no longer had Rick Brazell as the Forest Supervisor to force the issue with the planning team.   New Forest Supervisor Laura Jo West promised to create an alternative that would reflect those collaborative forest planning meetings and agreements.


Alternative B was supposed to be the “Blueprint” alternative that was generated by following the suggestions of the NEWFC generated Blueprint.  Although this is a step in the right direction, it misses the collaborative mark.  The most glaring part is the volume of timber generated by this alternative. 


NEWFC created three zones:

1.     Active Management Areas

2.     Restoration Areas

3.     Inventoried Roadless Areas

The Active Management Area was studied using mapping information based on the available LIDAR at the time, taking into account open areas with no trees, sensitive habitat areas, and stocking levels.  This resulted in 80 million board feet annually for a 20 year period, at which time we would evaluate what would be sustainable and renewable.  Keep in mind that this covered approximately 490,000 acres of the Colville National Forest and didn’t count volume that would result from efforts in the Restoration Area, which is about another 350,000 acres. 

To have volume targets on this alternative that doesn’t reflect collaborative agreement is absurd.  It is my understanding that this alternative was created to show what was agreed to by collaborative interests.  Volume figures should be in line with those agreements and not the 37 million board feet annually shown in Alternative B. 


The Wilderness Component of Alternative B of 220,300 acres is also taken out of context.  It has always been the intent of NEWFC that we would work through the issues of each Inventoried Roadless Area with affected and interested groups to figure out balanced solutions to issues like recreation, grazing, and access.  Some of our membership is very much for Wilderness as a core principle, yet as a group, we’re committed to protecting areas for their current “Wilderness Characteristics” until we can create agreements that would lead to some sort of protection including Wilderness Legislation.  That in no way prevents NEWFC and other groups from coming up with solutions that protect areas in some other way besides a legislated Wilderness area.


My request is that Alternative B gets recalculated using 80 million board feet from the Active Management Areas.  And Wilderness areas reflect current areas of agreement and set the tone for future agreements on areas that could include future Wilderness areas or some other agreed upon collaborative solution.  This is the only way to accurately provide an alternative that was developed by community-based collaboration.


Another interesting piece of information is the study ( conducted by The Nature Conservancy’s Ryan Haugo in partnership with the Forest Service’s own Tom DeMeo came up with the need to restore forests on the Colville National Forest that would result in over 90 million board feet of harvest.  That would coincide with 80 million board feet from the Active Management area and 15 million board feet per year (+/-) from treatments within the Restoration Areas. 


These plans need to consider the need for restoration treatment and not allow volume targets to be driven by budgets.  It’s not fair to the forests, and it’s absolutely not right for the communities that the Forest Service continues to do this.  This is a general statement that applies to all National Forest System lands.


My next comment has to do with the request from multiple entities for an extension to this comment period.  I find it appalling that the Forest Service would not grant this request.  The reason is that multiple groups and individuals have finally been able to come together to discuss some very important topics that could result in some of the most helpful comments to date.  If groups are able to come together collaboratively to discuss their differences and common ground it could really impact the quality of the comments for this Forest Plan.  I understand the desire to move forward, but if the Forest Service really wants a plan that works and is supported by the people, then it should consider allowing those people more time to discuss these important changes to the landscape.


I have some real concerns about the Forest Service’s ability to collect these comments and understand what the commenters are really attempting to articulate.  There have been multiple occasions at the project level where comments were taken out of context.  This results in Proposed Actions that do not accurately represent the intent of the comments.  I would like the Forest Service to consider allowing a group like Sustainable Northwest to review these comments and reach out to the community for clarity.  I would suggest that this be done on a contract and SNW report directly to the Regional Office in Portland.  I must share that I am on the board of Sustainable Northwest, but in no way get any financial benefit from any contracts entered into by the non-profit organization.


Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my comments.  I am commenting as an individual as the organizations that I am a part of did not pre-approve these comments.  That being said it’s important to note that these affiliations absolutely affect gravity and detail of these comments.


Russ Vaagen


Vice President, Vaagen Bros. Lumber, Inc.

President, Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition

Chairman Emeritus, Timber Product Manufacturers Association

Board Member, Sustainable Northwest





The current trajectory of our forests isn’t the beautiful, healthy evergreen forests most people think.  Our National Forests are dying and burning at an alarming rate.  Regardless if you believe in climate change or if it’s human caused, the fact remains that our forests aren’t green.  They stand to get much worse before getting any better.
This story by Chad Hanson highlights the problem between those that want to engage in finding solutions and those who want to create false realities.  I must admit I haven’t read any other of his writings.  This opinion piece makes it seem as though dying forests aren’t a problem and certainly aren’t an indicator of needed change.

These images show what happens when we don’t actively manage forests. Both are next to major open road systems.

Morel mushroom picking is one of the benefits post-fire.  However, a stand replacement fire isn’t necessary for quality mushroom picking conditions.
This is an example of an unhealthy forest with dead and dying debris primed for a stand replacement fire. This forest could be thinned and most likely spared mother nature’s reset button
These are stark examples of why it’s so important for us to come together and solve these problems collaboratively based on shared interests rather than supporting historic positions.   Forests don’t have to die and burn at the current rate, especially where we have roads and agreement on proper management areas.

Let me be clear.  Fires will happen.  Appropriate management won’t eliminate fires, but it will reduce their severity and size.  The safety and effectiveness of firefighters will improve if they are in areas where fuel loads are not unnaturally high.

We need to make serious changes so we can get back to having healthy evergreen forests.