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.