Trees Are Killing Forests

Too many trees, falling in on the forest
Too many trees, falling in on the forest

Although the title might look like click-bait, it’s true.  Especially in the fire-prone forests of the west.  Our forests have too many trees.  It’s obvious when you’re out there, especially in our National Forests and in parts of the country where we don’t have sawmill infrastructure that will allow private landowners to offset the cost of management with the sale of product.  It’s a sad, yet preventable situation.

I hear people say and read all the time that the following things have got us into this situation:

  1. Fire suppression activities over the last 100 years
  2. Climate change, more specifically a warming climate with longer fire seasons
  3. Past management practices

Continue reading “Trees Are Killing Forests”

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.