For those of us in forest management, outdoor recreation and managing our forests go hand in hand. I don’t know that it is seen the same way by outdoor recreation enthusiasts, but it should. When you get down to the interests of both, the similarities are striking in my opinion. People that work in forests/mountains/woods love nature. They love the forest, and they want to see it used and protected. I can’t think of an outdoor recreation enthusiast that doesn’t share those same interests. Historically both groups haven’t been on the same page when it comes to forest management. I think that needs to change and will soon.
Let me share with you a story. A backcountry hiker and outdoor lover booked his vacation time. His job as a relationship manager at a major bank gives him 4 weeks of paid vacation and this is his big summer trip. This trip was scheduled for August 2016. He’s meeting up with his brother, and they are taking his son on his first multiday backpacking adventure.
They have it all planned out, the flights are booked. They can’t wait. He’s been telling his son about this hike in the Rockies for about a year. Now that he’s 13 he’s ready to join his father and uncle on this 10-day excursion. It’s now time to fly from Portland to Denver, and they are pumped. They have their gear, checked it numerous times to make sure they have everything they need. They purchased Colorado fishing licenses so they can catch some of their food while visiting the high mountain lakes.
When they land in Denver, the day couldn’t be better. It’s hot, but it feels good. They stop at REI for some last provisions before they get to their hotel at the foot of the front range. They get to bed early, which isn’t easy with all the excitement building. A father and uncle, so excited to show yet another outdoor lover the ropes of the backcountry. The son, so excited yet nervous. He’s not sure what to expect. He wonders if he’s really ready. “Is it going to be hard? Am I going to be able to keep up?” he thinks to himself as he forces his eyes closed.
That next morning, they get up well before first light. As they get in the truck, the faint odor of smoke is in the air. They don’t think much of it and press on. About 90 minutes to driving lay ahead before they get to the trailhead managed by the US Forest Service (FS). The last time they did this hike 4 years ago, they noticed the trailhead was dilapidated. Signs were missing or unreadable. It just looked as if the FS hadn’t put the energy into keeping it in tip top shape. As they drove closer, the smell of smoke became more pronounced. It was as if they could feel the smoke in their eyes. They started to wonder what was going on?
As they got to the point where they were turning off the pavement onto the dirt FS road three Forest Service Fire trucks parked there with people everywhere. As they pulled up a wildland firefighter in his 20’s walked over to their pickup. He told them that the road was closed because there was a fire about a mile up and the road would be closed indefinitely.
As they sat there wondering what to do, they asked the firefighter if there was another way to get in there. He told them that the whole area was shut down and that they would have to go somewhere else. They didn’t have another trail system that they knew well in the area. The firefighter said that the fire was started by someone being careless with a campfire. He also told them that since thunderstorms were forecast for that week that most of the area was going to be closed to the public.
This was devastating news. What were they to do? They understood that fires are a natural part of what happens in the forest, but it was so frustrating that someone accidentally started the fire. They were mad, sad, and defeated.
I know you would like the rest of the story, but this is a fictions example used to make a point. I do have a friend that is a relationship manager at a bank and travels to hike in the backcountry. They were able to make it on the hike with his son, and it was everything it should have been. When we talked about it last summer, we talked about the scenario described above. He said it would be devastating if that happened on one of their planned trips. So, what does all of this have to do with forest management?
Here’s the situation. Our forests have been building up fuels for the last 50 years due to fire suppression. Basically, when fires start firefighters do their very best to put them out. They have done a good job. So good in fact, that the natural good that forest fires can do have been all but eliminated from the forest.
Fires of the past started by dry lightning (thunderstorms in the mountains with little to no rain) and burn the grasses, small trees, and brush. The mature trees have thick bark that protects the actual tree from getting burned. Those fires would burn the competing vegetation and create natural biochar fertilizer for the soil. This would happen every 10 to 20 years in the forests of the Intermountain West. It’s not rare to see a 400-year ponderosa pine that has many visible fire scars on its thick, protective bark.
Before the Forest Service was engaged in active fire suppression, the natural fires only turned into catastrophic wildfires on 20% of the total area burned. That means that 80% of the places burned were either underbrush or only some of the trees died, not all of them. I’ve seen stats to this effect from leading fire ecologists in the United States.
Now, that number has flipped and as much as 80% of the areas burned result in all of the trees dying. So, we know what caused it, what can be done about it?
If we design forest treatments to mimic what mother nature was doing with those fires, then we can get back to manageable fires. How do we do that? We leave the biggest and best trees and cut and use the small and medium trees that threaten the survival of the entire system.
Technology has improved that allows for real solutions to use those small and medium sized logs efficiently in mills. It’s a completely new way of aligning enterprise with what the environment needs.
It is my opinion that we should leave wilderness areas wild. When natural fires start there, we should not fight them unless there is imminent danger that requires action. Even then, the action should be taken outside of the wilderness area to remove fuels so the fire becomes manageable when it leaves the wilderness. The opposite is also true. We should make sure that we have a strategy for actively and semi-actively managing the areas outside of wilderness areas. This means thinning these forests so the number of trees on the land aligns with what would have been there before.
This will allow firefighters to put fires out that are accidentally started by man-made ignition sources before they burn into protected areas. The goal should be no natural wildfires leaving the wilderness that will destroy homes and other valued property or assets. There should be no man-made fires getting into wilderness areas. This forest management strategy will only help outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Keep the backcountry wild and accessible while creating funds to maintain campgrounds, trailheads, and other recreational facilities. By collaborating on how, when, and where we do the management can give us what we love…..beautiful, healthy forests for everyone to enjoy.