Smoke Pollution

In Northeast Washington on August 1st, 2017 we woke up to smoke from wildfires.  It wasn’t as thick here as it was in other areas, but it was bad at varying levels throughout the month.  Now that September has started it feels like August was clear.  The smoke is so thick that visibility is impaired within 100 yards and nearly nonexistent within a mile.  Your eyes burn and you find yourself continually coughing.  There’s no escape.  Some people have been living with it throughout the west like this every day for well over a month.  This is smoke pollution and it’s likely to be a problem for years.

Carbon Source?

As bad as it is, it makes me wonder about the bigger picture.  Andrew Spaeth, Forest Program Director for Sustainable Northwest, based in Portland wrote about this very thing in September of 2016 in his post for The Climate Trust titled “Pacific Northwest Forests: Carbon Sink or Carbon Source?” Have these forests been a quiet cause of carbon emissions and climate change?

Smoke in the forest
The Colville National Forest covered in a thick blanket of smoke.

When you drive around areas that are supposed to be places of natural beauty and splendor, and it feels as though you’ve been dropped into Beijing it makes you wonder what it all means.  This is supposed to be the part of the world that is capturing carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen.  It sure seems like it’s become the other way around over the last 10 years, getting progressively worse.

Aftermath of to action
Massive fuel loads, even near roads lead to massive fires

These forests are becoming a wasteland.  How long will it take before the trees start to grow back and produce oxygen?  Many of these forests are burning hotter than ever.  I have personally seen where these forests burn so hot that it burns entire root systems out.  It scorches the earth to the point where recovery is a long and difficult process.

So here we are trying to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint, but we’re turning our back on the very forests that are the lungs of the earth.  We need to manage these forests to save them.  We need to put the science in high gear and do what needs to be done.  That means thinning out vast acreages of forests in a way the provides them a chance to withstand fires.

Thick forests

Thick forests falling over
A conservation approach can help save our forests by reducing fuels

Thick forests lead to thick smoke. When the number of trees and the amount of brush in the forest reach many times the number that was there naturally, they not only burn hotter but create greater volumes of smoke and pollution.  Let’s say that there is three times more burnable material in the forest in 2017 than there was in 1977.  This means that in 2017 every acre of fire equals at least three times the amount of smoke 40 years ago.  If the number of acres burned in 2017 reaches 10 million acres in the United States, that means that it could be the same amount of smoke and carbon pollution of 30 million acres of burn in 1977.

Based on data collected by Georgia Tech, these new fires with more fuel are creating more health complications and pollution.  This NPR story tells the story pretty well.  Their findings were that the hotter fires we have today, fed by massive amounts of dry fuel in the forest are much worse for humans, animals, and the environment.  This new information should lead even more urgency to a solution.  Fires are going to happen, but do we need to leave this much debris in the woods?

Burnt Bark
Fire resistant bark on Ponderosa Pine

The tree species that are native to fire-prone forests are naturally wildfire resistant with thick bark and limbs high off the ground.  They need spacing that allows them to survive these intermittent fires.  In today’s public forests those trees are invisible because of a sea of small trees and brush.  When these fires start we lose all those old growth trees.  We can save them by removing the other trees that have enough value to pay for the effort to get them out.

A better way

What a novel concept.  We can build businesses that thrive from the by-product of restoring our national forests.  Sawmill technology has moved to efficiently process small and medium sized logs, not the big old growth logs of the past.  We need to build businesses that are right-sized to the needs of the problem.  We can estimate the need and build the facilities to use the trees that need to be removed.  Why aren’t we doing this?

Smoke polltion
128-foot portal log crane at Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville, WA operates despite the smoke.

We’re not doing it because the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are effectively paralyzed.  Some of that paralysis is from lawsuits from environmental interests, and some of it is built into their culture.  A risk-averse culture that doesn’t think it’s safe to try new things or make significant changes.  Most of the conservation groups in the West agree that management is necessary.  Still, there are some that think any management is too much.  They cannot see the forest for the trees.  We cannot appease them, and we shouldn’t try.

We need to quickly mobilize and get with key leaders from conservation groups and find the issues that lead to consensus.  Once we do that, we should give those findings to Congress so they can draft legislation that works.  We don’t need something that will have conservation groups wanting to turn the tide back their way once they get political support.

We need to be proactive about this.  The forest industry and the conservation movement need to realize that we have common goals.  Once we realize that we can support our collective interests, we can see real change that benefits us all.

Smoke

Hot Weather Equals Summer Smoke

August 2017 has covered much of the West with a blanket of smoke.  Although the media has been portraying this as coming from the BC fires, there are fires throughout the region and there’s bound to be more.  This is unfortunate for everyone and our forests.

Smoke
Smoke in the Colville Valley

Continue reading “Smoke”

Wildfire

The topic of wildfire raises the level of awareness of our forests.  Some of this is good.  People become aware and then they are compelled to act.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if they are going to act in the right manner.

Wildfire in the West

In the fire-prone forests of the Intermountain West, fire is part of life.  These forests have adapted to survive regular fire intervals for centuries.  Ponderosa Pines and Western Larch are prime examples of species that are specifically capable of withstanding significant fire.  Unfortunately, some of our actions have put even the most capable trees at risk.  These actions and subsequent inactions have put entire forests and massive ecosystems at risk.

Actions: Consequence

Overstocked forests
Overgrown forests from years of fire suppression and no management.

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The Need For Active Forest Management

I have been meaning to use more video to tell our story.  Here’s my first shot at doing that.  This is the active management portion of the Era of Megafires presentation that Paul Hessburg with the Pacific Northwest Research Station put together with North40 Productions, both from Wenatchee, Washington.  Vaagen Bros contributed much of the raw video.

I was interviewed along with Mike Petersen, Executive Director of The Lands Council.  As you will see in the video, Mike and his organization were not supporters of active management during the time known as the “Timber Wars”.  However, due to consistent collaboration with other community members in Northeast Washington, there is a new way of managing the Colville National Forest.  Mike and I believe that we are getting closer to fixing many of the problems of the past to create a new future for our forests and rural communities that depend on them.

Continue reading “The Need For Active Forest Management”

Why…..

Why is it important to care about healthy forests? To some of you, it must seem simple and you may even intuitively feel like you know why it’s important. There’s a reason I ask “why.”

I recently had a discussion with my sister Emily. We were talking about podcasts and TED talks. She asked me if I’d listened to Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk about “why.” I hadn’t – So, I immediately did a search for it and opened it up to be sure it was the right one, which she confirmed.

Later that evening I made some time to watch it. It was fascinating. I would encourage you to check it out for yourself. Basically, he says that we all have a biological need to know why it is that we’re doing something. When we know why” we can get behind a cause. We feel that cause and work diligently to see if come to fruition, regardless of the odds. An example that he gave was the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of flight while there were many other entities that had more money and more support staff.  They were able to do it because they absolutely knew their why.”

So why is great forest management so important to all of us? Forests are beautiful, resilient systems that provide all kinds of benefits for us. The big push in the 80’s and 90’s was to leave that system alone and allow it to be natural. It’s a novel concept that can actually work in some areas of the remote backcountry. In the reality we now know there are dire consequences to leaving the forests alone.

 

Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles
Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles

 

People have become an integral part of the forests. Human activity influences the way forests grow, the way they die, and how they die. When we cut trees the forest doesn’t necessarily die or have to start over. We can thin forests and we can mimic natural openings that allow forests to operate much like they would naturally. Why is this important?

 

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

Well, we need to ensure fires don’t get out of control and create mega-fires that scorch the earth and burn everything in their paths. Because of public safety, we will always put fires out and strive to keep them at bay. We must manage the forest systems by thinning, creating openings, and leaving clusters of trees. This will recreate a natural forest type that is resilient to insects, disease and that is ultimately fire. When managed properly in this way, fires can actually be beneficial for the landscape and can also be safely managed.

Beneficial fire
Beneficial fire that reduces fuel levels and protects forests

So why do I do this? Why is it critically important to me? Because I can easily see that we can have all the abundance we want from the forest. We can provide rural jobs in the forest, where the labor of proper thinning and grooming is done. We can also offer rural jobs in the mills, using of the byproducts of forest management to make lumber. We can develop emerging mass timber products that allow us to build better wooden structures in the ever-changing and growing urban landscape. And we can begin to reverse the massive carbon pollution and destruction that mega-fires cause in our forests, by removing some of the small and medium sized trees that threaten the forest as a whole.

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

I see a historic battle of rhetoric that is built on mistrust and past war wounds. We need to set aside our biases and do what’s best for the forests and the people. This act of intentional balance can be achieved to benefit everything and everyone that depends on our forests. At the end of the day what better “why” is there?

Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area