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.

The US Forest Service and other agencies across the country started putting out every fire as soon as they could.  At least they used to.  When those fires were put out, the debris those fires may have burned has now built up.  Those Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch trees were widely spaced in the past. Few trees grew tall enough to even get close to their limbs.  As these fire crews put these fires out, those conditions changed.  The brush built up, the other trees, Grand Fir, Douglas Fir, small Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, and others new grew taller.  Instead of a few hundred trees per acre, now there are thousands.  The entire forest canopy is touching side to side and more importantly from the forest floor to the tallest trees.

Inaction: Consequence

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

Putting out the fires is good, especially when the fire threatens homes, communities, and other valuable resources.  Those actions would have been fine if they had come back in and managed those forests.  Land managers should have planned to thin trees that didn’t belong there.  Making sure that the tree spacing allowed the fire to reach the forest floor and stay there.  Maybe even thin the forest, do some logging, and then come back when the season is appropriate to use prescribed fire to remove undesirable material.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of land received inaction after the fires were put out.

Now we find ourselves with forests that are not only overstocked, but they are dead and dying.  They are absolute tinderboxes of fuel.  Ready for dry lighting, hot days, and high winds to turn what were once green forests into black and gray wastelands.

Inconvenient Truth

To make matters worse, the Forest Service is incentivized to keep this happening.  Funding for fires is almost unlimited while forest management funds keep getting cut or held at levels that are pathetic.  In 2015 on the Colville National Forest, which is only 1.1 million acres, our government spent over $300 million fighting fires.  The entire annual budget for the forest hovers around $15 million.  Many of the people that are tasked with managing the forests, or at least doing the planning so projects can get put out for bid, are training to fight the fires.  When the fires come many are away for months.

We need to take a close look at how and why these fires are funded.  So many people are fired up (pardon the pun) about getting fire funding fixed so we can stop “fire borrowing.”  The USFS borrows money from other budgets and then hope some sort of special funding source pays it back.  It’s a strange system that is certainly broken.  We aren’t asking enough questions. Like why we are spending so much money on fires and seeing little to no results?  How is this money being spent?  How much do we spend on complex fires when they burn uncontrollably?  If it’s too out of control to fight, what the hell are all those firefighters doing?  How much are we paying for equipment to sit in fields and never go to work?

For some time, I have been noticing things.  They add up to some interesting observations.  Here are some of the things I have noticed and then I’ll provide my theory.  Resources get dispersed sparingly until fires get very big, and then spending is unlimited.  “After all it’s a disaster, how can you put a price on that?”  Crews from all over the country get shifted to places they don’t know and have little to no connection with.

These fire camps look like summer camps.  Food trucks, ice cream trucks, tents covering entire school playfields or repurposed ag lands.  Stories of things like having no new chains for chainsaws, but unlimited new chainsaws.  Gear from each fire like hats, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and who knows what else worn like badges of honor.  Lack of coordination between crews where local equipment operators are asked to stand down or in some cases have their equipment moved to other parts of the region.  These are enough to paint a picture.

Theory

This theory is a situation where wildfire funding is unlimited and we have no incentives to change it and no accountability.  A culture has been created that glorifies the forest firefighting.  It’s addictive and lucrative for these workers.  Some work very hard, others work the system hard.  Does the Forest Service really want to solve this issue?  Actions say no.  Does Congress realize that we get almost nothing from spending all this money on complex fires?  What would happen if we cut the funding to the complex fires by half?  Would there be a difference in fire behavior?

Based on the example on the Colville National Forest from 2015, what if we had capped the spending at $200 million and put $50 million into the annual budget for management?  Would the long-term effects be better or worse for our forests?

Real Solutions Needed

I’m not suggesting that we abandon firefighting.  I’m demanding that we look at this holistically. How can we be scraping the bottom of the barrel to find money to manage our forests and expect a different outcome?  We allow unlimited money to fight fires that are the result of fighting fires and not managing our forests. This is equivalent to using credit cards to pay off other credit cards and expecting one day to be out of debt.

We are smarter and better than this.  We need data and maps to figure out how to reduce our fuel loads and we need to do it immediately, even if it’s at the expense of fire funding in the short term.

Please subscribe below and share with others.

A to Z Update

A to Z Hearing Video

Since publishing the A to Z blog post, readers have been asking how the court appearance actually went.  Many of you may know how to find these videos, but in case you didn’t here it is.  This is the 34-minute video of the appeal hearing.  It was quite interesting to be there in person.

 

The courtroom wasn’t full, maybe less than a quarter capacity.  Of those in attendance, most were there to show support for the A to Z  project.   It was great to have the support of Sustainable NorthwestThe Nature ConservancyThe Northeast Washington Forestry CoalitionPend Oreille County Commissioner, Karen Skoog, and special thanks, to The American Forest Resource Council.  Lawson Fite, AFRC attorney, represented the collaborative interveners.  His testimony is near the end of the hearing. These people were in attendance to ensure the court knew that this project was truly collaborative.

Healthy Forest
Recently thinned stand in the A to Z project

As of the time this blog is published, we don’t know the decision of the judges.  We remain hopeful that the good work in the forest will continue. The group that worked on this did their very best to influence a project that was balancing the needs of forest thinning with wildlife habitat and clean water.  The early indications from the project are all overwhelmingly positive.  The forest looks amazing as it gets back to a natural spacing. The forest can now withstand fire when it comes, which is a far cry from the condition it was in.

Sustainable Northwest Summer Board meeting in Colville

SNW on A to Z
SNW Board talks about the A to Z project

Two weeks following the appeal hearing, the SNW Board had the opportunity to go into the woods and tour the project.  Seeing first hand what the forest looked like before and what it looks like immediately after restoration work.  It was a great time to provide a Q & A to better understand the goals of the project.

Forest Industry Infrastructure Creates Value

SNW VBL Tour
SNW Board Tours Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville

The following day the group had the opportunity to visit the Vaagen Bros. Lumber mill in Colville.  Seeing both the work in the woods and then the way the small logs were turned into lumber, chips, biomass, sawdust, and shavings created a clear picture of the value created from and for the forest. Having healthy forest industry infrastructure helps offset the cost of forest management.

Crane Log Yard
Picture of the Vaagen log yard from the crane

In the case of Northeast Washington, the infrastructure is so well developed that the Forest Service actually gets retained receipts from the products (logs).  These retained receipts are able to fund other forest restoration work and we hope even more.  If we build more right-sized infrastructure we might be able to solve funding issues for other parts of the Forest Service like recreation, road maintenance, and possibly even money back to the counties.

VBL in Colville
Vaagen Sawmill in the Colville Valley

With fires burning again and homes being threatened and destroyed at an increasing rate, changes will be made.  We need to engage and make sure that we create a positive future for our forests.  There are some legislative bills in Washington DC that have many people talking.  We need comprehensive engagement so we can make changes that benefit everyone and the forest.

 

Prescribed Fire

There’s a great deal of talk in today’s forest management circles about the use of prescribed fire as a tool to manage forests.  Fire can certainly be a great tool to reduce forest fuels and maintain tree spacing.  It’s been used by mother nature for eons.  So much so that many tree species like Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch have become resistant to fire in order to survive the regular intervals of lightning caused fires.

Active Management and Prescribed Fire

Forest Restoration: Management then Fire
Active Management then Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire should be used in conjunction with active forest management.   There are certainly areas where fire might be used on it’s own. It’s ideally performed in the front country with established road systems. In these areas we can commercially thin or log these areas to achieve historical spacing.  The next season it could be very beneficial to conduct prescribed fire.

Continue reading “Prescribed Fire”

A to Z

What is the A to Z project?  This is a US Forest Service project that is very unique.  It’s located on the Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington State.

What makes A to Z Unique?

This project is a forest restoration project that is approximately 54,000 acres of forest land in NE Washington.  Most projects on federal land are sold after the Forest Service has conducted the necessary environmental analysis as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  This process can take many years to complete for a variety of reasons.  In this case the Forest Service sold the project prior to completing the NEPA process.  Hence the name, A to Z. Continue reading “A to Z”

The Backcountry

Beautiful Places

Some of the most impressive places on our public lands are the vast and wild backcountry.  These snow-capped peaks, high mountain lakes, and untamed landscapes are special to most Americans.  Some of these areas deserve the protection of legislated wilderness or national monuments, while others should merely be recognized and managed for their wild characteristics.

Beautiful Kettle Crest Vista in Washington State

Regardless of the type, we should use collaboration to identify these areas that haven’t already been designated. You may wonder why we are going from Active Management in a previous blog post, directly to Backcountry.  During collaborative work within the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition we have found that by focusing efforts on the two bookends, the middle section (Conservation Management) shows itself. Continue reading “The Backcountry”

Active Management

What does active management mean for National Forests?  When people hear this or read this for the very first time, there are many different thoughts.  For those that are in the Forest Industry, it sounds like a good plan that we should have been following for some time.  For those who care mainly about recreation, it can create concerns about how the landscape might change and affect areas they hold dear.  Anyone who’s primary concern is for the environment might fear that active management might mean developing or damaging some of the last great places on public lands.

All are valid thoughts and concerns.  Experience gained from the Continue reading “Active Management”

Federal Land Management 2.017

If we are going to get better at managing lands we need a better land allocation method.  All lands need to be inventoried and grouped together based on desired outcomes.  We see three necessary land designations. Actively managed lands, conservation managed lands and protected as backcountry.  In doing this we can align management that is appropriate for each specific landscape.  We need to create a management strategy that is efficient, compassionate, and effective.

With so many acres facing the imminent risk catastrophic fire, we need to develop a nationwide strategy for effective forest treatment.  Many collaborative groups have laid the groundwork for what is appropriate in their local areas.  By identifying which lands are eligible for active management and conservation focus we can assign the appropriate treatment for each area.  Continue reading “Federal Land Management 2.017”

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 do I blog?

Do you ever get that feeling that you have things to say, but it’s not getting to enough people?  That is what turned me on to blogging.  I enjoy speaking to large groups and sharing the stories of our family business, forest collaboration, forest restoration, cross laminated timber, legislation, and others, but something was missing.  Those settings are great, and it allows you to connect with people.  Unfortunately, every person in the audience whether it’s 30, 300, or 3,000 represents a number of other people with shared interests that aren’t in the room. Continue reading “Why do I blog?”

Forest Collaboration

The word “collaboration” is used a great deal these days. If you find yourself in the world of forest management or the US Forest Service, it’s everywhere. So what does it mean how does it work?

The Oxford Dictionary says that collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. It also says that collaboration can mean traitorous cooperation with an enemy, but for our purposes we’re attempting to operate under the first definition. Simply put, community members, organizations, and other interested parties come together to discuss what is taking place within the forest, specifically the local National Forest. Once a collaborative group is formed, the basic foundation of meetings revolves around land management decisions, which often pertain to local Forest Service lands. This is a good way to coordinate comments from a large segment of the interested and informed public.

So why is collaboration so important? It’s important because the Forest Service needs a way to effectively and systematically communicate with the public and relevant organizations. In the past, the Forest Service would ask the public to comment on a proposed action they wanted to perform. When feedback was collected, conflicting opinions from various groups resulted in ambiguity on what the Forest Service should do. Ultimately, the Forest Service team was tasked with interpreting mixed feedback and making adjustments to proposed projects. In many cases, adjustments were not satisfactory to the groups and individuals commenting on proposals. Unfortunately, this resulted in objections to projects, and in some cases, lawsuits were filed against the Forest Service in attempt to bring projects to a halt. This process was unproductive and frustrating. With collaboration, groups and people from the public with conflicting views are able to meet prior to commenting on Forest Service proposals. This is where they can discuss and settle on what actions they would like to see performed. This allows progress and appeases all parties involved.

A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.
A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.

In 2003, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act formally paved the way for the use of collaboration. Some groups were already formed, but most groups were still in their infancies. It may have been most important to gain the support of the Forest Service. As a federal organization that had been highly scrutinized, their level of trust with the forest industry, the environmental groups, and every group in between was at an all-time low. These groups needed legitimacy and the Forest Service needed direction. Collaboration became the light at the end of a long tunnel.

Collaborative discussions about an upcoming project
Collaborative discussions about an upcoming project

Collaboration is a long-term commitment that requires trust, dedication and an understanding that there are no quick fixes. After all, these are forests and they require generational thinking and planning. The first step in collaboration is forming the collaborative group, or coalition. Usually in a given National Forest there exists a core group that already works on forest issues. In the case of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, the founding group members were Duane Vaagen, second generation owner and president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber and Tim Coleman, founding member and Executive Director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group. The two individuals were on opposing ends of the Timber Wards in the 80’s and 90’s, but chose to convene to determine if there was a willingness to communicate. In 2002 they formed what has become the strong coalition that exists today. Fast forward to 2016 and this group, which has a functioning board and the support of many local businesses, community leaders and elected officials, has successfully collaborated on nearly 40 projects on the Colville National Forest. This coalition is not alone, and there are groups with similar stories and varying levels of success throughout the inter-mountain west.

Another shot of the group looking at trees and discussion future action
Another shot of the group looking at trees and discussing future action

These groups meet, develop trusting relationships, and establish ground rules and guidelines in order to help the Forest Service identify and manage landscapes. There are still naysayers. Some even believe that collaboration only means traitorous cooperation with an enemy, but the groups still move forward. These groups and their members are hopeful that collaboration starts to work as a funnel for comments and concerns for the collective interest of the forest. Resolving issues ahead of time and working with the Forest Service professionals helps ensure projects have a high degree of success. Each successful project leads to better outcomes and a smoother decision-making process. History will decide whether collaboration is a great success or not, but after having been involved with Forest Service collaboration for 14 years it is my opinion that we’re on the verge of making lasting changes that future generations will be proud of and grateful for.