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.

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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”

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”

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