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.

Is it Time to Rethink the Forest Service – Repost

Bonus Post

This post has been getting lots of views and discussion.  I usually post once a week, but this will be a re-post with additional comments at the end.  The Forest Service has been a major topic of discussion especially with a new administration and a new incoming chief. This will provide plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Original Post (link to original post)

Since the Clinton years, the Forest Service has undergone a great deal of change.  The agency was producing over 12 billion board feet of timber in the late 80’s, and by the mid 90’s that volume dropped to 2 billion.  To provide context, if that were converted to lumber, it would be a difference of approximately 18 billion feet of lumber.  The total consumption of lumber in the United States in 2015 was 44.1 billion board feet.  That’s nearly 41% all the lumber used to build homes, apartments, and other stick-framed structures.  That’s astounding!

Since the change occurred, the Forest Service has been struggling to create an identity.  That identity is unclear, but many of the current Forest Service employees want to do more for the land.  What does that mean?  Many of the leaders and line officers are doing their best to work with collaborative groups to develop management plans that work for everyone.  I applaud the efforts.  Praise notwithstanding, I wonder if those efforts will be enough? Continue reading “Is it Time to Rethink the Forest Service – Repost”

The New West

Growing up in the Inland Northwest in the 80’s and 90’s summers were great.  We knew fire was always possible, but it wasn’t a clear and present danger like it is now.  The last few years the summers as we knew them only last for about a month.  As soon as July rolls around it seems like a matter of time before the smoke rolls in.  The fires are so big now, that the smoke doesn’t even have to be from fires in the immediate area.

Summer in the New West

Chopper on the lookout
Helicopter spotter looking for new fires in the smokey skies of the New West summers.

Many people talk about how this is a result of climate change and past logging practices.  Although there may be shards of truth in those positions, I don’t believe it’s the real story. Continue reading “The New West”

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”

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”

Keep Public Lands Public

Public lands can and should remain public, with a caveat.  These federal lands need to be managed appropriately. Currently, they are not.  There is a reason that so many people living in rural America are shouting for a change in ownership or management of public lands.  Much of that angst is directed toward the Forest Service, but other federal land management agencies get heat as well.

Is it warranted?  In my opinion, absolutely.  If the federal government cannot figure out how to manage the lands for the benefits of all citizens, or as the Forest Service says “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” then another solution will be created.  If solutions aren’t brought to bear soon enough momentum could be created to insert new management or sell some of those lands to States, Counties, and other entities. Continue reading “Keep Public Lands Public”