California forest researcher tackles wildfire from an ecological perspective and tries to debunk some common fire myths
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — More — not less — fire is needed in western forests to restore ecological balance and provide diverse habitat for wildlife, according to a recent report from the John Muir Project. The report was compiled by California forest ecologist Chad Hanson, who concluded that there is a fire deficit in western forests due to many decades of fire suppression.
He tackles the “catastrophic fire” paradigm head-on, claiming that forest policy is still being driven in part by a cultural fears and misconceptions about fire, and by a skewed perception of what a healthy forest should look like.
As an example, he cites the Bush-era Healthy Forest Initiative, which seeks to define a healthy forest as a place where all trees are green, where there are few, if any, downed logs and snags and where fire is acceptable, “so long as it doesn’t kill any mature, commercially-valuable trees.”
“This policy provides a compelling narrative to many, because it underscores and capitalizes upon deeply held cultural notions and perceptions about forests and fire. Once again, however, readily available ecological science was ignored,” Hanson writes.
The report is clearly written from an environmental point of view. In part, it runs counter to the conventional wisdom espoused by elected officials, forest policy makers and even forest managers, whose goals are partly driven by public antipathy toward forest fires.
Still, the report is worth reading just to get a broader view of the topic and because it includes many of the ecological factors that are often avoided in the policy debates over forest management, the main one being the unavoidable conclusion that fires are a necessary and beneficial part of most western forest ecosystems. The debate is incomplete without that perspective.
Western wildfire myths?
Hanson tries and debunk what he claims are myths about the current state of western forests, including the concern that climate change will lead to increased fire frequency and intensity. But according to Hanson, many climate models suggest there will be reduced fire activity across North American forests because of vegetation changes that will result in less combustible fuel, as well as increased precipitation in many areas.
Much of the climate change modeling is still fairly speculative, so it’s probably easy for researchers to spin the data either way to prove a point, but Hanson does a good job of showing that, at the very least, forest managers need to take a wider view of potential climate change effects on wildfires, and not just parrot the conventional wisdom; namely that climate change will inevitable result in bigger and more severe fires.
The report also looks at the trend of increased spending on fuels reduction. Hanson charges, that, nationally, the money is often spent on implementing commercial logging projects that remove live, mature trees to help provide a financial incentive for logging companies, or on logging in backcountry areas where there is little need to remove trees. A new push to use at least some of the wood as a fuel for renewable energy could intensify some of these issues.
Hanson repeats the mantra that the best way to prevent damage to homes is to concentrate on clearing fuels within a few hundred feet of neighborhoods.
At its heart, it’s still a debate over whether the forests are best left to natural processes, or whether they should be intensively managed as tree farms and fuel factories.
The best answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and most forest managers on the White River National understand that there are vast areas of wilderness and remote backcountry that won’t ever be logged or harvested. At the same time, because of the extensive residential and recreational development in some parts of the forest, their are extensive areas that do need to be treated, and there’s a possibility that some of the wood could serve as a small-scale renewable energy source.
This is not a new discussion. Colorado-based conservation groups have made the same claims about backcountry logging. In response, forest planners have also pointed to the need to try and protect watersheds, power lines, forest roads and campgrounds. One man’s backcountry may be another’s watershed. The debate may be about exactly how far to go, but the critical point is that, if the main goal is to protect homes and human lives, most of the resources must be spent on those areas immediately adjacent to developed areas.
Following the rules
In Summit County, most projects follow that rule, for example the North Summit Wildland-Urban Interface project approved this week that seeks to establish fire breaks around a series of neighborhoods reaching from Silverthorne down the Lower Blue valley. As well, forest managers are holding some early discussions about how to re-introduce fire into the lodgepole forest ecosystem, perhaps on scale large enough to mimic fire’s natural role.
As to the scope of western wildfires, Hanson analyzed statistics on how many acres burned and came to the conclusion that fire suppression has dramatically reduced the acreage burned compared to the pre-suppression era. He also identified several studies showing that high-intensity fires burned in the days before global warming and pine beetle infestations — but that they were patchy in nature and helped create diversity in the forests.
Related to that, he tackles the supposition that high-intensity fires leave the ground so scarred that it can’t regenerate. But some studies suggest that forest growth and regeneration is vigorous after high- intensity fires, and that fire-adapted forests (including lodgepole) need fire to maintain productivity. In places were regeneration is slower, the cleared areas provide natural fire breaks and important montane chaparral habitat.
Another commonly repeated idea is that recent fires have burned more intensely because of fire suppression and the resulting accumulation of fuels. But according to Hanson’s statistical analysis of western fires, “Areas that have missed the greatest number of natural fire cycles due to fire suppression, are burning mostly at low- and moderate-intensity and are not burning more intensely than areas that have missed fewer fire cycles.”
In general, Hanson says high-intensity fire patches create habitat that support some of the highest native biodiversity any forest type in the West.
None of this obviates the need to to speedily treat forests near at-risk neighborhoods in Summit County and elsewhere, but should be food for thought as forest managers continue their plans for what they are calling the “future forest.”
Read about the Forest Service healthy forest initiative here.
Filed under: Environment, Forest health, global warming, pine beetles and wildfires, public lands, wildlife Tagged: | conservation, Environment, forest ecology, Forest health, global warming, healthy forests initiative, pine beetles, public lands, Summit County News, White River National Forest, Wildfires, wildlife