Restored forest can resist fire

Restored forest can resist fire

23 July 2008

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I share many of the concerns voiced by Jim Fattig (Feedback, July 9): lack of locals with dozers to jump on fires before they get out of hand; decommissioning strategic roads needed for fire and forest managing; brush, peckerwood poles, and ladder fuels choking our forests; litigation of every salvage sale regardless of site conditions; unemployed loggers watching good timber burning up while rural communities struggle to survive economically, culturally and socially.

But I must take issue with putting all the blame on enviros with their hands-off ideology. As a former Oregon logger and present forest restoration professional with 40 years working in the woods, I have watched big timber companies liquidate over 95 percent of old growth in the feeding frenzy of the go-go years of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Few in the industry thought of the economic future of the rural folks they employed. Few gave a thought to what kind of forest they were creating. Few recognized the extreme fire hazard they were creating with logging practices that left 20 or 30 tons of slash an acre where there had been 5 or 10 tons, or 1,000 to 2,000 peckerwood trees an acre where there had once been 20 to 30 mature and old growth trees. No one thought of the ecological consequences of short 50- or 60- year rotations creating in many places green deserts of unthinned plantations of Douglas fir and p. pine monocultures – that liquefy in forest fires, the loss of wildlife habitat once the 10-year browse bloom of huge clear-cuts brushed over, and conifer replantings failing to take on native hardwood sites. In short, treating our diverse and productive forests as if they were agricultural croplands.

Yes, we should be able to salvage logs where site conditions allow (it shouldn’t be allowed on steep 60-percent slopes and on erodible granitic soils except by chopper – and that is expensive as hell with current fuel costs). Enviros were right about salvage operations removing merchantable trees and leaving brush, slash and smaller ladder fuels which also create high fire hazard. That’s why the litigation.

In sum, the timber industry is responsible, along with government agencies that allowed these bad practices, for its own decline and the decline of once-viable rural communities. Boom and bust has been the name of the game. Untold suffering and degradation have followed. And catastrophic fires.

As a Native American, I am proud of the legacy of healthy forests we passed on to you to take care of. But I am saddened by the way you have squandered this precious gift from the Creator and the heritage and responsibility now of all of us.

We need local people with heavy equipment. Like it used to be. But we need them restoring our forests and earning a good income doing it. Forest use should promote restoration. Ecology and economy. Many of us have been practicing community-based forest restoration for several decades (like the Hayfork Watershed Center). It’s catching on. My own contribution as a Native person working with indigenous communities all over this continent is to adapt an old and successful land-care model to today’s changed landscape for both ecological and cultural restoration. Especially the reintroduction of old-style Indian cool understory forest burns following thinning. This is what the forest has been familiar with for thousands of years.

The rates and intensities of changes to forests today are totally beyond their adaptive capacity. We need to slow down and do it right. Generating submerch or merch timber and non-timber products is how we can pay for restoration and earn a living. We can’t depend on the government to do it for us. We will have to make our own markets. A market-based and communitybased restoration economy. And agency stewardship contracts. If you don’t like the government keeping us out, stop whining, cowboy-up, and do something about it (it’s a damn sight better than shooting holes through government signs or writing whining letters to the editor without solutions).

Some of us are doing just that here in Trinity County. Get involved in the Weaverville Community Forest (formerly BLM managed lands). The first light thinning entry brought in thousands of dollars while reducing fire hazard. Forest Service land may also become available following current negotiations. We may not get back to what the forest used to be like, but we will damn sure restore a reasonably diverse, productive and resilient forest. And start to restore our community livelihoods in the process.

Neil Harvey wrote a great letter (Feedback, July 9) praising the resilience, cooperation and preparedness of the people of Trinity County in spite of insufficient firefighting resources (and my heartfelt thanks to our beleaguered firefighters!). Wouldn’t it be great if local firefighters became full-time prescription (controlled) burn people for forest restoration! And loggers and catskinners became restoration thinners and loggers. But what Neil left out was something that our Board of Supervisors said last week: Our real problem is the 75 percent of the county under agency control (and I would add Sierra Pacific’s enormous land holdings here) which has allowed our forests to build up unbelievable fuel levels.

A restored forest is a resilient forest. A forest that can resist or handle ecological change, including fire, without becoming degraded. Which doesn’t exceed its evolutionary capacity to adapt. Instead of complaining about climate change and drought, help restore a forest that is resilient to change, resilient to drought. Or, when climate change gets even more severe, we will be that much further behind. If you think our current fires are bad, you haven’t seen anything yet.

By Dennis Martinez, restoration fire ecologist and chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network of the Society for Ecological Restoration International

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