USA — Jay Jensen, the deputy U.S. agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment in charge of the Forest Service, spoke with The Associated Press recently about the history and risk of wildlife in the western United States.
Jensen said he’s aware of new research about the ecological significance of burned forests, the role fire played historically and the need to restore more fire to the landscape. He said wildlife habitat left behind from a big fire that burned 250 homes at Lake Tahoe in 2007 is important, but that he does not believe a logging project being challenged by conservationists in court would harm species such as the rare black-backed woodpeckers.
Q: Historically, do we know how many acres typically burned in wildfires each year in the United States? And when did that start to change?
Jensen: “There was a lot of fire on the landscape in this country for thousands of years. Some 30 million to 50 million acres still burned a year at the start of the 1900s. Then we get really good at putting out fires, (with fires) hovering around 1 million to 3 million acres for 60 years. Then in the 1990s and 2000s the cork pops a little bit. Now we are to levels in the range of 10 million acres (burning each year) and we still haven’t seen what’s going to happen. Some scientists say we are going to see 15 million acres.”
Q: Even at 15 million acres, you are talking half of historical levels. It that maintaining an unnatural situation compared to what the landscape would otherwise do? Is that a challenge?
Jensen: “It is a challenge. If Mother Nature is going to say, ‘You held me back for long enough, we’re going to 15 million (acres) folks,’ you better hope we get our ducks in a row. We’ve got to get prepared for that. You’ve got to be having the conversation with the community well ahead of the lightning strike. You can’t say, ‘Town, would you guys mind if we let this one burn to that ridgeline because we think it would help improve woodpecker habitat a little bit?’ If you do that once the fire is started, they are going to say ‘We don’t want that fire. It scares us.'”
Q: Your priority continues to be protection of people and property?
Jensen: “That’s not the only consideration when it comes to how we manage fire and live with fire. There are multiple values people hold in the forest that we have to manage for. Yes, protection of communities and homes is of paramount importance and a big reason we aggressively go after those fires in the wildland interface. But we also have a responsibility to those other values. Maybe it’s the wildlife habitat. Maybe it’s the drinking water coming from a broader swath of land. Maybe we have to protect a transmission line. Our efforts are trying to acknowledge we are going to have more fire on the landscape. We need it. We are going to manage it where we can, do it safely and minimize those impacts to things we hold dearly. We believe working with the communities is the way to go. We believe in community wildfire protection plans.”