Thin the Threat: Is logging the solution to catastrophic fires?

Thin the Threat: Is logging the solution to catastrophic fires?

04 November 2013

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USA —  “Thin the Threat” billboards and bumper stickers have popped up around the state, especially during this last fire season: But what’s behind those three words?

KTVB traveled around the state to talk to experts in forest and fire management, loggers and conservationists to investigate if thinning through logging may be a viable tool in fire management.

Idaho’s fire seasons cost taxpayers millions

Each year Idahoans spend millions of dollars firefighting and lose millions in property, including timberland, one of the state’s most financially valuable renewable resources. In 2012, fire suppression costs in Idaho were more than $189 million.

Fire seasons throughout the west have gotten more severe, with far more fires burning far more acres. The fires also burn faster and hotter. But why that’s happening and more importantly, what to do about it, is very much up for debate right now.

‘Thin the Threat’ campaign starts discussion of more logging

The recently-launched “Thin the Threat” campaign from the Forest Products Commission aims to start discussion of lessening the loss from massive wildfire by thinning through logging.

“We’re going to have fires, we can’t stop them. But think about the fact that the one thing we can have influence over is the amount of fuel that’s out there on the ground,” said Betty Munis, Director of Idaho Forest Products Commission. “You know as well as I do when you start a camp fire, the more fuels you put on it, the bigger the fire’s going to be.”

According to nearly 100 years of data from 11 western states collected and analyzed by the University of Idaho, around 1 million acres burned annually from the early 1930s all the way until the 1980s. Then big fire years start, with more than 6 million burning in some years.

Data shows when logging decrease and fire increase happened simultaneously

In that same time frame, proponents of thinning talk about the other trend that happened starting in the 1980: A huge dip in federal timber sales and saw mills closing.

Between 1989 and 2000, federal timber harvesting went down 71 percent, and about half of the mills in the northwest closed, according to a report prepared for the Idaho Rural Partnership in 2001. 31 mills closed in Idaho during that time period.

Logging company owner Gerry Ikola from McCall explains part of the reason that drop happened was federal regulations were tightening, and environmentalist groups appealed nearly every federal timber sale. Ikola’s family has logged in Idaho since the 1940s, and he recalls being pulled off of some jobs in the 1990s.

“We in the industry started to experience a definite reduction in timber sales available, and sometimes the Forest Service had to totally scrap the project,” Ikola said.

Loggers say more thinning would protect the natural resource

When KTVB visited Ikola, his crews were on a state logging operation, something his company gets a lot more of than federal projects.

Ikola says he’s saddened every year when he sees fires, and he hopes the “Thin the Threat” campaign gains traction. He says the resource he depends on would be better served if preserved through thinning.

“I would much rather see a thinned forest where some of those wood products have been harvested and utilized and have a young healthy forest there for forever,” Ikola said. “Too often times when winter comes, they stop talking about forest fire and they don’t worry about it until the next one comes around. And we need to get going.”

Another change: U.S. Forest Service objective is different

At the same time that contracts and laws changed, the U.S. Forest Service changed its objective from “growth and yield” with sales part of the overall plan, to “ecosystem” management with a more conservative approach on sales.

“[Before], what we were looking for there was both to be able to thin the timber stands but also to do that in a way that maintained a productive and economic timber sale program,” said Paul Bryant, Boise National Forest Resource and Planning Staff Officer. “Now that’s shifted more to an ecosystem management, specifically on the Boise National Forest to a restoration of habitat.”

Bryant says the drop in federal sales on national forest land has happened because of the environmental laws tightening and the time it takes to get sales approved. But he also says there’s more to it.

“Processes that are now in place accounts for some of that drop off. But also probably what accounts for it is our knowledge and understanding of what these ecosystems require to maintain health, to be healthy ecosystems and the kind of activities that we’re proposing to do,” Bryant said.

The Forest Service still makes timber targets for a goal in what to harvest and sell. In recent years, those targets have been much lower, and even then, not met. This year, Bryant says they will likely meet the target.

Conservationists question campaign’s motives and promises

Conservationists say management is always a work in progress but are skeptical of the “Thin the Threat” campaign, saying it’s a catch-all solution and perhaps too profit-driven.

“Whenever there’s a problem, whether there’s too many bugs, the answer’s always log more. There’s too much mistletoe, log more. There’s too much fire, log more. Nature’s simply not that uncomplicated,” said Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society Regional Director.

They say thinning near communities is a good idea, but the rest may be unrealistic on the scale of millions of acres.

“You can thin all you want. You’re not going to affect drought, and you’re not going to affect lightning strikes, so people need to get real about the expectations. Thinning can protect structures. It is not going to make any difference in drought conditions or conditions when we have a bad lightning year,” Gehrke said.

Additionally, some argue that letting some fire stay as a natural part of the forest’s cycle is a good thing. Many conservationists are working with the logging community to compromise on forest management issues, but again are skeptical of a widespread and quick thinning.

“There is certainly a role for timber harvest on our public lands. It’s one of the reasons why our national forests were set up, but ultimately if we really want to be effective in terms of fire risk reduction, we need to focus around communities and around homes. That is where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Johnathan Oppenheimer, Idaho Conservation League.

State Department of Lands uses thinning, would like more management in state

The Idaho Department of Lands took KTVB into natural and thinned forests to show the difference. There are fewer trees in the managed portion, but there were many trees left standing.

The department’s director says thinning not only fits in with the state-mandated mission of generating revenue for public schools and other beneficiaries, but also minimizing dangers like bug infestations and fires.

“Typically, it does have an effect on the fire. It tends to drop down, not be as intense or severe,” said Tom Schultz – Director of Idaho Dept. of Lands. “I’m an active believer that the forest will be managed. Either by us, or by fire. So to me the battle over should we or should we not manage the forest to me, it’s not a battle. It’s going to happen. It’s just do we want to do it to employ people on our terms to the extent we can dictate some of those terms or does it become a more random event of wildfires that are burning sometimes uncontrollably that are causing effects on people and their property?”

IDL: There is benefit for everyone with increased management

On state land, harvest numbers have increased in the past decade, and Schultz says cooperation with different stakeholders like conservationists has increased for projects. Knowing there are different management objectives on different land, he does still hope to see more thinning efforts to protect state land and the rest of the state.

“There is an incremental benefit of everybody managing their lands for the neighbors. It’s no different than if you have weeds. If you have weeds on your neighbors place, it doesn’t take long before you have weeds on your place. I would argue that fuel build up and fire is similar. If your neighbor’s got a lot of fire, you can manage your ground, but your threat is increased,” Schultz said.

Is there a demand for more logging?

In terms of the economy, saw mills would welcome more business, and they’ve already started optimizing for the industry’s new timber needs, using methods that fit with thinning smaller trees.

“From the very get go, we scan the log and we run it through the optimizer and we get the most value out of each log,” said Idaho Forest Group Grangeville Mill Manager Shannon Fuchs.

Fuchs says with building projects from new home construction to do-it-yourself repairs, there is a market for more lumber around the country.

Only about 20 percent of the Grangeville mill’s wood comes from federal land, but Resource Manager Bill Higgins is working with others already to try to change that. He’s part of a collaborative trying to do what he calls “unlocking the gridlock” in logging federal land by working with all stakeholders.

“We were not happy with the status quo with the health of our forests on federal lands,” Higgins said. “What little bit of activity was going on there is not enough to move the forest to a healthier condition. It’s not enough to produce the jobs and economy that goes with that. So there’s a huge opportunity there to have both healthier forests and higher employment, so that’s what we’re working towards.”

To be continued…

Everyone agrees at this point, forest and fire management strategies need to be discussed. Gehrke calls it a “work in progress”. Munis says discussion is where things need to start, with a “willingness to address this issue.”

Right now this debate over whether thinning is the answer to fire danger is part of a statehouse discussion about Idaho possible taking over management of federal lands in the future. An interim subcommittee is looking at the issue and meets again in December. Many of the people featured in this story are part of those discussions.

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