Forest management needed in era of climate change

Forest management needed in era of climate change

13 February 2014

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USA — After reading the Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 guest viewpoints by Roy Keene and Bob Doppelt citing climate change as a primary reason to curtail management of the O&C forests, I felt compelled, as Paul Harvey might have put it, to tell “the rest of the story.”

Here’s a key message from the forestry chapter of the 2013 draft National Climate Assessment: “Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of forests to ecosystem change and tree mortality through fire, insect infestations, drought and disease outbreaks. Western U.S. forests are particularly vulnerable to increased wildfire and insect outbreaks.”

In 2012, U.S. Forest Service researchers supporting the NCA concluded: “By the end of the 21st century, forest ecosystems in the U.S. will differ from those of today as a result of changing climate … Wildfires, insect infestations, pulses of erosion and flooding and drought-induced tree mortality are all expected to increase during the 21st century.”

Around 48 percent of the 2.2 million acres of O&C forests are unhealthy and fire-prone, conditions that will only worsen with prolonged climate warming.

Nearly 25 percent are classified as Fire Regime Condition Class 3, meaning there’s a high risk of losing key ecosystem components (i.e., soil, water, wildlife) to wildfires that are larger, more intense and more severe than normal.

In addition to climate warming, these conditions reflect the long-term policy of fire exclusion and the dramatic reduction of timber management since 1990. Cycles of natural disturbance have been altered, and have not been replaced by managed systems.

The 2000 National Fire Plan and the 2012 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy are federal-state partnerships to address the problems of the at-risk O&C forests and those like them throughout the West.

Their goals are to restore and maintain landscapes that are resilient to fire related disturbances; provide for fire-adapted human communities that can withstand wildfire without loss of life and property; and make efficient risk-based wildfire management decisions.

The fundamental principle is: Actively manage at-risk forests to make them more resilient to disturbance and to protect human communities. To restore the Fire Regime Condition Class 3 O&C forests to resilience in a 20- to 25-year period, 15,000 to 20,000 acres per year need to have tree densities reduced through selective harvest and prescribed fire.

Management of at-risk forests to restore resilience is not a Trojan Horse to “get the cut out,” as some claim. Clearly, the absence of active management is at least one of the principal factors resulting in the 2002 Biscuit Fire, Oregon’s largest. There, forest types the same as those at risk on the O&C forests burned in many places with uncharacteristic and harmful effects, blowing the entire topsoil horizon out to sea in many places.

The need for active management of the O&C forests is part of a much larger state problem. Many of Oregon’s more than 18 million federal forest acres reflect an unhealthy condition made worse by climate warming, where most are considered at risk of uncharacteristic wildfire, and nearly 40 percent are considered at high risk.

In the past 10 years more that 20,000 wildfires have burned more than 3 million acres, affecting 10 percent of Oregon’s total forest land and 16 percent of its timber land. These fires have come at significant economic and ecological costs.

A hopeful response in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, with much Fire Regime Condition Class 2 and 3 forests, is a Forest Service program dubbed “accelerated restoration” designed to provide more timber for mills while restoring resilience to tree-killing insects, disease and wildfires.

Oregonians should be grateful especially to Sen. Ron Wyden and Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader for addressing the needs for healthy forests and healthy communities in their proposals for management of O&C forests. While their approaches differ in some respects, all agree that active management is imperative, ecologically and economically.

Proposed timber harvests not only benefit local communities economically but can, if well distributed, create habitat beneficial to a wide array of wildlife species — including elk and deer, which are in steep decline.

Last September, the Pinchot Institute in Pennsylvania convened some of the nation’s leading thinkers in conservation science and practice to re-examine the vision, goals and methods for conserving and sustainably managing forests in the Anthropocene — the name for a new geological epoch in which humans are massively changing Earth’s life support systems. More active management of forest ecosystems was seen as important to conserving biodiversity and maintaining other essential values of forest ecosystems such as water resource protection. Unmanaged “static” conservation reserves in rapidly changing “dynamic” ecosystems were not seen as useful options.

That’s the rest of the story.

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