USA — Last summer’s Carleton Complex fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in central Washington, made it clear that Smokey the Bear and his woodsy friends aren’t the only ones at risk when the forest goes up in flames. As more and more people settle in the fire-prone “wildland-urban interface,” the risk to human life and property keeps growing. Nevertheless, people keep building, and local governments, by-and-large, don’t try to make them stop.
Lowering the wildfire risk to these communities is expensive and complicated. Getting rid of brush and dead and crowded trees along the wildland-urban interface costs more money per acre if there are houses in the way. It also costs more in political effort and frustration. Even if government agencies had more financial resources, explains University of Washington affiliate professor of environmental and forest sciences David Peterson, officials would still have to overcome public opposition to the smoke from nearby prescribed burns and to the loss of trees.
Ideally, this would all be self-sustaining: Logging companies could thin the forests, remove the brush and pay for it all with the money they’d make selling the lumber. In reality, a lot of that wood is pretty worthless AND it costs money to haul AND a lot of the areas where the forests need thinning no longer have sawmills to process the wood. “Right now, we don’t have a mill,” says Annie Schmidt, director of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, which is working to reduce fire danger to people and structures in the Leavenworth area. (Chumstick Creek flows into the Wenatchee River there.) “Right now, we feel that lack.”
In the past, some logging companies that were nominally reducing fire risk profited through the back door. Under the George W. Bush administration and even under Bill Clinton, forest restoration was a scam, a way to let loggers into otherwise-off-limits areas so they could cut the big, valuable trees. Without such a scam, restoration work must be subsidized. “A lot of the wood is not going to pay its way out of the woods,” says Chris Topik, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Restoring Americas Forests program. But, he adds, “it may pay half its way.”
Topik talks about the possibility of using portable mills and maybe portable biomass power plants portable not in the sense you can load one into the back of a pickup truck, but that you could set one up, run it for 5 or 10 years, then take it apart and set it up somewhere else.
Forest restoration has become the name of the game. The proposed management plan revision for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest the first plan update for a Northwestern national forest in this century explains that a “shift in focus from commodity production to ecosystem restoration and forest health is being proposed.” Some critics complain about a lack of fixed standards in this approach and about a chipping away at protections for the Northern Spotted Owl, but still, that shift in focus would be ground-breaking.
The goal of the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, which includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the Yakama Nation, the state departments of natural resources and fish and wildlife, “is to manage three million acres of forests by strengthening the landscape’s resistance and resilience to the long-term effects of climate change, with warmer, dryer and longer fire seasons.”
You can’t restore a forest on a landscape scale unless you have a landscape to work with. The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Washington program director, James Schroeder, explains that some large-scale restoration in the eastern Cascades has become possible because the state and NGOs have managed to consolidate old checkerboard patterns of land ownership left over from land grants awarded in the mid-19th century for construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad into manageable large tracts.