Straight talk about wildfire and logging: memo for reporters and editorial writers

Straight talk about wildfire and logging: memo for reporters and editorial writers

03 October 2017

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USA: Most congressional legislation focusing on forest management does little to address the Forest Service firefighting funding crisis and declining management capacity.

A number of bills currently in both houses of Congress are aimed at wildfires and national forest management. While rhetoric abounds, claiming insufficient logging is the main cause of wildfire in our forests, the discussion suffers from a severe lack of focus on the actual science of wildfires and how to achieve real solutions.

Make no mistake, life and property protection are the most important factors during wildfires. To achieve the greatest effect, fuel reduction must be focused near those communities on the outer most edges of our forests. Weakening environmental laws to increase timber harvests in remote backcountry areas will not better protect front-country communities from wildfire.

Fire is a natural part of forest ecology, but other factors contribute to an unnatural scenario.

Fire is essential to maintaining healthy forests and wildlife habitats. Some plants depend on periodic wildfires as part of the natural cycle of recovery, and many others easily tolerate naturally occurring, periodic fires. However, decades of fire suppression, logging and other activities have resulted in diminished forest health. Concurrently, we’ve seen a dramatic growth in residential development directly adjacent to our national forests, known as the wildland-urban interface, putting millions more people and their property in danger from wildfires.

Wildfires are growing larger and more destructive due to climate change, drought, and a lack of funding for prevention programs. As our climate changes, it means drier forest conditions, with larger, more intense fires, posing a greater danger to humans, wildlife and the environment.

More logging will not result in fewer fires, but it can be part of the solution – if done right

More timber production in national forests does not mean fewer wildfires. In fact, past logging of big trees with thick, fire-resistant bark has been part of the problem. Yet, effective methods exist to help lessen wildfire intensity and danger that include some forms of logging.

Especially in relatively dry parts of the West, like eastern Oregon, many forests are now populated by overly dense stands of younger, smaller trees that are more fire-prone. Thinning small trees in these types of excessively dense forests to decrease the buildup of fuel loads near communities, and using “prescribed” fire in controlled conditions are approaches that can mitigate the severity of wildfire in our forests and lower the risk to nearby communities.

In wetter regions of the West, like western Oregon and higher elevation forests in Montana, fires naturally burn at higher intensity and severity. Thinning such forests won’t reduce the fire risk because fires in these ecosystems are weather-driven events.

Increasingly, conservationists and the timber industry are working collaboratively with the Forest Service to plan, implement, and monitor large-scale restoration projects to make forests healthier and reduce fire danger. These collaborations work best when guided by thoughtful assessments of forest conditions and supported by scientists and community leaders.

In backcountry wilderness areas, wildfire can create better wildlife habitat, renew soil nutrients and limit the size of subsequent fires by creating natural fire breaks and reducing accumulation of trees and other vegetation that would otherwise act as “fuel.” Managing wilderness fires with these benefits in mind lowers both firefighters’ risk and fire suppression costs.

Show us the money, not more loopholes for logging

Climate change-fueled wildfires and the cost of fighting them are both increasing dramatically. The modern wildfire season is months longer than it used to be, and fires are predicted to burn twice as many acres as they do now by 2050.

Rising firefighting costs now consume more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget, up from just 13 percent in 1991. In September 2017 the Forest Service announced that firefighting costs would likely assume two-thirds of their budget by 2021. Meanwhile total funding for the Forest Service has fallen behind, forcing the agency to borrow from programs that could strategically thin forests near communities and reduce the risk of future wildfires. Furthermore, the steady decline in funding for nearly everything except fire suppression has greatly reduced the agency’s capacity to manage the national forests for recreation, wildlife, water, and other public benefits.

But most legislation focusing on forest management in both houses of Congress does little to address the Forest Service firefighting funding crisis and declining management capacity. Instead, a series of categorical exclusions to the National Environmental Policy Act would eliminate environmental review of many logging projects, depriving people of their voice in management of our public lands. These bills also replace normal judicial review with a binding arbitration system, removing a key means to ensure compliance with environmental laws.

The Wilderness Society strongly opposes this legislation because it promotes reckless management of the national forests and removes important opportunities for public participation. We call on Congress and the Administration to fix the broken fire funding system and give the Forest Service the resources it needs to work collaboratively to restore healthier forests and reduce wildfire danger to communities.

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