by Tony Schick
The West is in the midst of another intense fire season. Fires in California and Oregon have claimed lives and homes and burned up farmland.
As part of EarthFix’s ongoing series on wildfire, reporter Tony Schick spoke with interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about what her agency is doing to reform fire management and reverse the fire problem.
Christiansen discussed her agency’s approach to wildfire management and what she’s doing to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. Below are some of her responses on these issues, edited for length and clarity.
As EarthFix reported, the Forest Service still suppresses nearly all fires, decades after recognizing the danger in that practice. Wildland fire agencies currently spend millions fighting relatively low-risk fires that could actually help protect communities if allowed to burn a bigger footprint. Researchers within the Forest Service are trying to push wildland fire management toward more data-driven decisions that consider the long-term tradeoffs of fire suppression. Asked what she’s doing to implement that throughout the agency, Christiansen said she was trying to build more acumen for risk management and reset the agency’s thinking.
“We are successful at extinguishing 98 percent of all fires. But there’s 2 percent that, I call them hurricane fires. We don’t ask public safety officials to stop a hurricane. We ask them to get people out of harm’s way, to provide assistance to mitigate, create resilience, etc. Well that’s the situation we are in. But we are asking many of our responders to take aggressive action when there is zero probability of success.
“So our reset is about thinking about (the) probability of success, and just the first line — all fire is bad and we must stop it. Why are we exposing responders, not doing our work to get people out of harm’s way, spending all kinds of public funds, when the probability of success is zero to very low. That’s the first level of the reset.”
By Joyce El Kouarti
When most people think of forested lands in our country what comes to mind are public wild lands like the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon or the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. But the reality is most forests in America, nearly sixty percent, are owned by private landowners who very much rely on these lands for income that helps to fuel the economic health of rural communities.
So because forests continue to be threatened by wildfire, attacks by insects and diseases, and conversion to non-forest uses, forty years ago, on July 1, Congress passed the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978. The Act was designed to mitigate these threats by empowering the USDA Forest Service to partner with state forestry agencies, which typically match federal investments 2 to 1, to provide technical forest management assistance to landowners.
Today the Forest Service Cooperative Forestry programs, created through the Act, help individual and family forest owners balance timber management with the conservation of water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, wildfire management, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
One of these programs is the Forest Stewardship Program, which each year helps connect more than 400,000 landowners with the information and tools they need to manage their woodlands for timber, fuel wood, wildlife habitat, water protection, and recreation.
Another example is the Forest Legacy Program, which offers economic incentives to permanently conserve private working forests that support strong markets for forest products. The program recently helped private forest landowners in Georgia conserve 26,000 acres of well-stocked long-leaf pine forests that are now actively managed for timber, wildlife habitat, and watershed protection with new areas opened up for hunting, hiking, and mountain biking.
A few more timber projects may move ahead on Montana state forests, even where they are in critical habitat for endangered species, under terms of a new state-federal conservation agreement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released the final draft of an EIS that outlines management guidelines for more than 620,000 acres of state forests.
By Peter Aleshire
Fire season looms.
Every high country community quivers on the cusp.
So the U.S. Forest Service will on Thursday hold a meeting on its plan to use thinning projects and controlled burns across a million acres of Rim Country to dramatically reduce both tree densities and wildfire risk.
One little problem: The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) the plan envisions has fallen years behind schedule and is struggling to make a dent on the hundreds of thousands of acres of projects already approved.
The Forest Service awarded the first 4FRI contract five years ago for an initial 300,000 acres out of a total of 2.6 million eventually targeted. The Forest Service shifted the contract from Pioneer Forest Products to Good Earth AZ after a year, with no projects completed. So far, Good Earth has completed thinning projects on about 8,500 acres out of the 60,000 called for in the original schedule. Good Earth has said it plans to thin 30,000 acres annually, but so far has had trouble lining up enough trucks and capacity at small-wood sawmills to come anywhere near that pace.
By Christine Souza
Despite the wet winter and far-above-average Sierra Nevada snowpack, California forests remain at risk from tree mortality, bark beetle infestations and overgrown landscapes, according to presentations at the 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference.
During the event, foresters and forest landowners discussed all those issues and communicated concerns directly to Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest regional forester, who participated as a guest speaker.
Shaun Crook, a timber operator and president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, emphasized to Moore the need for effective forest management and that it be included in the agency’s updated forest plans, to reverse the damage happening in the national forests. The Forest Service is currently working on forest plans to serve as the land management framework for the Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra national forests, which are expected to serve as blueprints for other forests in the Sierra and across the country.
“As we go forward with the forest plan revisions and the (tree) mortality, we need to be more proactive with the green and timber sale program to start getting the forest back into that state that it was 100 years ago, before we can just let fire do its thing, or we’re going to continue to have the catastrophic fires like the King Fire and the Rim Fire,” said Crook, a contract logger and grazing permittee in the Stanislaus National Forest. “We need a guaranteed harvest level coming off of the national forest because without that, we won’t get this private infrastructure back.”
By Sarah Plummer
School officials in some of West Virginia’s most rural counties are slated to see major losses in financial support they receive from the U.S. Forest Service.
The Secure Rural Schools Act provides financial support for 775 counties across the nation located near national forests. These counties once relied on a portion of timber revenue, but increased logging regulations on federal land in the 1990s caused these revenues to dip drastically. The act was developed to shore up these forested counties.
Babete Anderson, national press officer for the Forest Service, said, without congressional reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools Act, payments to these rural schools must revert to 1908 guidelines regarding timber revenues.
By Desmond O’Boyle
The Forests to Faucets partnership originally began in 2010 as a response to a series of wildfires, namely the 1996 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman wildfires. Since its inception, the partnership’s goals have grown to not only reduce catastrophic wildfires, but to also restore forests impacted by reservoirs, erosion and beetle devastation. On Monday, Feb 27, Forests to Faucets was granted a $33 million extension to continue its ongoing projects.
Lawrence Lujan is the regional press officer for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the organizations involved in the partnership. He says the specific strategies will be identified in a 5-year plan.
“Some of the tools in the toolbox include, thinning, prescribed fire, replanting trees, especially in areas that have been impacted by previous fires,” said Lujan. “We’ll be decommissioning roads, taking actions to minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.”
Locations for forest restoration and wildfire fuels reduction projects include Dillon, Strontia Springs, Gross, Antero, Eleven Mile Canyon, Cheesman and Williams Fork reservoirs. The partnership anticipates treating more than 40,000 acres of land.
By Melissa Sevigny
The U.S. Forest Service allowed fire to burn more than 73,500 acres in northern Arizona last year. New research examines how well these “managed wildfires” restore healthy, historical conditions to ponderosa pine forests.
Scientists with Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute examined 10 large burned areas on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests. Ecologist David Huffman said managers allowed these areas to burn during the last decade to meet multiple restoration goals.
“Wildfire is difficult to control and manage for precise effects — sort of a blunt tool,” he said. “So we need to understand what it’s doing out there in terms of changing forest structure.”
The study found moderate-severity fires met two-thirds of the restoration goals. This was the only type of fire that restored tree density and canopy cover to historical conditions.
By Rob Chaney
Federal workers scrambled on Tuesday to interpret how President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze of civilian employees might affect seasonal firefighters and other part-time employees.Trump’s order, issued Monday, stated “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”
“The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” the order continued. “In addition, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”
National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Council President Melissa Baumann said the order left her in the dark about U.S. Forest Service staffing, especially with hiring fairs for permanent firefighting professionals starting next week.