By Nicola Twilley
Throughout the twentieth century, federal policy focussed on putting out fires as quickly as possible, but preventing megafires requires a different approach.
Six of the ten worst fires in California’s history have occurred in the past eighteen months, and last year’s fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than a hundred people were killed, and more than seventeen thousand homes destroyed. Experts have warned that this year’s fire season could be even worse, in part because record-breaking rains early this year spurred the growth of brush and grasses, which have since dried out, creating more fuel. Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a wildfire state of emergency in March, months before fire season would normally begin.
The tools and techniques capable of stopping megafires remain elusive, but in the past few decades a scientific consensus has emerged on how to prevent them: prescribed burns. When flames are kept small and close to the ground, they clear the leaf litter, pine needles, and scrub that fuel wildfire, and consume saplings and low-level branches that would otherwise act as a ladder conveying fire to the canopy. With the competing vegetation cleared out, the remaining trees grow larger, developing a layer of bark thick enough to shield them from all but the hottest blazes. California’s state legislature recently passed a bill earmarking thirty-five million dollars a year for fuel-reduction projects.
“And yet no one is actually burning,” Jeff Brown, the manager of a field station in the Tahoe National Forest, told me when I visited him there recently. Although prescribed burns have been part of federal fire policy since 1995, last year the Forest Service performed them on just one per cent—some sixty thousand acres—of its land in the Sierra Nevada. “We need to be burning close to a million acres each year, just in the Sierras, or it’s over,” Brown said. The shortfall has several causes, but, some fifteen years ago, Brown set himself the almost impossible task of devising a plan for the forest he helps maintain that would be sophisticated enough to overcome all obstacles. Now he is coördinating an urgent effort to replicate his template across the Sierra Nevada.
By Kate Groetzinger
The word wildfire tends to invoke fear, but some wildfires are actually good. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Peavine and Poison Canyon fires currently burning in the Manti-La Sal National Forest will help the environment and act as future fire suppressants.
The Peavine Canyon Fire started July 16, while the Poison Canyon Fire started 10 days later. Together, they have burned around 5,000 acres in San Juan County.
Lightning started both fires, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Heather McLean. But rather than rushing to extinguish them, the agency has opted for a management strategy that involves letting them burn.
“The start was far back in the wilderness where there weren’t any values at risk, like people’s homes or infrastructure,” McLean said.
Firefighters have been helping the flames along, said Monticello District Ranger Michael Diem. More than 100 personnel are assigned to Peavine and Poison Canyons, and they have been lighting small, controlled fires along roads and trails to create buffer zones to stop the wildfire’s spread, as well as lighting small fires inside these boundaries to encourage burning.
McLean said the Forest Service doesn’t expect the fires to grow much bigger. They’ll stop as they approach these buffers and continue to burn internally.
“They will naturally burn themselves out as the thunderstorms go across, and it will actually work quite well,” she said.
Because of the conditions resulting from a wet spring and good snowpack, the fires aren’t destroying everything in their path. They are burning in a “mosaic” pattern, according to McLean, and will leave behind plenty of healthy foliage.
“People have an idea that when fires burn — everything is black,” she said. “But fires that burn naturally in the right conditions don’t burn like that. They just burn in places where there’s fuel.”
Diem said fires like this benefit the overall health of the forest. They open up areas for elk and deer to forage, as well as for hawks and Mexican spotted owls to hunt. The fires are also creating a patchwork of burned out areas that will act as buffers for wildfires later in the season.
By Scott Buffon
The U.S. Forest Service in Washington D.C. changed its national policy on the price of selling Forest Service timber in a way they hope will help forestry projects clear cut timber off of its thinning areas.
Across the country, Forest Service officials are now able to sell bundles of logs for a new minimum price that applies to trees regardless of its diameter — 25 cents per CCF. As 5 CCFs can fill a log truck, the new metric means a truck could be carrying a load worth only about $1.25 in areas with low-value lumber. John Crockett, Deputy Director of Forest Management, Range Management and Ecology at the Forest Service in Washington D.C., expects the change will not impact areas where trees are sold at high value, and will only help areas that are struggling to remove unhealthy swaths of trees.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) works across four national forests and offers timber sales and stewardship contracts to clear unhealthy forests around northern Arizona. The new minimum rate will help 4FRI lower the cost of the wood, in the hopes that a business might be able to save money on the wood and afford the costs of removing it from the site.
By Emily Cadei
The Trump administration’s wildfire plan would ease environmental restrictions in national forests to speed clearing, thinning and the removal of dead trees. He’s chided California for its forest management.
The Trump administration is proposing new regulations it argues could help prevent wildfires — but could also open up more federal land to logging and mineral exploration.
The U.S. Forest Service released proposed regulatory changes Wednesday that would exempt several new types of forest management projects from the typical review process under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.
The changes are part of an ongoing push by the Trump administration to speed forest management projects — things like clearing brush, removing dead trees and thinning smaller trees from overgrown forests.
By Kirk Siegler
Western towns surrounded by and dependent upon public lands are forced to get creative as federal recreation budgets continue a slow decline. They are boosting local efforts to maintain public access.
It’s the boom times in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., which is wrapping up a winter of record snowfall. Eager to take advantage of it, Donovan Sliman and his two young daughters are lumbering up a snowy trail on the outskirts of town, where the condos give way to National Forest.
“I like to get away from everybody else,” says Donovan. “I like to hear the sound of the wind and the snow through the trees.” “We’re also going to go sledding,” adds Grace, one of his daughters.
Mammoth is completely surrounded by protected federal wilderness or U.S. Forest Service land. Its destination ski resort operates on public land via a federal lease.
The Slimans try to visit the Mammoth Lakes area from their home in Orange County at least a half dozen times a year.
They’re not alone.
Every year, more than 2 million people descend on California’s eastern Sierra region to camp, hike, fish, hunt and ski. This region, often dubbed “the wild side” of the state, only has about 50,000 residents across two sprawling counties roughly the size of Massachusetts.
Across the western U.S., towns surrounded by public lands are facing an increasing bind: They’re seeing a huge surge in visitors coming to play in the forests and mountains surrounding them, which is leading to an economic boom. But, at the same time, federal funding to manage these lands has been drying up.
By Robert Beanblossom
Nestled in a mountainous valley known as the Pink Beds is the Cradle of Forestry in America, a national historic site. This spot in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest is aptly named for it is the birthplace of scientific forestry in the United States.
This story begins in early 1888. That year a wealthy young man, George Washington Vanderbilt, traveled to the nearby town of Asheville along with his mother, who sought relief from malarial-like symptoms. Dr. S. Westray Battle, a retired U.S. Navy surgeon and a highly respected pulmonary specialist with a practice there, subsequently provided Mrs. Vanderbilt’s medical treatment while she and her son stayed at the posh Battery Park Hotel.
The clean air, scenic mountains and natural beauty of the area quickly captivated Vanderbilt, a widely-traveled, well-read individual, who considered himself a poet at heart.
Consequently, he fell in love with this land and immediately decided to build a luxurious mansion, later named Biltmore, and to purchase property. By 1895 he could claim ownership to more than 125,000 acres of forest land; but much of it had been heavily damaged by fire, grazing and poor logging practices. There were, however, virgin stands of high quality trees especially in the coves and on North and east facing slopes of his holdings.
Vanderbilt employed the foremost architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design his 255-room mansion but also hired an equally famous landscape architect, Fred-rick Law Olmsted, to design the grounds of the estate. Olmsted, known for designing New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds and other notable venues, suggested to Vanderbilt that a forester be hired to manage his newly-acquired holdings. There was one problem. Only two foresters were practicing in America at the time. One was a German forester, Bernard Fernow, who happened to be already working with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The other was a 27-year-old Pennsylvanian, Gifford Pinchot.
Pinchot, who came from a wealthy family himself, had graduated from Yale and had studied forestry, on the advice of his father, in France for 13 months. Anxious to get started in his chosen profession, he accepted Vande-rbilt’s offer of employment and came to the Biltmore Estate in early February, 1892. His plans for forest management included selection cutting for sustained yield. Stands not adequately stocked with trees were planted with hardwoods and pine.
Later, in writing of his experience, he stated, “… Thus, Biltmore became the beginning of practical forestry in America. It was the first piece of woodland to be put under a regular system of forest management whose object was to pay the owner while improving the forest.”
…Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold the 87,500-acre Pink Beds tract to the U.S. Forest Service in 1914; it ultimately became part of the Pisgah National Forest. While all of those lands played a role in the origin of forestry, The Cradle of Forestry in America has special significance. Congress carved out and designated 6,500 acres as a national historic site in 1968. Here four firsts can be identified: the first trained American forester; the first managed forest; the first school of forestry in America and the first national forest created under the Weeks Act of 1911.
By BECKY BOHRER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Plans for managing the nation’s largest national forest call for changes in timber harvests that one critic says will be “the demise of the timber industry as we know it right now.”
The Tongass National Forest released a management plan update Friday that it says will emphasize young-growth timber sales in the forest, which covers much of southeast Alaska, and allow for a logging rate that it says will meet projected timber demand.
This stems from a 2013 memo from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, directing Tongass managers to speed the transition from old-growth harvests toward a wood-products industry that mainly uses young-growth timber. The move was to be done in a way that preserves a viable timber industry. The transition goal was 10 years to 15 years, compared to the prior target of 32 years.
The decision released Friday calls for a full transition in 16 years and expects most timber sold by the Tongass to be young growth in 10-15 years.
Many of our national forests are in dire condition and Congress must take urgent action to address this worsening crisis.
Catastrophic wildfires have once again wreaked havoc this year, leaving nearly 5 million acres burned, destroying hundreds of homes, unleashing untold amounts of carbon dioxide into the air and, most tragically, claiming several lives. These unacceptable outcomes are hardly new; they have been harsh realities for many years running. And with tens of millions of dead and damaged trees across many national forests, the problem will only grow worse.
As Forest Service professionals who dedicated our professional lives to protecting these forests, we have closely examined the science related to the causes and facilitators of catastrophic wildfire. The science overwhelmingly shows that excessive fuel loads, overly crowded tree stands, and trees weakened by drought, insects and diseases all contribute to the severity of wildfires. In our judgment, more active management to address these factors, including more responsible and timely harvesting, is unquestionably needed.
DEADWOOD — In roughly two decades, the Black Hills mountain pine beetle infestation has decimated approximately 215,000 acres of pine trees in the Black Hills, leaving drastically changed woodlands in its wake.
Designed to reduce fire hazards and promote biodiversity on more than one million acres of public land in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming, the framework for the major new management plan, is set forth in a document titled the “Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project.”
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency is trying to manage 60 million acres in need of restoration with 40 percent fewer staff and dollars than he had a decade ago.
“We need to focus on large landscapes, where we’re treating private land and national forest at the same time,” Tidwell said. “And we really need to focus on the outcomes we’re after – healthy, resilient forests that withstand disease outbreaks, fires, drought conditions that we’ll all face in the future. That’s the thing that produces economic activity that sustains communities and eliminates some of the conflict we’re seeing. That’s something we’ve been trying to address for decades in the agency.”