After spending our careers managing the nation’s public forestlands, we of the National Association of For
est Service Retirees are dismayed at much of the public debate about the health of our forests.
While there are positive efforts to promote healthy forests at the federal level, too often those views, based on science and experience, are drowned out by individuals who foster a host of misconceptions about our forests.
Too often, proven, professionally applied forest management practices are ignored, harming the very public forests we cared for during our careers.
As chairman of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, I feel compelled to challenge some of these misconceptions, which harm public understanding and hinder the implementation of sound forest policies.
Perhaps the most persistent misconception is that forests should be undisturbed by humans. Last summer’s wildfires, which consumed more than 6 million acres in the West, dramatically demonstrate that a forest “left alone” is a forest that will become overgrown and more susceptible to fire, insects and disease. Forest Service professionals know how to change an unhealthy, overgrown forest where sunlight is blocked by thickets of trees and brush into one in which sunlight can reach young trees and ground vegetation.
Another misconception is that our overgrown forests are simply the result of past fire suppression efforts. This notion is put forward by those unfamiliar with the history of our Western forests, which are overgrown because of a complex combination of factors, rather than just fire suppression. Substantial fluctuation in climate and reduction in forest harvests have significantly contributed to today’s excessive forest fuels.
The Sierra Nevada national forests alone have an annual net growth of 2 billion board feet, after taking into account some harvesting that does occur, while growth nationally is double removals. We have not harvested enough trees to offset this increased growth and we have excluded fire as a management tool. We have therefore continually added to the abundance of fuel that a fire needs in order to grow to catastrophic proportions. The result is that whereas before the fuel buildup, smaller, less dangerous fires were the norm, today every fire that ignites has the potential to wreak catastrophic damage to forests and property.
Under such circumstances, it should not surprise us when disastrous wildfires occur.
When it comes to preventing wildfires, there is generally widespread public support for thinning our forests near communities. But thinning is also needed to protect forests and ecosystems not contiguous to communities.
Thinning helps create healthy forests. By not thinning, we are inviting catastrophic wildfire, insect infestation and disease, threatening public health and safety, devastating the ecosystem and its wildlife, and damaging our watersheds.
To fix the situation, tree thinning and other fire fuel treatments must be implemented across broad landscapes in order to modify fire behavior. Areas so treated must be strategically placed, the methods employed must be cost-efficient, and the conditions thus created must be maintained over time.
Due attention must also be paid to the variability in local conditions so customized solutions are available.
While we aggressively attack fires to keep them from becoming uncontrollable, we must also allow fires that fit an approved fire plan to burn under controlled conditions as long as they don’t pose a threat to forest health or human communities. We must replicate natural processes that lead to a mosaic of trees of varying ages, leaving meadowlike openings with no trees, which will assure sustainability while discouraging disastrous fires.
The true cost of inaction or mismanagement of forestland must not be hidden from the public. Policymakers and forestry professionals should make clear the catastrophic losses everyone suffers when wildfire destroys critical wildlife habitat and watersheds and damages our water storage and delivery systems.
The huge job of designing, establishing and maintaining a healthy forest may be the largest, most complex program ever undertaken by agencies managing our public forests. We must embark on this effort using proven management practices, and all the tools, experimental concepts and scientific information available.
And we should all do our utmost to deconstruct the misconceptions that dominate so much of the current debate.
Douglas Leisz, former U.S. Forest Service associate chief (1979-82), is chairman of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR). This article is adapted from the new NAFSR report, “Forest Health and Fire: An Overview and Evaluation.”