Money Alone Cannot Meet our Fire and Resilience Challenge
Conservation Northwest / Mar 01, 2022 / Wildfire
By Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest Executive Director
Conservation Northwest has long called for the restoration of America’s forest ecosystems at a massive scale. Back in 2006, I published this article. Two years later I gave this speech proposing a Restoration Marshall Plan. Time has only affirmed our ideas and heightened the challenge while the Forest Service has settled into a rut.
But a great opportunity has arrived to finally mount the needed effort. Congress included in its Infrastructure Bill massive funding to address wildfire and resilience restoration. To help spur things in the right direction I led the preparation of the letter below. It had input from a range of experts, was signed by many of the nation’s premier conservation groups, and was sent yesterday to Randy Moore, Chief of the US Forest Service. My fervent hope is that this time we’ll see bold change at the scale of the need.
Dear Chief Moore:
We laud Congress for including $5.5 billion in the Infrastructure Act to address wildfire risk and restore forest resilience. We also commend the U.S. Forest Service (FS) for developing a 10-year plan (Confronting the Wildfire Crisis, CWC) as part of its Cohesive Wildfire Strategy and launching a process to hear public response.
However, the scale of the wildfire challenge is so massive and complex that this investment could easily be squandered with inadequate progress and even do some harm. The plan focuses too much on reducing fire risk around communities and not enough on restoring the natural and more resilient character of our forested landscapes. It also fails to provide sufficient ecological sideboards, such as explicit protections for large fire-tolerant trees.
This opportunity could fall short on public benefit and even do harm. Therefore, we drafted this memo and circulated it among conservation colleagues, Tribes, and others. We hope to build a unified and balanced message that could affect key changes in the direction of the Forest Service. Almost 20 organizations signed this letter sent to FS Chief Randy Moore on Feb. 28, 2022.
Our input for the FS was as follows:
Temper expectations: Public expectations for returning to the “normal” of the late 20th Century must be tempered, as forest management is only part of the issue. Wildfires increasingly ravage grasslands and paved communities during months not previously considered fire season. Problems exacerbated by climate change, urban encroachment, and invasive species mean addressing forest management-related variables can only incrementally reduce risk.
Firesheds: Prioritizing particular firesheds has appealing logic but could overlook the needs of other smaller and rural communities made more vulnerable to wildfire due to fuels accretion and climate change. Incorporating scenarios of future climatic conditions will be key to appropriately defining and prioritizing firesheds.
Large landscape resilience: CWC prioritizes protecting communities. While vital, this focus may be to the detriment of enhancing resilience across large landscapes and “all lands” objectives. Research shows the value of landscape treatments away from communities; tested planning and management protocols exist and are applied in projects.
Smoke management: Clean air standards and social license significantly limit essential proactive landscape burning. Both must be addressed if the nation is to meet resilience objectives.
Governance: The core capacity and culture of the Forest Service are limiting to the pace and scale of needed restoration. On some national forests, emphasis on collaboration (and the outcomes associated with it) has lately declined. Capacity and good governance are essential to success.
Vision: We believe that this historic investment of funds by Congress and faith by the American people will be judged a success if these goals have been met by 2032.
- Large areas of the western landscape are more resilient to disturbances and climate change (in addition to the achievement of goals of America the Beautiful).
- Prescribed fire has full support of states and is co-produced by Tribal partners with financial investments in Traditional Ecological Knowledge, local expertise, and connection to the landscape.
- Sustained ten-fold increase (from present) in acres of prescribed burning and managed wildfire.
- Risk to community well-being has been sustainably reduced by work within Wildland-Urban Interface.
- There is a 50 percent budget shift from focusing on fire suppression to resilience treatments.
- The amount and resilience of mature and old-growth forests will be greater than at present.
- Thinning prescriptions are guided by ecological objectives to alter undesirable fire behavior, sustain stable carbon, and restore large fire-tolerant trees. Commercial products do not drive prescriptions but are highly valued as sustainable by-products of adaptation projects.
- Aquatic conditions are improved, reducing serious road impacts and restoring floodplains, with strategic use of Legacy Roads and Trails funds provided by the Infrastructure Act.
- Habitat management provides for at-risk and other wildlife viability, embedded in treatment plans.
- A proudly empowered agency workforce has a culture of efficient ecological stewardship, energized by corresponding performance incentives and evaluations.
- Returns on investments benefit by signals from collaborative processes and outcomes-based National Environmental Policy Act process, stewardship contracting, and monitoring.
National Wildlife Federation
Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition
Grand Canyon Trust
Western Environmental Law Center
Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center
Methow Valley Citizens Council
Idaho Wildlife Federation
New Jersey Audubon
North Dakota Wildlife Federation
Nevada Wildlife Federation
Kittitas Conservation Trust
Sierra Business Council
Idaho Conservation League
CalWild (CA Wilderness Coalition)
Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment
Sierra Forest Legacy
Sustainable Obtainable Solutions