Wenatchee World Op-Ed: Collaborative forest restoration is addressing wildfire risks

Wenatchee World Op-Ed: Collaborative forest restoration is addressing wildfire risks

Conservation Northwest / Nov 29, 2017 / Forest Field Program, Forestry, Protecting Wildlands, Wildfire

Opinion Editorial in Wenatchee World touts benefits of collaborative forest restoration, value of bipartisan wildfire legislation

The following is excerpted from an opinion editorial published on November 29, 2017. To read the original article, please visit: www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/2017/nov/29/guest-opinion-collaborative-forest-restoration-is-addressing-wildfire-risks

By Mitch friedman and collin o’mara

This year’s wildfires across the West marked some of the most dramatic on record for acres burned, smoky cities, and cost to taxpayers. While we may wish this was an outlier, eight of the worst wildfire seasons have occurred in the past 15 years. It’s a harbinger of our climate future.

As the National Wildlife Federation recently reported, earlier springs, combined with hotter summers, are cutting moisture in soil and vegetation. With forests degraded by decades of fire suppression and industrial logging, our Western landscapes are primed for “megafires,” uncharacteristically large burns that can destroy lives, wildlife habitat and property.

Prescribed fire in pine forest. Photo USDA Forest Service

Wildfire varies by area. The most damaging fires in California last month were in grasslands and shrub and heath lands, also called chaparral. But where forests are concerned, some argue that no forest management is needed, while others suggest less study and near indiscriminate logging. In contrast, we believe the solution lays in doing more work of higher quality, as poor forestry practices actually make matters worse. Many fires have burned hot through aggressively logged country.

Our forests need quality restorative management. A vibrant middle ground is showing the way. By using careful management to improve forest resilience, safely employing fire as a tool, and increasing community preparedness, we can protect homes, improve habitat, and create quality jobs. Across the country, foresters, conservationists and others have rolled up their sleeves and found common ground on this issue.

Of the driest western forests types, including many acres of the Inland Northwest, many areas are fire-deprived. There we need to remove small-diameter trees while leaving big ones, and follow such treatment with managed fire to consume flash fuels.

These points inform Congress to take important steps toward improving how wildfires are funded and our national forests managed. Chief among these is solving the wildfire funding crisis. Right now, the U.S. Forest Service spends more than 50 percent of its budget fighting fires. This drains money away from forest management work that could reduce the fuel behind megafires. There are bipartisan solutions ready to be enacted.

Congress should also make clear that the Forest Service can conduct resource assessments across large forest landscapes to prioritize projects that improve large-scale resilience. This is also the most efficient way to plan years of work at appropriate scale.

Fire is an essential tool for restoring forests. If we use prescribed fire carefully in the right times and places, we’re more likely to see natural and healthy wildfire patterns. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has an innovative, bipartisan bill, the Wildland Fires Act of 2017, which would expand this practice.

We also need to bolster collaboration. When diverse groups of citizens and interests partner to create or refine forest management plans for the common good, they deserve to have their ideas prioritized.

Finally, managing for climate change is cost-effective and necessary. As the climate of the Inland Northwest looks increasingly like the Southwest, fire and forests change. We must manage our forests and grasslands to anticipate and become more resilient to this future, while reducing the climate-disrupting pollution that’s driving it.

Strategic forest restoration provides diverse habitat for wildlife from songbirds to elk. Removing unnecessary roads and restoring streams improves water quality for trout and salmon. Restoring natural fire patterns and increasing our defense of front country forests can reduce megafires while protecting wilder areas. In short, restoring our forests to more resilient conditions is a win-win for people and nature, but the clock is ticking.

We can absolutely address emerging threats from megafires, but success requires that Congress focus upon the most bipartisan and effective elements of the leading wildfire funding and forest restoration bills in the Senate and House. We need Congress to summon the ingenuity of previous generations and choose to work together once again. Only then we will truly leave a legacy that fulfills President Theodore Roosevelt’s highest aspirations for these national treasures.

Mitch Friedman is the founder and Executive Director of Conservation Northwest, a Washington-based wildlife and wildlands conservation organization active for more than 25 years.

Collin O’Mara serves as President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, America’s largest wildlife conservation organization with 51 state and territorial affiliates and nearly six million hunters, anglers, birders, gardeners, hikers, paddlers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Collin O’Mara
Mitch Friedman