Restoring Our Western Pine Forests

This is the first installment in what I intend to be a series of posts on restoring our western pine forests. I have already written about the problems with our forests in a series titled “Death of the Western Pine Forests.” My goal with this new series is to articulate a policy and action plan that will restore our forests to conditions more representative of their natural, historical state, so that they will persist into the future.

This first post will describe the goals of what we’ll call the Forest Restoration Project.Later posts will describe policy changes to remove impediments to action, describe the actions we need to take for our forests to be restored, and finally describe the desired outcomes.

The goal of our Forest Restoration Project is to restore the fire-adapted ecosystems of the western ponderosa pine forests. Restoring these ecosystems will meet our two primary objectives. The first objective is to end the ongoing loss of our pine forests due to the unnatural fire events that we are experiencing. We have seen our forests burned at an alarming rate, with fires that burn at such intensity that often the forest is incapable of recovering. In the past four years (2008-2011) wildfire has burned upwards of 24 million acres of forested lands. Today’s fires are burning so hot that all the trees – large and small – are lost and the soils are sterilized, making regeneration difficult and in some places unlikely ever to occur. The landscape left behind is changed forever. And this isn’t the worst of what is possible, as without treatment today’s forests will continue to transition toward more hazardous fuel and fire conditions.

Fire in today’s forests stands in stark contrast to the historical role of fire in the ecosystem: in the past, low-intensity fires would burn with a frequency of every 2 to 20 years. These fires burned along the forest floor, consuming excess fuel and smaller trees and shrubs while leaving large trees intact. To be sure, intense fires did occasionally occur, but they were small and short-lived, burning into the crowns of small patches of trees, their progress and intensity checked by the mosaic and more open patterns that existed across the forested landscape at that time. As I’ve written previously, it’s because we’ve altered this landscape, and failed to manage our forests, that fire regimes have changed from beneficial to harmful and hazardous.

This leads to our second objective, which is to restore long-term ecological balance to our forests by reintroducing fire as a reoccurring natural disturbance regime. Fire plays a significant and beneficial role in keeping our forests healthy, in ways I’ll describe in a later post on this subject. What is critical to understand is that we cannot hope to save what is left, let alone restore our forests, without the reintroduction of natural wildfire.

Reintroducing naturally occurring wildfire will require a sea change in the way we manage our forests. Yes, we at a very limited scale reintroduced fire through controlled burns in some areas, and we have policies in place to let some natural wildfires burn if conditions are favorable. But what we are proposing with our Forest Restoration Project and the reintroduction of wildfire is on a scale that will require massive change: changes in law, policy, and management practices; changes in public opinion about wildfire; changes in the ways that communities and people live with their forests; changes in the way that we look at the forests and wildfire and the landscape.

We should be under no allusion that our goals will be easily reached. Wait until you read what I have to say about the means of achieving these goals, and the sacred cows of public land laws that need to be set aside to make this project possible. And I haven’t even hinted at the magnitude of the undertaking I propose. Obviously, we approach a project like this with humility: Forests are complex; ecological relationships and interactions are not always clear. Nature remains a chaotic beast, submitting to no man. But I submit to you that we are at a point in our understanding of forest ecology and fire behavior that we understand what needs to be done to restore our forests, and to give them and ourselves the opportunity to persist long into the future.

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