Restoring Our Western Pine Forests 2

The talk in the southwest amongst those concerned about and reporting on the forest health and wildfire epidemic is the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. The 4FRI has made some big headlines in the region, particularly on public radio, and deservedly so. The 4FRI is a Forest Service project with the ambitious goal of thinning up to 50,000 acres of overstocked forest stands every year for 20 years across Arizona’s ponderosa pine belt, a region of pine forests that stretches 2.4 million acres. For the federal government, this represents an ambitious landscape-scale effort to restore our forests and return wildfire to its natural role in the ecosystem.

The 4FRI though is not nearly enough: not ambitious enough, not large enough, not fast paced enough. It’s a good model – a small model – from which to learn and adapt and scale up. But it’s also a model that has exposed the limitations of our current system of forestry management: the existing political/policy framework under which we’re attempting to address this crisis is not up to the challenge. It’s hopelessly inadequate for the magnitude of the job before us.

I wrote in my first installment in this series that the scope and scale of the effort required to restore our forests would shock some people. The 4FRI is too small by a factor of 10. And to those familiar with the problem, the true magnitude of the forest health problem, it’s likely that I am understating the case by another factor of 10.

Across the intermountain and western U.S., there are estimated to be 65 to 82 million acres of pine forests in need of restoration. That’s right; I just wrote the word million. What the 4FRI is doing is called tinkering: the project may appear bold, but treating 50,000 acres a year is an ambitious goal under a framework that will never allow us to address the forest health crisis in this country. We don’t have 20 years’ time, not given our recent wildfire history, not given the size of the bark beetle epidemic – a wholly related problem that I have not addressed here before – and certainly not given the pace of change across our forested landscape.

The Forest Service says it treated or restored approximately 3.7 million forested acres in 2011. The Forest Service needs to treble that number, and it needs to do so immediately.

Forested stands of trees are so overstocked, so dense, and so structurally imbalanced that we need to remove hundreds of trees per acre across millions of acres. Speaking specifically of the pine forests of the southwest (which I know most familiarly), many areas contain 400, 800, 1000 trees per acre. Pine needles, dead trees, fallen limbs and logs litter the ground: there is no grass in sight. The canopy is closed and all the trees look the same: same size, same height, same age.

Here’s a photo from one of the 4FRI planning documents. Look at the density, the spacing, how the trees all look alike. Look at the forest floor, with all the downed limbs and heavy litter layer, and not a leafy green forb in sight. This place is ready to burn. I have seen much, much worse, with the space between every tree packed solid with spindly little pines and firs that you could never hope to walk into, let alone through, the stand of trees. If I find a better photo I’ll post it, but this photo is pretty representative for our discussion today.  

In contrast, historically in the forests across this landscape one would find 2 to 40 trees per acre, growing widely spaced, or occasionally densely packed together in small 1/4 to 3/4 acre-sized patches. There would be larger trees than one would find now, with more variability in height, and trees representing a greater range of age and size classes. The understory would be composed of bunch grass, forbs, and small shrubs. There would be some dead standing trees and downed logs, but you could easily walk amongst and through the site. There would be grasslands and open meadows and clumps of Oak, aspen, pinion and juniper, and riparian areas and springs with willows, all within the pine forests.

To restore our forests to similar conditions – conditions similar enough to allow the introduction of recurrent wildland fire – may be difficult, but we can get close. Here is a photo of a restored forest setting. Notice the profound difference. Notice the spacing. My one criticism is that the trees all appear similar in size and age, but some things can’t be returned to historical conditions right away.

This project, this Forest Restoration Project I’m writing about, is an undertaking beyond the ability of our nation’s timber industry. We’ll be cutting so much timber that we won’t know what to do with it. We won’t have enough use for it or any place to put it all. This is going to be difficult. And expensive. And it will require a commitment similar to the CCC – the Civilian Conservation Corps. But I’ll speak more to this issue in the next installment.

For now, understand the enormity of the undertaking. We need to undo a century of mistakes, a century of mismanagement. And we need to undo it immediately, because the fires that are destroying our forests are not slowing down. They are getting bigger and hotter and stronger, and they are robbing us of our heritage.


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