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.

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.

Death of the Western Pine Forests 3

It’s hard to argue that we didn’t fail.

That’s a quote from US Geological Survey ecologist, Craig Allen, commenting for a nice NPR story on our failed stewardship of the pine forests. Craig Allen is exactly right: we have failed – miserably so – as stewards of a great ecological legacy. Our pine forests are burning. In some cases they are burning with such intensity that they will never return. The landscape of the west is being altered by unnatural wildfire.

I have written about the western pine forests before. Over a century of grazing, fire suppression, and mismanagement have taken a toll. Open stands of large, healthy, fire-resistant ponderosa pine have been replaced by unnaturally dense thickets of spindly trees. The frequent, low-intensity fires that for centuries moved through these forests, burning the grasses and maintaining a healthy stand density, have been replaced by extremely hot crown fires that destroy everything in their path.

We know that our forests are unhealthy. They are ahistorical, unnatural, foreign in structure and function. We know this through the study of tree rings, relict systems, soil layers, and historical photographs and written records. We see very clearly that over the past century the forests have undergone a dramatic change. We know these things, yet do nothing. We are paralyzed by the bureaucracies and policies and interest groups and concerned publics that have grown up around the government’s ownership of these forests.

But being hopeless is not a solution. Frankly, it’s not even an option. So in an upcoming post I will offer some policy recommendations for forest and wildfire management so that maybe, just maybe, we can escape this morass in which we find ourselves. Hey, at Free the Commons! we’re never shy about offering suggestions for changing public land law!

(Hat Tip: Ann Althouse. Photo NPR/David Gilkey)