Wildfire, land management, and forest health have been regular topics in local and national news recently. The New York Times published an article about the impacts that wildfires and climate change are having on forested landscapes across the west. The Fresno Bee responded to their readers’ questions about the 2016 Rough Fire with a story on changes in forest management over the last 100 years. MSNBC featured an Op Ed by The Nature Conservancy on current fire funding issues. Valley Public Radio produced a story on potential post-fire watershed impacts, and even the Huffington Post joined in with a post on forest management.
Forest health and wildfire prevention are hot topics right now, as they should be. Everyone seems to be grasping the urgency of our current situation which, for those who have been involved in forest management, is a major accomplishment. But now that the alarm has been rung from coast to coast, we are faced with the next challenge: determining what can be done to improve current forest conditions and alter wildfire trends in the face of climate change.
So, what can be done?
We can thin. We can remove excess trees and brush from the landscape, thus returning the forest to a more natural state. Gaps between trees would allow for more snow to reach the forest floor, improving the Sierra Nevada Region’s ability to store snowpack under future drought conditions. Thinned material could be utilized in a bioenergy facility to create renewable energy, offsetting the need for petroleum based sources. Removing ladder fuels, or small trees and brush that allow a fire to climb in to the canopy of larger trees, would reduce the risk of wildfire spread. Firefighters would be safer, communities would be protected, and large trees would have less competition for water and nutrients, making for a healthier forest overall.
However, it isn’t physically possible to thin the millions of acres in need of restoration in our Sierra forests. Many slopes are too steep for equipment to move around on, and not all of the areas that might need to be treated can be reached via existing access roads. There are also concerns about what should be done with the thinned material. Currently there isn’t enough biomass processing infrastructure in the Sierra to handle the amount of material that would be generated from thinning activities, and development of new facilities has been very slow. Many feel that removing excess brush mechanically isn’t natural, and are concerned that if we encourage more thinning we might end up removing too much. There is also a concern for the well-being of wildlife. Thinning activities could disturb them, but so do the large, damaging fires we have been seeing recently. So what else can we do?
We can use fire. Research shows that allowing fire to burn under the right conditions and in appropriate locations can restore forest health on a larger landscape scale than thinning can. Fire is a natural part of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, and lower intensity fires can be very beneficial for many species. Utilizing fire to thin underbrush can reduce the size and severity of wildfires in the future. Managing naturally-ignited fires or setting intentional fires in the right conditions can be less expensive than large-scale thinning activities, and allowing some fire to burn mirrors more of a historical condition in the Sierra.
But burning releases smoke, and smoke causes health problems. While rare, an unexpected change in weather conditions can cause a managed or prescribed fire to get out of control, and with so many communities ringing the edge of the forest, the risk can be very high. There are also well-intentioned policies in place that make utilizing fire as a management tool rather difficult. We have regulations that help limit the risk of smoke exposure, but those regulations also limit when and where prescribed and managed fire can be used.
Let’s face it, conversations about how to address forest health and wildfire are incredibly complex. However, there has been a significant amount of work done in the Sierra Nevada to identify a path forward. In December 2014, the Sierra Nevada Forest and Communities Initiative Regional Coordinating Council developed an action plan to serve as a roadmap for restoring forest health in the Sierra Nevada Region. From that action plan, the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program was developed and launched in March 2015 as a partnership between the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service.
Both of these efforts recognize that there are a variety of solutions to the condition that many of our Sierra forests are in, and while they may be complicated, progress is still possible. There are areas of agreement. We need to thin, but we need to thin in the areas where it can make the most difference. We need to make use of the economic value that timber and biomass can provide as a part of sound ecological restoration, and we need to develop more infrastructure to process the materials removed as a part of restoration. We need to use fire, but in the right places and under the right conditions. We need to allow some smoke from prescribed fire, recognizing that such activities should not occur in the summer when air quality is already at its worst. We need to allow for some natural fire to burn at high intensity as it creates its own important habitat, but we need to ensure, to the best of our ability, that the percentage of acres burned at high severity mimics historic levels, not levels in events like the Rim and King Fires.
We have an incredible fire suppression system, but the cost of that system is steadily increasing. Climate change is having significant impacts on forest and watershed health in the Sierra. There is no question that action is needed now in the Sierra. We need to recognize that there are many solutions available to us and commit to using all of the tools in the forest restoration toolbox.