Bridge Over Troubled Waters: What's Happening in Watersheds?

Bridge Over Troubled Waters: What's Happening in Watersheds?

Family Farm Alliance Annual Conference

A ZOOM Presentation by James D. Petersen

Founder and President, The Non-profit Evergreen Foundation

Friday, February 19, 2021


Good morning.

Since this is a panel discussion, and I have but 10 minutes, I best get right to it.

The question Nadine Bailey asked me to answer for you is “What’s happening in forested watersheds?

We’re losing them in wildfires that are so large and destructive that we can find no ecological precedent for them in modern history.

Last year, we witnessed the first giga-fire in more than 100 years.

The Forest Service defines a giga fire as one that burns one million or more acres. The August Complex began as 38 smaller fires started by lightning on the nights of August 16 and 17. It burned 1,036,468 acres across six northern California counties and three national forests. High winds drove these fires into a colossus that wasn’t contained until November 12.

Fires this large can generate swirling vortexes powerful enough to rip trees from the ground by their roots and toss them hundreds of feet before they fall back to earth and start new fires.

The 2018 Carr Fire tossed a truck and its fleeing driver hundreds of feet through the air near Redding, California. A small cross Beunaventura Road memorializes the death of Jeremy Stoke.

Burning debris from these firestorms often travels more than a mile ahead of the actual fire. Flames can overtake birds in flight. No wonder the Camp Fire killed 85 people.

We don’t yet know the toll on northern California watersheds but we do know that about 80 percent of all municipal water consumed in western states comes from forested watersheds.

These fires burn so hot that the spongy organic layer in which seeds take root is often melted into a wax-like substance that is impervious to water.

Erosion and landslides follow. Watersheds and water quality suffer. Fish and wildlife habitat is lost – often for decades.

There are places near our North Idaho home where this happened in 1910. The organic layer still isn’t deep enough to support germination.

The so-called “Big Burn” incinerated more than three million acres of virgin timber, most of it in a 48-hour firestorm. 86 firefighters died.

There is another giga-fire in our future. The Forest Service has modeled a wildfire that begins in the Sierras in northern California, races north into southern Oregon, sweeps across the Cascades into central and eastern Oregon, jumps Hells Canyon on the Snake River, and runs across Idaho and western Montana before it finally burns itself out in central Montana grasslands.

I have no idea how many watersheds this involves but millions will lose their domestic water supply, thousands will lose their homes, hundreds will lose their lives and millions of acres of federal, state, private and tribal forestland will be lost.

Why on earth is this happening?

I answer this question in my most recent book: First, Put Out the Fire!

I wrote it in hopes of marshaling 30 years of monumental frustration for some better purpose.

The wildfires we are witnessing don’t care about the things Americans want and need from their forests.

They don’t care whose property or watershed is incinerated.

They don’t care about climate change or carbon upload in our atmosphere or the millions of tons of carcinogenic smoke we are forced to breathe to stay alive.

Where the West’s wildfire pandemic is concerned, we have only two choices: We can watch wildfires destroy our forests and watersheds – or we can stuff the Wildfire Genie back in her bottle.

In First, Put Out the Fire! I argue the case for doing the thinning and stand tending work necessary to reduce the size, frequency and destructive power of these murderous fires.

Insects, diseases and inevitable wildfire are choking the life out of western forests. Billions of dead and dying trees bear witness to the fact that we aren’t caring for these forests – aren’t removing enough trees annually to restore the natural carrying capacity of the land – aren’t removing enough trees to allow residual trees to stay healthy and grow larger, aren’t removing enough trees to protect our watersheds.

We aren’t doing it because we have lost the political will to do what’s right, because people love trees and hate to see them cut down, even if they are dying or dead.

We aren’t doing it because America is invested in fantasies about nature and forests untrammeled by humans.

Lost in the debate about restoring forests is the fact that we can’t turn nature’s clock back to some romanticized condition dominated by a vast sea of old growth. We can’t do it because the sea never existed.

Indians have been managing western forests for eons using the only tool they had for clearing land: fire.

Tribes burned annually for a variety of reasons associated with hunting, food, cooking, clothing, medicines, shelter, heating, and ceremonies.

Their fires rarely got out of hand because there wasn’t much debris

to burn, certainly nothing like the waist-deep accumulations we see in some western national forests today.

Also lost in the debate about cutting trees is the fact that we already know how to do the thinning and standing work necessary to reduce the risk of wildfire in forests that provide us with what I call The Big Four: clean air, clean water, abundant fire and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.

A host of historic and political events have us in harm’s way. But nothing has been more damaging than scripted fearmongering by anti-forestry activists who have filled public hearts and minds with wild-eyed tales about greed, uncaring and avarice in what they  arrogantly call “flyover country.” The American heartland that feeds, clothes and shelters those who live in coastal cities and suburbs.

In my book, I offer real-world solutions for those who care deeply about forests but have no idea how to care for them.

One sure strategy for failure is to leave our forests to nature’s whims.

The clear strategy for success involves thinning and prescribed fire - science based and time tested. Within a year or two, these thinnings look more like parks than areas where logging occurred.

My wildfire book features QR codes like those you see on packaging in stores. The codes connect to thousands of publicly-funded sources that document what’s happening and why.

We favor data developed by the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program. FIA’s data gathering process is jaw-dropping: survey plots, aircraft-mounted infrared cameras and satellite imagery tell a very different story than the one anti-forestry activists made up.

We feature FIA county-level interactive maps in an Evergreen report we published last year titled FIA: The Gold Standard. You can find it on our website.

The maps rating wildfire risk are scary. Most of the West’s national forests are bright red or yellow, connoting rampant insect and disease infestations: the fires next time. Click on your county map and see what’s happening in your watershed.

We feature some of these maps in my book – along with this unforgettable 1996 observation by my friend, Alan Houston, a PhD wildlife biologist in Grand Junction, Tennessee. He said,

“When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”

If the Biden Administration is serious about its climate change initiatives – which will take years to implement and measure – it will also champion the regulatory reforms needed to launch watershed-scale restoration work in West’s dying national forests.

Picking this low hanging fruit and quickly replanting will be much cheaper than the long and terribly expensive transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar and battery power.

We have a long way to go and a short time to get there, so we best saddle up and ride hard. Our watersheds need us.

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