Congress Whistles Past The Graveyard - Again

Congress Whistles Past The Graveyard - Again

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2008. Much of what was written has indeed, unfortunately, come to pass. Our forests are burning while yet another Congress whistles that same graveyard tune.

A forest scientist friend of mine testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power last Tuesday, June 16.

His name is Peter Kolb and the topic was the mountain pine beetle infestation that has swept Interior British Columbia and is now chewing its way through Intermountain West forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington.

Peter is a PhD forest ecologist and an extension forestry specialist at Montana State University. He is a very bright and well traveled professional forester - some might say a Renaissance man of sorts.

We interviewed Peter several times back in the days when we were still publishing the printed version of Evergreen Magazine, and I will readily concede that I came to admire his thoughtful and always even-handed approach to the ecological crisis that has engulfed western federal forestlands.

The full text of Peter's riveting testimony is available nearby. I hope you'll take the time to read it. Sadly, he was the last witness on the last panel at the end of a very long day, so only three committee members were still in the room to hear what he had to say. What a bloody shame, but that's life in the Beltway fever swamps.

Peter appeared before the subcommittee on behalf of the Society of American Foresters. He is a 27-year member. I am a member too, but not for nearly as long as he, and I have none of the scientific credentials that he brings to the table. SAF has a member category for writers and other misfits who share the organization's passion in promoting science based forestry and forest policy. I am a member because my old friend Marlin Johnson, who worked for the Forest Service for nearly 40 years, insisted that I join. He felt I would benefit from being a member. He was right. I have.

My membership has strengthened my connection to professionals like Peter. We talk more often, so I wasn't surprised when he e-mailed me a copy of his testimony along with a short summary of what he told the subcommittee. Here his "take home" message, to which I have added my own comments.

First, there should not be legal constraints on what woody biomass is and what it isn't. Presumably one of our objectives is to protect the largest and oldest trees in the northern Rockies from the onslaught of insects and wildfire. We can't do this unless we remove at least some of the countless thousands of trees that are choking the life out of trees we hope to save. These trees, which come in all sizes and ages, are fueling very large and unnatural wildfires - fires that burn well beyond what ecologists call "the range of natural variability," a fancy phrase that means we can't find ecological evidence anywhere in the West for past fires that burned with such destructive force.

Second, Congress needs to clear the way for development of a bio-energy industry in the West and they need to do it quickly. Woody biomass is already a major energy source in Germany, Sweden and Finland. Clearly, the technologies we need to deploy already exist. My guess is that these technologies work very well because if they didn't the environmentally sensitive Europeans would not be burning wood to heat and light their cities and towns.

Third, Congress needs to streamline the process by which dead and dying trees can be legally removed from federal forests. As things now stand it can take upwards of 10 years for the Forest Service to complete required documentation on thinnings no larger than a football field. The entire forest planning process has become a "gotcha game" that is little more than a feeding ground for lawyers.

Fourth, Congress needs to get serious about conserving the intellectual capacity and manufacturing infrastructure that has been the cornerstone of the West's forest products industry for more than 100 years. Professional foresters and loggers have unique skill sets that come only with long years of experience. Peter likens their skills to those held by U.S. Air pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, who calmly put his doomed Airbus 320 down in the Hudson River without the loss of a single life among his 155 passengers.

I probably would not have used this analogy, but I understand it. The lumber industry in the West is at a tipping point. If it loses much more of its core manufacturing capacity it will collapse like a house of cards. That collapse has already occurred in the Southwest, scene of the West's sickest forests, and it will soon occur in eastern Oregon and western Montana. Some will regard the death of our long suffering industry as a major victory. I do not. If we lose our industry we will also lose our capacity to care for our forests.

I know this sounds silly to people who don't know much about forests. My friend Alan Houston, a PhD wildlife biologist in Tennessee explained it to me better than anyone ever has. We were out walking one fall morning in 1996 when he turned to me out of the blue and said something so memorable that I've never forgotten it. 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."

Bottom line: nature does not give a hoot in hell about our needs. If we want to conserve the forests we have we must care for them. We've been shirking our responsibility to our forests - and ourselves - for at least 20 years. Somewhere along the road to the future we bought into the crazy idea that if we just leave our forests alone they will take care of themselves and us. This is nonsense. Our forests long ago lost whatever self-correcting capacity they once had. Short of large-scale human intervention - the long term thinning and restoration program I write about so often - we will lose them. Were I a member of Congress I would not want this to happen on my watch.

Peter describes what he calls "the reality of a pest-induced fuel load." Let me explain. When forests are attacked by insects or diseases, the most resistant trees usually survive. Call it survival of the fittest, because that's what it is and that's how evolution works. But the catastrophic fires we are witnessing today are such that no tree can survive, no matter how resilient to insects and disease they may be. We are now at risk of losing our best trees, those with natural genetic superiority. It is - in Peter's words - an "ecological travesty."

"Management is about making forests more resilient so that their components have the capacity to survive big fires, insect and disease infestations and climate change," he explains. "It's silly to think we can somehow fireproof a forest. We can't, but we can increase the forest's ability to recover from catastrophic events. This should be our goal."

The wildfires we are witnessing today are fueled by hundreds of tons of downed woody debris - per acre. These fires do not just kill trees. They also kill the soil. At ground level, the furnace-like heat is so intense that it melts the organic layer where plants take root, transforming it into a waxy substance that water cannot easily penetrate. Once the soil has lost its capacity to absorb water, flash flooding and erosion are inevitable. And because there is no organic layer left, nothing can grow. There are places along the Idaho-Montana divide where the trees have never grown back in the aftermath of the Great 1910 Fire. Brush will eventually colonize the most fire-ravaged sites, but it may take hundreds of years.

Some environmentalists are now counseling a go slow approach to the crisis we are facing. It is as though they believe science does not know how to deal with this situation. But we do know how. We have nearly 100 years of experimental thinnings scattered all over the western United States. There is an enormous body of scientific work that lights the pathway before us. This work has been replicated hundreds of times, and in science successful replication is the Holy Grail.

The question our society must ask itself is whether leaving our forests to nature's vagaries is morally acceptable. In a country that is dependent on its forests for so many things - including clean air and water - can we really run the risk of losing forests that provide us with so much? I don't think so.

Make no mistake. Our western national forests are falling apart before our very eyes. So are our logging and sawmilling communities - the intellectual capacity Peter that talked about. This capacity comes from practical experience and is decades in the making. Many in Congress don't care that this hands on experience with nature is disappearing, but many others do, and so do I.

We care because these are family owned businesses that have been the economic, social and intellectual cornerstones of their rural communities for more than 100 years. Talk about sustainability! Their generational commitments to their communities and their deep understanding of how forests function cannot be replicated any easier than we can replace the mysterious natural genetic superiority held by entire forests that we are losing to insects, diseases and terrible wildfires.

Congress can whistle past this graveyard if it wants to, but never let it be said that we did not know how to avoid the ecological, social and cultural travesty that we are witnessing.

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