TAMING THE FOREST SERVICE'S FIRE CULTURE
The National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho, predicts that 2018 will be the third godawful western wildfire season in a row.
Predictive models that monitor atmospheric and oceanic activity in the South Pacific point to a third summer marred by 300-foot flame lengths, choking carcinogenic smoke and death.
You can watch tragedy unfold daily – sometimes hourly – on the NIFC website, or by following Mike Archer’s excellent – and free - Wildfire News of the Day, news service. Also, Facts + Statistics: Wildfires, a data heavy website run by the Insurance Information Institute.
Now that Congress has resolved the fire funding mess – at least temporarily - Interim Forest Service Chief, Vicki Christiansen, has had much to say about how she intends to more aggressively attack these fires and their primary underlying cause: countless millions of dying trees that are choking the life out of some 80 to 90 million acres of publicly-owned forestland the western United States.
These National Forests have lost the ability to fend off naturally reoccurring insects and diseases. Minus an unprecedented national response – something on the scale of the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe post-World War II – nature will do the cleanup work Congress has thus far been unwilling to do.
Ms. Christiansen’s candor is timely and welcome news given the growing public fear that the beleaguered Forest Service is surrendering its commendable fighting legacy. Last summer’s 190,000-acre Chetco Bar Fire on the southern Oregon coast did enormous damage to the agency’s reputation.
Two local businesses with significant fire-fighting assets offered to extinguish the blaze when it was less than 10 acres in size. “Thanks, but no thanks,” the Forest Service’s Gold Beach, Oregon office advised.
What the hell were they thinking? But for an unexpected change in wind direction, Brookings, Oregon would have been overrun by flames.
The blunt answer to my question is that they weren’t thinking.
More alarming, many in the Forest Service have been seduced by a small cadre of snake oil salesmen peddling the romantic notion that nature knows best, that human intervention in these terribly diseased forests will make matters worse by impairing nature’s healing powers.
I am again compelled to share a wisdom handed to me more than 20 years ago by Alan Houston, a PhD wildlife biologist whose work I greatly admire. We were hiking on east Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau on a sparkling October morning when, out of the blue, he turned to me and said something so memorable I can still quote it verbatim:
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 devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”
Vicki Christiansen faces no greater challenge than the pressing need to tame the Forest Service’s Fire Culture by imbuing it with Alan’s wisdom. Recall that this is the Culture that replaced the agency’s much maligned Forestry Culture after the federal government listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990.
Those who subsequently re-wrote the rules and regulations by which the Forest Service lives simply pushed the Forestry Culture over a cliff. It wouldn’t be needed anymore. Nature knows best. Period.
How do you like the fiery result so far?
I don’t like it at all. Spending $2-plus billion annually in a losing battle against the Fire Gods is preposterous. And that’s just the government’s firefighting bill. We also count lives lost and property losses, but has any government agency attempted to account for the losses to forests: trees, fish and wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water and lost recreation opportunity? Not that I know of, but it must run into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
Fire has historically played an essential role in forests the world over, but the kind of fire we are witnessing in the West today isn’t simply the isolated response of nature to a singular element of influence. Herein lies the wildfire paradox – the misinformed idea that the practice of excluding wildfires from forests is the best way to prevent fire. In fact, completely excluding fire over time ensures fire will exponentially increase in size and severity. Woody debris/biomass - the accumulation of fallen trees, limbs, needles, brush, grass, logging debris – increase rapidly in the absence of fuel reduction. Fuel reduction includes harvest, selective harvest, salvage, and frequent, low-intensity natural fire in managed forests and controlled/prescribed burns.
Excluding fire also allows thin-barked shade-tolerant tree species, like white fir and grand fir, to overtake millions of acres of land where thick barked, shade intolerant tree species, like ponderosa pine, lodgepole and western larch, were once dominant. This in turn impacts wildlife, plants, soil, streams, rivers, creeks, watersheds...it is all connected.
Result: a damned mess and damned little time remaining in which to straighten it out as best we can.
We can’t log our way out of this crisis, as the bygone Forestry Culture would have suggested, nor can we burn our way out, as today’s Fire Culture would suggest. Science doesn't support either practice, and the public won’t stand for it.
Does anyone know how much private capital has been invested in firefighting equipment since the Clinton Administration shoved the Forestry Culture over a cliff? I don’t, but it probably tops $1 billion.
How unfortunate that this capital wasn’t instead invested in wood processing infrastructure. It wasn’t because the private markets don’t trust the federal government. Even the Nature Conservancy can’t find a lumberman willing to share the risk in a $125 million investment in a new and much needed small log sawmill in central Washington.
How ironic. Capital investments in fire-fighting equipment are a safe bet, but investments in state-of-the-art wood processing technologies that rely on a stable and adequate federal log supply aren’t. There is something terribly wrong with this picture.
Ms. Christiansen must rebalance our National Forest management priorities. Forestry Culture first. Fire Culture second. The goal here being to reduce the threat of wildfire by preemptively removing as much fuel as possible before it is ignited by summer lightning or careless campers.
Rebuilding the Forest Service’s once preeminent Forestry Culture will take time and may cost as much as $2 billion taxpayer dollars annually for three to five years. Chump change when compared to the horrific wildfire losses we are suffering.
Upcoming here at www.evergreenmagazine.com is a five-part interview with Michael Rains, one of the finest minds the Forest Service ever employed. Now retired, he tutors kids with special education needs. Before selecting the now gone Tony Tooke, the Trump Administration had Mr. Rains on its short list of candidates to be Forest Service Chief. He had high praise for Interim Chief, Vicki Christiansen, when word came that she would be replacing Mr. Tooke, who resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct.
In our wide-ranging interview, Mr. Rains answers our long list of questions concerning the pressing need to reorganize, refocus and recalibrate the Forest Service. His vision is both insightful and timely...stay tuned.