Front and Center: Triage Forestry

Front and Center: Triage Forestry

In a recent three-part essay – posted January 4, 6 and 8 on our website - I said I thought it was time for the federal government to declare war on wildfire in the West. “War” meaning more thinning and more prescribed fire in western national forests that are exposed to extreme wildfire risk. Active management. Triage in forestry.

The MASH television series portrays the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  It shows medical triage in action. We have Dr. Jonathan Letterman to thank for this lifesaving innovation. Letterman was Medical Director for the North’s Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.

Letterman set up field dressing stations as close to battlefields as possible. Wounded soldiers were color-coded according to the seriousness of their injuries. Green: slight; yellow, mild; red, severe; and black, mortal. Letterman’s system gained prominence during World War 1 and is still in use in war zones today.


Now U.S. Forest Service leadership is modifying the concept for use in western forests. Using survey data from federal, state, and private forestlands. It is working on a triage system that will prioritize forests needing treatment immediately or a little later, depending on their condition.

The data sets the Forest Service is using were assembled by the agency’s Rocky Mountain Research Station at Fort Collins, Colorado, but the actual collecting and monitoring work, which began in the 1930s, is done by the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis [FIA] program.

The data sets are voluminous: 9.431 million aerial photos, 377,210 survey plots and 23,760 forest health plots that are a subset of the survey plots. Data is collected by ground survey, airplanes and satellites.

You can read our most recent report, FIA DATA: THE GOLD STANDARD here. We have been citing these data sets in our research and writing for close to 30 years.

Ironically, FIA’s maps displaying disease, mortality and fire risk use the same green, yellow, red and black color scheme. You’ll find several maps in our GOLD STANDARD report. All of them feature interactive using QR codes. The last page features a map displaying all 3,142 counties, boroughs and parishes in the United States. Click on the one of your choice and find survey data specific to that county, borough or parish.


We have seen a still incomplete draft Forest Service PowerPoint that we think is a good start in the right direction. Its stated goal is to treat 20 million additional acres over the next 10 years. The cost is about $1,000 per acre. This equates to about 40 percent of each watershed – an amount sufficient to significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

We don’t know how this draft plan will mesh with CAL FIRE’s recently unveiled plan here but there is a crossroad somewhere out ahead of us that will provoke discussion between Congress and California legislators. The devil is always in the details where national forest planning and management are concerned. Here, Congress must deal with four devils:

  • Publicly-funded serial litigation from the anti-forestry crowd
  • A national budget that is already bursting at the seams
  • A shortage of 10,000-15,000 Forest Service professionals – scientists, engineers, foresters and technicians – needed to do the proposed on-the-ground work.
  • A shortage of wood processing infrastructure that began with the federal government’s politically-driven 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species.


We know that Forest Service leadership – including Chief Vicki Christiansen – is under enormous political pressure from the anti-forestry crowd to turn a blind eye to the West’s wildfire pandemic. Why? Because forestry’s haters will never admit that science-based forest management is our best tool for protecting forests from catastrophic wildfire. Never mind that the Forest Service plan – which is far from complete – incorporates data sets that account for carbon sequestration, climate change, water, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

  • Sequestration and climate change because forests store large amount of carbon that wildfires otherwise pump into the atmosphere as carcinogenic smoke.
  • Water because about 80 percent of all municipal water consumed in western cities and towns comes from forests.
  • Wildlife habitat because millions of acres of it have been lost in stand-replacing wildfires over the last 10 years – including spotted owl habitat set aside in no-harvest reserves.
  • Outdoor recreation because public surveys consistently reveal that the four qualities Americans want most from their forests are clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.

This latter goal – protecting outdoor recreation – strikes at the heart of every American’s fervent wish. The wish that Congress and the Forest Service will be able to rescue the West’s national forests from the ravages of insects, diseases and inevitable wildfire. Other forest owners – states, tribes and private – do it well. Why not the federal government?

We applaud Forest Service leadership for facing the political fires in order to quell the real ones that are destroying America’s western forest heritage.

It’s Biden-time in America. Set your watches accordingly.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Evergreen Magazine.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.