University of Montana Ecologists: Forest Service should use wildfires to thin and restore forests

University of Montana Ecologists: Forest Service should use wildfires to thin and restore forests

Following a wildfire in 2003, the Lolo National Forest in Montana prioritized an industrial logging project directly adjacent to the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula, Montana. The timber sale would have logged forests like this, on both sides of a popular hiking trail with direct access to the Wilderness and more than 15 miles away from the nearest home or structure. Following some public education and media tours to the proposed timber sale units (pictured here) the Forest Service dropped their logging plans in 2004 and this forest directly adjacent to the Wilderness was allowed to restore itself naturally. Photo by Matthew Koehler.

Get the full scoop from the Missoula Current. Below are some snips from the recent article.

As paleo-ecologists, Cathy Whitlock and Philip Higuera study past wildfires to better understand fire behavior. But what they see is that wildfires today are very different because of the Earth’s changing climate….

Higuera said that since the 1980s, the area consumed each year by wildfires is 10 times larger than the area that the Forest Service can log, thin, burn or restore.

“It forces you to recognize that you’re not going to get out of this problem simply by doing more treatment to the landscape,” Higuera said. “It’s unlikely that we would be able to eliminate years like 2017. So we need to expect and plan for more years like 2017.”

Whitlock and Higuera agreed that because wildfires are going to happen with increasing regularity as summers get hotter and drier, the Forest Service should use them as a tool to restore forest health. As long as they don’t threaten lives, wildfires can burn out all the dead wood and excess vegetation, setting the stage for a more healthy ecosystem.

Treatment projects tend to be small due to funding limits. So they should be focused on areas around people’s homes where they can make a difference, Higuera said.

The human factor can be a problem because people expect the Forest Service to put fires out. Also, too many people are building their homes in forested areas – the wildland-urban interface – that are bound to burn. In any given wildfire, firefighters spend an increasing amount of time and effort and risk lives to save homes rather than fighting fire.

Since 1990, 2 million new homes have been built in the wildland-urban interface – mostly in fire-prone low-elevation forests. Already 900,000 homes are in zones of high fire risk. By 2040, it is projected that 40 percent of the WUI will have an increased risk of burning, according to a 2015 University of Colorado study.

“I think that’s where the conversation needs to focus,” Whitlock said.

Education is needed to make people aware of the threats so they don’t build in risk-prone areas, but also so they understand the positive aspects of wildfire. Americans need to accept the inevitability of fire like they accept the inevitability of earthquakes or tornadoes, Higuera said.

“The forests are continually adapting to climate change and one way is by burning. I think what we’re seeing is the forests are equilibrating to climate change. The trouble is the climate is still changing. But these fires really should be thought of as a natural ecological process of adjusting to a new climate,” Whitlock said.


via A New Century of Forest Planning

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