Burning issue of forest management

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As of Monday, June 24, 2002, the U.S. National Incident Information Center said there were seven “active large fires” blazing in Colorado, another four in Utah; three in Arizona; two in New Mexico; and one each in Georgia, Nevada, and Wyoming.

Are we experiencing more large wildfires than ever before? On Aug. 20, 1988, a date called “Black Sunday” in the history of Yellowstone National Park, more square miles burned in a single 24-hour period than had burned during any decade since the park was established in 1872. By the time the last fire was declared out on Nov. 18, 1988, about 794,000 acres, or 36 percent of the park, had burned.

Wildfires burned across nearly 3 million acres of the West during the summer of 1994. The spring of 2000 brought the devastating fire that swept through Los Alamos, New Mexico. So far this year, acres involved in active fires totaled 2.3 million, well above the 10-year average of 948,400 acres for the same January to June period.

In the 1990s and early 2000, massive fires burned millions of acres in the West and claimed more than 50 lives and hundreds of homes.

These raging wildfires across the United States have generated heated debates on proper forest management practices.

He said, she said. Opponents to current management strategies claim logging, overgrazing and fire suppression combine to produce conditions ripe for devastating fires. “Logging often exacerbates flammable conditions and under the same conditions, older, unmanaged forests burn at low intensity,” said Evan Frost, a conservation biologist with the Greater Ecosystem Alliance.

Others claim we are becoming less successful in fire suppression efforts, because fuels continue to accumulate in unburned and otherwise unmanaged parts of forests.

“Until we start dealing with the underlying problem – overly dense stands of dead and dying timber – I’m afraid this situation will only get worse,” says Chadwick Oliver, Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at the Yale Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry.

Working together. In Arizona, both sides were able to work together to try a new management experiment. The Grand Canyon Forests Partnership includes the Flagstaff Fire Department, Northern Arizona University, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and independent environmentalists.

The partnership is calling the strategy “ecosystem management” and “bioregional sustainability” – the management of whole ecosystems to renew forest resources, while simultaneously allowing the extraction of a portion of those resources to meet local demands.

The coalition plans to thin 100,000 acres of woodlands in the Coconino National Forest – 10,000 acres a year for the next 10 years – to reduce the threat of destructive fires. They’re cutting tree clusters and clearing out undergrowth, while reseeding native grasses and closing some access roads.

They call these management practices “forest restoration,” as opposed to “reforestation.” The idea is an example in a shift in the Forest Service’s traditional approach, from conservation to that of ecosystem management.

There is no “one size fits all” forest management plan that will work across the country and, as author Paul W. Hirt reminds us, unfortunately “political considerations often exercise a controlling influence over biological decisions.”

But the debate over improving the health of national forests must continue, and the table must seat hydrologists, wildlife managers, ecologist, soil scientists and other trained scientists.

“The Yellowstone fire was a wakeup call for many scientists, including me. Unless we soon begin the long process of dealing with diseased forests that are prone to very hot stand-replacing fires, restoring natural ecosystems as we do, Yellowstone-scale fires are a serious probability,” said Jack Ward Thomas, retired Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

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