Fostering Better Forest Policy With Science
By Cameron Naficy
A widespread notion is that fire suppression has greatly altered fire regimes across
the West and is therefore largely responsible for the large, severe wildfires
witnessed in recent years. This logic even lies at the base of national policies
such as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) and Healthy Forests Initiative
(HFI) which emphasize widespread logging and prescribed fire to ameliorate the
effects of fire suppression and reduce the likelihood of large fires. However,
significant scientific debate exists about the extent and historical causes of forest change as well as the best management responses to these changes.
Recent studies have begun to highlight many potential dangers of rushing
headfirst into widespread logging and burning practices, as is currently advocated
by national policies. Just as fire suppression was thought to be a beneficial policy
for forest health and public safety and yet we now find ourselves in part the victim
of a century of fire suppression policies, we need to be sure that current thinning
and burning policies do not, in the long run, actually worsen the very problem they
aim to solve. In order to avoid such an outcome, solid scientific principles must
exist as the foundation of management policy and practice. Over the last several
years, the WildWest Institute has been working with forest ecologists at the
University of Montana to help fill the scientific gap at the base of current national forest policies. The following is a brief review of our research and other relevant scientific findings that should help to form the basis for forest management policies and practices on public lands.
At the heart of the scientific debate about the causes of recent large wildfires is
whether they are climate driven or the result of altered forest conditions due to
past human influences. With increasing clarity, new studies suggest that climate
change is driving wildfire behavior, with warmer springs, earlier snowmelt, and
longer, drier fire seasons contributing to the increased size and severity of wildfires. However, for some low and middle elevation dry forests, many scientists have hypothesized that dense forest conditions associated with a century of fire suppression play a significant role in fueling recent large wildfires.
While fire suppression has certainly contributed to changes in modern forest
conditions, other human activities such as logging and grazing have also contributed
to these changes. However, their effects are much less understood.
Our work with University of Montana scientists has attempted to quantify the long
term contributions that historical logging has made to forest conditions associated
with today’s large fires. We have established a network of study sites throughout
Idaho and Montana, scattered throughout the Frank Church/River of No Return,
Selway-Bitterroot and Gospel Hump Wilderness Areas, the Salmon River of Idaho, and seven mountain ranges in Montana including the Salish, Swan, Coeur d’ Alene, and Bitterroot Mountains in the west and the Little Belts, Big Belts, and the Little
Snowies in eastern Montana. We have measured forest characteristics at each of these sites, now totaling over 60 sample points, comparing logged and unlogged, fire
suppressed and fire maintained forests.
Results show that historical logging has greatly exacerbated the effects of fire
exclusion in dry forests of Montana and Idaho, contributing to the dense forest
conditions which may be partly responsible for large wildfires in some forest types. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, according to Forest Service studies, 99% of old growth ponderosa pine forests in Montana have been logged. This means that only 1% of old growth ponderosa pine forest has experienced fire suppression alone, without the confounding effects of
Yet, federal forest policies are based largely on the assumption that fire
suppression alone has caused the dense forest conditions that may contribute to the size and severity of wildfires. We have found that this assumption is invalid.
Secondly, our research suggests that disturbance associated with many logging
methods often results in long term increases in forest density. This finding urges
caution in implementing logging techniques for fuels reduction and restoration whose
goals are often to reduce stand density. Such caution may be particularly important
in previously unlogged forests and roadless areas where logging has not already
Taken together, the best science-based and economically viable response to large
wildfires should include a conservative and targeted approach to fuels reduction and
restoration practices. Fuel reduction projects should be placed adjacent to priority
communities, where they provide the best protection to human lives and property, can
be more easily maintained, and cause the least ecological damage. Ecologically-based
forest restoration is a more complicated issue, but it is clear that it should seek
to address the full range of human impacts on natural landscapes, not just those
associated with fire suppression. Past logging, grazing, roadbuilding, weed invasions, failing culverts, tree planting and the removal of
large predators are necessary aspects for restoration to address.
Furthermore, restoration must integrate broad policy changes with project level
implementation for it to achieve the best results. For example, forest thinning to
restore open forest conditions in areas where forest policy still mandates active
fire suppression cannot be considered restoration. This is due, in part, to the fact
that ecological restoration must emphasize the return of forest processes, not
particular conditions. While structural alterations may be necessary in some cases
before natural processes can be restored, if forest policies prevent natural
processes from functioning, then these areas should not be priority areas for
Finally, the current push to thin huge swaths of forest may be very unwise,
resulting in many negative, long lasting, and unintended side affects. Thinning for
restoration should be viewed as a new, experimental, and untested activity that
deserves further study and long term monitoring. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the same position we are now in with failing federal budgets and a burdensome legacy of degraded wildlands, a result of our failure to look before we leap.
Cameron Naficy is the WildWest Institute’s Staff Ecologist