Active Forest Conservation Beats Passive Preservation: Addressing Accumulated Forest Fuels Can Yield a Triple Win

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Active Forest Conservation Beats Passive Preservation—Public policies thwart managers from restoring forests and effecting long-term fuel reduction designed to protect wood, water, wildlife and other values.

During the past twenty years, conditions on national forestlands across the West have steadily declined. Tree mortality has reached the highest level in 55 years.
A century of fire exclusion and a 90 percent decrease in national forest timber harvests have allowed unprecedented fuel loads to accumulate on public forestlands and increased the incidence of large-scale, high-intensity wildfires. These big fires put ecological, economic, and social values at serious risk.
Although active management can improve forest conditions, public policies thwart managers from restoring forests and effecting long-term fuel reduction designed to protect wood, water, wildlife and other values. Rather than allowing managers to practice conservation, our policies tend to keep managers out of public forests.
Passive management is appropriate in designated wilderness areas, but even there we cannot preserve dynamic forest ecosystems in a static state. Passive preservationist policies fail to recognize that when forests are left alone, they change. For one, they add more wood. How much?
In California, only about a quarter of the new forest growth each year is harvested. When forest change factors — growth, mortality and harvest — are considered together, California’s forests add 1.4 billion cubic feet of wood, enough to cover a football field with a stack of wood five miles high every year.

Fueling high-intensity wildfire
Accumulated wood sets the stage for big fires. Western wildfires now release on average more than 105 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, more than the emissions from 20 million passenger cars (14 million cars are on California’s roads). More carbon is emitted as dead trees decay.
Instead of passively allowing fuel to accumulate, we can actively conserve forest resources to reduce the wildfire threat, provide essential wood products and recreational opportunities, enhance biodiversity and water quality, and help curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Preservation makes us casual observers of what happens in our forests. Conservation lets us take an active role in our forests’ future.
Conservation also forces us to make some tough decisions about our forests, starting with, what do we want our forests to look like? Given the fuel accumulations on much of our public lands, the answer is something other than what exists today.
Foresters call this the ‘desired future condition,’ and it drives everything else. If we know what we want our forests to look like, managers can work towards that end by applying the science and technology that underpin the forestry profession. Conservation targets a specific goal, whereas preservation assumes that whatever results from “natural” forces is preferable to human action – even with unnatural fuel loads that exist today.

Paying for safer forests
Which leads to another crucial question: how will we pay for what we want?
There are two basic options for dealing with forest fuels and sustaining healthy forests: taxpayer dollars or public-private partnerships.
The U.S. Forest Service generally uses tax dollars to reduce fuel loads and improve forest health when allowed to, hiring contractors to do the woods work when there is not enough timber to attract competitive bids to remove excessive fuels. Budget cuts mean there is not enough tax money available to treat all the lands that need it, and wildfire suppression now consumes half of the agency’s budget.
Public-private partnerships encourage private investments in technology and expertise to restore and manage forests. These companies become the cornerstones of many rural communities, with their futures tied to the sustained health of the forests in which they operate. This partnership approach can reduce fuel loads without counting on taxpayer dollars for everything. Through stewardship contracts, private companies perform on-the-ground restoration activities and generate revenue from timber harvested. Public funds are needed only to plan and analyze management proposals.
Today’s regulatory environment favors passive management, not conservation. Planning and analysis costs are exorbitant, and management activities can be blocked indefinitely by appeals and litigation that focus on process details rather than forest conditions. Some change is needed here.
One such change would require appellants to accept some financial responsibility for public costs of defending appeals found to be without merit. Another would be to revise current National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses to include a “no action” alternative among the options land managers must consider. Doing so would make clear the tradeoffs between conservation and preservation.
The trend of declining forest health and worsening wildfires can be reversed. Conservation provides a better alternative than passive attempts at preservation because it provides a triple win. Active management can improve forest conditions and reduce fire danger while providing renewable sources of energy and revitalizing rural communities.

(Courtesy of California Forests magazine.)
Jay O’Laughlin, Ph.D., is professor and full-time director of the College of Natural Resources Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho. He leads the Forestry Task Force for the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance and also serves on its Carbon Issues Task Force.

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