As the West faces one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, the Trump administration has proposed new reforms to improve the health of America’s forests. The changes have come under fire from some environmental groups claiming it is just a guise to harvest more timber and not improve forest health. There are some more moderate groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, that recognize the benefits of active forest management to reduce fuel loads.
The Trump administration recently announced a plan for active management to address the forest fire problem. This proposal is limited on specifics, but it calls for more collaboration with state and local officials, increased efforts to reduce fuel load (thinning and prescribed burning) and active use of science and modeling to identify trouble spots to prioritize.
A key component of the new strategy is to prioritize investment decisions on forest treatments in direct coordination with states using the most advanced science tools. This allows the USFS to increase the scope and scale of critical forest treatments that protect communities and create resilient forests. From satellite imaging to computerized landscape mapping to scientific research on tree mortality, there are many ways that science and technology can help the USFS be smarter with its limited budget.
The USFS will also build upon the authorities created by the 2018 Omnibus Bill, including new categorical exclusions for land treatments to improve forest conditions, new road maintenance authorities, and longer stewardship contracting in strategic areas. The agency will continue streamlining its internal processes to make environmental analysis more efficient and timber sale contracts more flexible.
The Omnibus Bill also includes a longterm “fire funding fix,” starting in FY 2020, that will stop the rise of the 10-year average cost of fighting wildland fire and reduce the likelihood of the disruptive practice of transferring funds from Forest Service nonfire programs to cover firefighting costs. The USFS claims this funding change came after years of bipartisan work in Congress that will ultimately stabilize the agency’s operating environment.
“On my trip to California this week, I saw the devastation that these unprecedented wildfires are having on our neighbors, friends and families,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “We commit to work more closely with the states to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires. We commit to strengthening the stewardship of public and private lands.”
Both federal and private managers of forest land face a range of urgent challenges, among them catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, degraded watersheds, and epidemics of forest insects and disease. The conditions fueling these circumstances are not improving. Of particular concern are longer fire seasons, the rising size and severity of wildfires, and the expanding risk to communities, natural resources, and firefighters.
“The challenges before us require a new approach,” said Interim USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them.”
The USFS has released a report explaining its new approach. You can read the entire document at:
A group of scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have studied tree mortality over the last few years and have reached some shocking conclusions about the amount of trees that will die in the Southwest over the next 50 to 100 years. The lead researcher on the project, Nathan McDowell, commented in an interview with Pallet Enterprise, “The forest management sector has the greatest opportunity to really help mitigate climate change. And that is because through the management of large tracts of land the earth can absorb more carbon. People talk about different geoengineering ideas. Those things are drops in the bucket compared to what the earth’s forests do. These forests suck up 30% of our fossil fuel emissions every year.”
McDowell added, “When trees are dead, they don’t take carbon out of the atmosphere. So, they are not doing their service. And they decompose, so they actually put out more CO2. Now harvesting trees and turning them into lumber or wood products is a way to store carbon. Harvesting when done wisely is a good thing to do.”