One of our consistent themes is that forest certification systems cannot ignore the economic well-being of foresters and communities if they are to successfully promote sustainable forestry. The same forces are at work in the United States with regard to forest fire policy.
A recent forum in the New York Times offered a range of opinions about how to address the increase in intense forest fire in federal forests. Much of the discussion was about the cost of those fires and how to find funding to prevent and fight massive wildland fire. A couple important issues must be noted.
First, humans are part of the landscape. There is a desire by some to return the forest to a “natural” pattern of fire, one that played a role in these ecosystems for thousands of years. This is not a thoughtful approach. Humans are, and will continue to be, a part of the landscape.
Development near forests means we have to protect those communities and that we have whittled down some of the available habitat for wildlife. The latter means we have a smaller margin of error when preserving the range of habitat types across an ecosystem. I worked on a forest fire in the North Cascades where a spotted owl nest was destroyed by a lightning-caused fire. Should we have let it burn, killing a threatened species, simply because the fire started naturally?
Prior to civilization, forest ecosystems could handle habitat destruction in a way they can’t now. Glibly calling fire “natural” and pretending humans can be removed from equation isn’t an approach that makes any sense for humans or wildlife.
Second, there is a reason the debate over forest fire centers around federal lands: funding. Forests that generate revenue, like private or state trust lands, have the funding available to do the thinning and other treatments that are necessary. Thinning can do some of the work that fire used to do by removing small trees and allowing larger trees to grow and become healthy and fire-resistant. Now that we (properly) fight fires, some other activity must play that role. The federal government, however, doesn’t have the money to undertake those activities.
There is a great deal of discussion of the funding issues in the New York Times forum. One of the authors has suggestions for how to budget. Another writes “Money matters, but…” The basic issue, however, is that without revenue generation on federal lands, there will never be the funding available to prevent forest ecosystems from becoming unnaturally fire-prone — overstocked with many small trees all competing for water, light and nutrients.
Rather than allow some responsible forestry, some advocates want us to “rethink development patterns” and use social “planning” that would allow massive fires to burn while limiting the risk to communities. This does not, however, address the impact of those fires on forest ecosystems. Over a century, perhaps, allowing massive fires to burn could return the forest to a more natural state, but the cost in the interim would be massive. This is obvious that fire is being used as a political tool to promote a particular view of social planning.
In the end, there are two ways to return federal forests to a more healthy, natural state. We can let them burn, hoping the cost to communities and ecosystems will be worth it decades from now. The alternative is to create a sustainable funding source for forest restoration by generating revenue from those forests with some harvesting. It is the approach that works on private and state trust lands across the country.
It is certainly true that federal forests are often more remote and are a more difficult place to fight fires. Hamstringing ourselves by limiting the available funding becomes all the more foolish in that circumstance.
There is a notion that separating forestry from issues of “money” will be good for forests. Where we see such an approach attempted, however, it often fails because it ignores the reality that humans have an impact on forests. Certification systems were created to recognize that reality, offering a financial benefit for sound forest management. Federal forest fire policy could learn something from that approach. If we don’t provide a financial benefit to those who manage forests responsibly by reducing the risk of fire, we will continue to lament enormous fires and the inability to find funding to fight and prevent them.