With smoke enveloping Wallowa County and the governor declaring another wildfire State of Emergency, we need fresh perspective on forestry and forest management. The forests of eastern Oregon have been dramatically modified by human activity since the late 1800s. These changes have reduced forest resiliency to wildfire, insects and disease –– and climate change is amplifying these threats.
Scientists largely agree that we can do something about this. Over the past 30 years, research and new management strategies have broadened our understanding of forest systems, and how to manage for resilience. The effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments to reduce wildfire severity is one example.
While we lacked conclusive evidence 10 years ago, the scientific literature has expanded significantly. Numerous reviews of this evidence conclude the same thing –– that fuel reduction treatments reduce wildfire severity in mixed-conifer forests if they treat surface fuels (especially by prescribed burning), retain the larger fire resistant trees and open the canopy.
The interaction of stand conditions, fuel loads, plant succession and climate are complex. Thinning does affect fire lengths and rates of spread in drier fine fuels below a restoration treatment. But the overall effect remains a reduction in wildfire severity since fuel loads and connectivity are reduced.
Properly implemented fuel reduction treatments result in more low severity fires running through the understory and fewer high severity stand-replacing fires. The reduction in stand density, and increased air flow, also mitigates insect infestations. These are all good restoration outcomes.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group, agrees. They identified eastern Oregon as an area where management actions can help “bend the climate curve” away from the potential for complete forest loss. Analysis published in 2016 calls for fuel treatments to prevent crown fires and thinning to reduce insect mortality, and for Congress and the public to give forest managers greater flexibility to achieve long-term forest health goals.
The Wallowa Whitman National Forest has recently signed two project decisions that incorporate these recommendations in their design: the Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project and the Lostine Corridor Public Safety Project. While differing in their primary purpose, both projects are based on an improved knowledge of forest ecosystems, and fire behavior.
Both highlight the profound shift from a more open and diverse forest landscape a century ago to a denser more homogeneous forest landscape today. These changes are well documented by ecological historians, comparative photos and recent stand exams. And they both advance new approaches to forest management designed to restore forest resiliency, as well as provide the structure, species composition and landscape patterns important to wildlife conservation including old growth protection and restoration.
Today more people understand the wildfire risk posed by dense stands, crowded with shade tolerant species that provide ladder fuels, which transport ground fires into the canopy and cause the most severe disturbance to a forest. Less attention has been paid to the effects on old growth, on botanical diversity, on native wildlife that require open stands and on water capture, discharge and in-stream flow within a watershed.
Closed, heavily stocked forests are threatening remnant large old trees with moisture deficits and increased fire risk, they typically have little or no understory vegetation and they block anywhere from 10-50 percent of precipitation from reaching the ground.
As a result, forests today provide less habitat to species that use open mature forests or understory vegetation for nesting, roosting and feeding including a range of woodpeckers, bumblebees, butterflies and terrestrial snails. Closed forests also reduce forage for elk, deer and livestock often resulting in more grazing pressure on riparian areas and private rangeland.
Given the rapid advances in scientific understanding of forest ecosystems, the evolution of new forest management practices designed to advance restoration goals and the threat posed by current conditions and climate change, it’s imperative that we engage fully with the USFS and work together to “bend the climate curve” and save our forests.
We need to engage with each other and commit to shared learning, agree to try things, monitor them and assess the results. We also need to respect the good work being done by scientists, consider the collective evidence and results available, and be willing to challenge isolated scientific results that merely confirm our existing beliefs or values.
Wallowa County was an early pioneer in collaboration with the USFS starting with the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed back in October 2000. These collaborative processes continue at the county level through our Natural Resources Advisory Committee and through the Wallowa Whitman Forest Collaborative. All of these are open public meetings and seek to consider the best available science (including local knowledge) in our deliberations and decisions. Anyone with an interest or concern about a project in Wallowa County is encouraged to engage with us.
Nils D. Christoffersen is executive director of Wallowa Resources in Enterprise.