Science Policy Forum: Managing Forests and Fire in Changing Climate

Scientists claim policy focused on fire suppression only delays the inevitable. Read more here. The opening paragraph and names of the authors are below.

With projected climate change, we expect to face much more forest fire in the coming decades. Policymakers are challenged not to categorize all fires as destructive to ecosystems simply because they have long flame lengths and kill most of the trees within the fire boundary. Ecological context matters: In some ecosystems, high-severity regimes are appropriate, but climate change may modify these fire regimes and ecosystems as well. Some undesirable impacts may be avoided or reduced through global strategies, as well as distinct strategies based on a forest’s historical fire regime.

Authors: S. L. Stephens, J. K. Agee, P. Z. Fulé, M. P. North, W. H. Romme, T. W. Swetnam, M. G. Turner

15 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for posting this, Matthew!
    This is a good example of what I call “sleight of science” with a twist of “past should equal future except for climate change”.
    1. Note that it is in the op-ed section of Science. This is an opinion piece of scientists. So basically what scientists think with citations to research, not actual research. But of course research in this area is cited, as it would be by those who hold opposing views.

    Now, I have had scientist friends whose op-eds have been rejected by Science. Perhaps due to their views themselves and not due to the citations used? It would be great for a journalism student to analyze what pieces are accepted for Science op-eds about forestry through time..

    2. Note that the last paragraph “Fire policy that focuses on suppression only delays the inevitable, promising more dangerous and destructive future forest fi res. In contrast, land management agencies could identify large firesheds (20,000 to 50,000 ha) where, under specified weather conditions, managed wildfire and large prescribed fire are allowed to burn, sometimes after strategic mechanical fuel treatments.

    Here’s the “sleight of science”- there is no “fire policy that focuses on suppression only”. So arguing that it’s a bad approach is kind of silly. But it makes it appear to readers of Science who don’t know better that there is someone out there in management/policy with Really Bad Ideas. The “in contrast” idea is being done under fire use plans…maybe the mechanical fuel treatments are not “strategic” but…actually it sounds like they are working on that with Finney in California.

    There is lots about returning to “historic fire regimes” under climate change (which seems difficult) and also “Land managers could anticipate changes using models of species distribution and ecological processes and should consider using assisted migration.”

    Botkin discusses the problems with modeling species distributions and modelling “ecological processes” in his book; I guess “assisted migration” must use those models because just “plantin’ trees,” as many agree is a good idea, is not quite sophisticated enough. (As a geneticist, I would just mix what I planted from that seed zone and the next one south enough so that trees would survive if only one of those “worked” over time).

    But people are really already doing those things, and so what’s the point of this article? As a person who has reviewed a great deal of fire policy, there are usually three branches..
    1) Communities, homes, Firewise CWPPs zoning insurance, etc.
    2) Mechanical treatments and prescribed fire
    3) Suppression.

    I wonder if the reviewers didn’t know that?

    • 1. Note that it is in the op-ed section of Science. This is an opinion piece of scientists. So basically what scientists think with citations to research, not actual research

      Yes, I do realize that Sharon. That’s why I put “Science Policy Forum” front and center in the title here and linked directly to the actual piece so anyone in the world could read it. I never claimed anywhere it was “actual research.” Thanks.

  2. How can we have a “natural fire regime”, with humans running around our crowded forests, lighting intentional (arson) and unintentional wildfires, sometimes near communities, water supplies, protected ESA zones, archaeological sites, powerlines, canals, bridges, roads, dams, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc???? We need mitigation, and not “whatever happens”.

    • Larry: What’s even worse are “historic fire regimes,” which are based on models and have nothing to do with history, much less the differences between “history” and “historic.” The only times I have found any regularity in “fire regimes” in my research has been when people are involved — and by “history” in this context, I’m also including pollen, archaeological, tree rings, and current vegetation studies. People are still smarter than computers, but apparently a lot of us are too insecure to deal with that fact and would rather put their faith in printouts and assumptions based on biased and incomplete data.

      • Bob is right. “Natural” fire played less of a role in the “historic” fire regime than INDUCED fire. If you’ve ever seen Indians burn their ground, you’d understand.
        Everyone yaps about fire intervals, but the real guts of those intervals is the cause. What started the fire? What if lightning starts half the historic fires in OG PP, and then Indians set the rest when Mom nature was asleep at the switch? Could happen….DID happen.

        • Lately, it also seems more important to some HOW the fires start. If the fire is human-caused, some people think it is a bad fire. If a very large fire is lightning caused, those same people call it a good fire. Many people want to severely punish the guy who accidentally let his illegal campfire get away, causing the Rim Fire. Before the ignition source was revealed, some people were touting the benefits of the fire. In the end, does it really matter HOW the fire started, when fuels have been “preserved”, instead of “managed”?

  3. A few observations: Agee, Romme, Swetnam, and the other authors are an all-star team of fire scientists. Their thinking is well worth considering. They endorse important actions:

    (i) Restore resilient forest structure similar to historical patterns that survived during past high-fire periods (and those anticipated in the future)

    (ii) Fund forest restoration. We know how to treat forests to reduce fire hazards, with generally positive or neutral ecological effects….

    However, they (and the USFS in general and others) ought to stop using “restoration,” though that is a term palatable to the general public, and instead emphasize resilence — which in other words is the practice of forestry.

    “Because the federal government has no jurisdiction in development policies in the privately owned urban-wildland interface, state and local jurisdictions could pay for fire suppression in the interface.”

    No jurisdiction, but a lot of influence — for example, via the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Getting state and local jurisdictions to pay for fire suppression in the interface would be nice, but this is unlikely. The Feds will always play a role in suppression outside of federal lands.

    • Steve, that difference is really important, though. Resilience vs. restoration. As you quoted them”historical patterns that survived during past high-fire periods” they are looking to history to help guide the future.. except that the future will be different due to climate. So can you do that? And back to Botkin, why would you try to do that? Because it’s better in some describable way for something that you can identify. Not just because it’s historic and the past had better “ecological function.”

      Because if we think species will be different, weather will be different, climate will be different, I think it’s important to talk about “what we’d like to see” and “how we might get there given what we know.”

      In ii.. they note that trees may not reestablish in some sites.. that would make for different fire regimes so they know that that is likely to happen (unless and even if you plant trees and they grow, the climate will still be different). Most of the authors study fire from the lens of the past so they are somewhat invested in the idea that there is value in “historic patterns.” Others might not be so sure.

      Framing it as resilience, rather than restoration, may work against some of the disciplines we currently look to as experts, who carefully examine past fire regimes.

      • I agree, Sharon, Resilience vs. restoration is critical. Yet it seems to me that it can be appropriate in some cases to look to the most appropriate conditions in the past as more resilient over current conditions. Stands of ponderosa pine, if restored to the proverbial “park-like” conditions of a century or two ago (stand composition, basal area, fire regime, etc,), would certainly be more resilient than current overcrowded, fuel-heavy stands. Not every stand needs to be “restored” and some already are relatively resilient. In some cases, foresters might opt to try a variety of practices to increase resilience, such as reducing basal area even further from past norms, or even mixing in some species they think might do better in anticipated future conditions. I do object to the over-use of “restoration” — the USFS is a serial abuser of the word — but it has its place.

        Also, we don’t know everything yet:

        “Some forests will change to nonforest
        vegetation after fire…. There are no clear
        guidelines for increasing the resilience
        of these forest types—unlike for forests
        adapted to high-frequency, low- to moderateseverity
        fi re regimes—other than minimizing
        additional stresses from excessive grazing,
        recreation, and salvage logging.”

        • Yes, unless people intervene and er.. plant trees to help make systems more “resilient” (shade, diversity of plants, etc.) .

          I also wonder what exactly is being “stressed” by recreation, and why you need to minimize those stresses in some fire regimes compared to others. And “excessive grazing”is OK in other fire regimes? And “salvage logging” should not occur.. but how do we tell if forests will change to nonforest without waiting for trees to grow (and wouldn’t having bare mineral soil through salvage logging help?) . So we actually wouldn’t know if the “changing to nonforest” would occur in time to not salvage log. Unless I guess we used models to tell us where trees will not grow.. and since we don’t understand the components of the model enough to make credible assumptions, then we couldn’t actually do that.

          I’m sure the authors have a rationale for their claims, but perhaps clearer writing or more space for them to explain would have helped.

      • Sharon:

        Your assertion that “the future will be different due to climate” also applies to the past — which was also “different due to climate.” That is why we study the past — to get a clearer idea of how to prepare for the future.

        Were past conditions also “resilient?” That is a question for semanticists and lawyers, not scientists. There are many things we have lost from the past, or that have been tarnished, that we wish could be restored. What are they? One more reason to document past conditions and technologies in an effort to identify and maintain desired qualities or conditions.

        Actually, most of these scientists do NOT study history. They invent mathematical formulas from scarred tree rings and cannot determine whether those scars were caused by people or lightning. Big Difference. Or, consider entire forest species such as Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine which host wildfires in “stand replacement events,” rather than be scarred for life. Agee quotes an “Indian chief” from an 1880s Oregonian article as his contribution to “fire history” in his oft-cited 1993 textbook “Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests.” Then he gets right down to algorithms and other complex analyses of tree rings. So much for “history” and restoration. Or resilience.

        Douglas-fr exists from Mexico to Canada, from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains. Three-needle pine, coyotes, deer, bobcat/lynx, camas, Atlantic salmon, whales, and many, many other species have an even wider range. Especially humans. Do you think they will be capable of adapting to climate change? When they already have done just that, and the proof is everywhere we look?

        The Global Warming issue remains bogus, so near as I can tell — but Global Warming is better for everyone, certainly, than the Nuclear Winter we were all dealing with 30 years ago. Prophesies of catastrophic events should be left to religious leaders and politicians, and scientists should ethically get out of that business, no matter how lucrative. Or call themselves something other than “scientists.”

    • No, no no Stump. The point is to burn everything that has even a penny of economic value because otherwise the evil capitalists and the evil capitalist human society would benefit. And pay taxes or hide money in nonprofits.
      Once a basin burns flat, no capitalist is interested after all the wood checks, and won’t be again for our lifetimes. Get it?

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