Resilient forests require change in “default” response to fire

Here is the key conclusion in an article published by the Ecological Society of America (the article specifically addresses “dry forests”):

One of the most important and fundamental challenges to revising forest fire policy is the fact that agency organizations and decision making processes are not structured in ways to ensure that fire management is thoroughly considered in management decisions. There are insufficient bureaucratic or political incentives for agency leaders to manage for long-term forest resilience; thus, fire suppression continues to be the main management paradigm. Current resource-specific policies and procedures are so focused on individual concerns that they may be missing the fact that there are “endangered landscapes” that are threatened by changing climate and fire…. Without forest resilience, all other ecosystem components and values are not sustainable, at least over the long-term. It is therefore necessary to create incentives and agency structures that facilitate restoration of wildland fire and ecologically based fuel treatment to forest landscapes.

The authors have recognized the problem that fire planning is not well-integrated with planning for other resources on national forest lands.  A key recommendation is to, “Make forest resilience a stand-alone, top land management priority and connect it to managing long-term for endangered species.” It criticizes the continued emphasis on fire suppression, including the strategy of suppressing fires to protect at-risk species.   The article strangely omits any specific references to the 2012 Planning Rule’s ecological sustainability requirements, which I think has incorporated resilience, and its relationship to species diversity, as a policy about as well as we could expect. The question is what will forest plans actually do to avoid the alleged “tunnel vision.” The authors credit the southern Sierra revision forests as “pioneering some of these efforts.”

The authors do offer one recommendation that I think should receive more attention in the planning process: “analyze long-term impacts of continued suppression.” I would expand the recommendation to more clearly recognize that forest plans are the place where overall fire management strategies will be adopted, including identification of resources and areas deemed in need of protection from fire. Desired ecological conditions based in these needs must then be a consideration in fire management decisions, which must by law be consistent with the forest plan. Decisions in a forest plan about or affecting fire management, including those that promote fire suppression, will have effects on ecosystems that must be evaluated and disclosed during the planning process.

7 Comments

  1. It seems to me that this is pretty much at an abstract level and is hard to see how it would work. Other than to get into the usual arguments about whether thinning for fuel treatment is pro or anti “resilience. ” (I am using it in quotes because I believe it could be a useful term if everyone agreed on what it meant, but we don’t know exactly what they meant).
    Also I don’t think external groups get to decide what management priorities are on public land (unless they have lawyers ;))

    But it would be interesting for the group at ESA who wrote this to look over an actual recent forest plan and fire plan, and see what concrete actions they would recommend to promote their idea of resilience and how they would make the trade-offs involved. Like the Pinchot study on certification, it would be a learning experience on both sides explicitly because “the devil is in the details” and that’s where our current disagreements lie.

    I say this because I have seen ideas like “ecosystem management” “sustainability” and so on founder on these same shoals, that is sounds like a good idea but ultimately comes down to the same old discussion, after many conferences and journal articles on how to define it.

    • They seem to be engaged at some level with the southern Sierra forest plan revision process, so maybe they will do a follow-up review of that. (My review of the Sierra approach to fire was less enthusiastic, but at least they were giving it the right amount of attention.)

      “Also I don’t think external groups get to decide what management priorities are on public land…” I hope you are not suggesting that the public land managers should ignore the external groups. Obviously the agency gets to “decide,” but there is a whole lot of law that says they have to consider what the public thinks. In particular, the “priorities” for public lands should be the focus of the public forest planning process, in the sense of which watersheds need the most attention to aquatic species, or where retaining connectivity should be emphasized, or which lands should be suitable for timber production.

  2. Some years ago, I met a forester from Australia; he was here on a fellowship to study how Americans deal with wildfire. His conclusion was that Americans and Australians are the same. When wildfires are raging, there is a public outcry that the federal agencies must do something about it. That winter when the fires are no longer burning and the federal agencies propose doing something, the public outcry is, “You want to do what?!” In other words, the citizens of both countries have short memories.

    Does the Ecological Society of America’s recommendation say anything about people using the forest? I don’t see anything about people in the mention of their key recommendation.

  3. Very timely post considering another ongoing discussion thread. All of the above comments are good.

    The author’s statement: “Without forest resilience, all other ecosystem components and values are not sustainable, at least over the long-term.” is exactly what I have been trying to get across here for quite some time. Without a healthy continuum of all stages (age groups and necessary variants within age groups) of desired forest types the diversity of dependent species endangered or not will be diminished much more than anything done by mankind. In addition, those stages must be in reasonable proximity for the dependent species to migrate to another suitable habitat niche site when succession has made their former habitat site unsuitable.

    For shade intolerant species, irregular commercial clearcuts and for both tolerant and intolerant species commercial thinning, selection harvests and road infrastructure should be considered as substitutes for managed fire where the site and conditions are appropriate. All of these, obviously, also serve as density control to improve stand vigor thereby reducing the risk of catastrophic loss not only to fire but also to insect and disease.

    But, nothing will come of all of this until the root cause of the unreasonableness of NEPA is confronted.
    At http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/01/26/court-slams-forest-service-wilderness-decision/comment-page-1/#comment-414663 I believe that I have identified the unreasonableness as the 10 factors which underpin NEPA by stipulating the dictum for determining whether a proposed forest action/plan/project has a significant environmental intensity/severity of impact. In brief, I come to the following conclusion for just Factor #4:
    1) “Any group of individuals who can find something subjective that they don’t like can use it to litigate anything. It doesn’t matter if it is insignificant to the health of the ecosystem or if it is established science beneficial to the health of the ecosystem.”
    2) Per Factor #4: All that is important is that: “If anyone can be found to introduce speculation of a potential negative impact (using words like “could”, “might”, “may”, “possibly” and etc. based on a pet theory unsupported by statistically sound research) and then get a bunch of misinformed enviros involved, they have made the subject “highly controversial” and have the keys to the kingdom and can override sound science or insignificance. So making mountains out of molehills even if it destroys the environment it is a right instead of a crime. No wonder our federal forests are a powder keg of overly dense and unhealthy forests magnifying the effects of global warming. Enviro’s rule.”

    In essence the Feds are in an impossible management situation where, in spite of their professional knowledge, they are forced to do as little as possible for fear of having wasted their severely limited resources when they are second guessed and overruled by groups with no knowledge about the subject but do know how to exploit every loophole in NEPA. And now that has evolved to the point where the Feds don’t have the money to do anything but pay for overhead and fight the excessive fires caused by those who don’t understand why there are so many fires. They lack the knowledge to see their part in these catastrophes by cutting out the necessary management required to control stand density especially in times of global warming and in spite of past practices. With modern population density, wildfires are too unpredictable to just let them run except in very rare situations where a lot of opportunity for immediate control exists when things don’t go as expected. That opportunity for immediate control for the most part has to be created by management that has occurred in advance of the incident.

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