Social acceptance of fire needed in climate-changing forest – Climatewire interview

Social acceptance of fire needed in climate-changing forests

From Climate wire

my comments in italics

Published: Monday, January 23, 2012

The future of managing wildfires in the face of climate change is going to require different tools and strategies, but also something a bit more difficult to swallow — encouraging burning instead of stifling it.

In the future, forest managers will need to “try to work with fire, rather than fighting it,” said David Peterson, research biologist at the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Station. “If we allowed more wildfires to burn, that could be beneficial,” he added. Fire is considered part of a natural cycle in forest ecology, and encouraging small fires could help prevent bigger, more damaging ones.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a report on how to address forest management in the face of climate change, looking at resource management on national forests and, potentially, other federal lands. Fire management, pest control and watershed management are some of the areas where practices will need to change, said report co-author Peterson in an interview with ClimateWire.

Letting fires burn, instead of stifling them at all costs, is not an easy sell politically or socially, said Peterson. But those who live in the wildland-urban interface, the transitional zone between residential clusters and the wilderness, are becoming more aware.

“I think they’re getting much more savvy about the scientific concept of fire,” he said, calling the interface one of the biggest social challenges for the Forest Service.

It’s not clear what this means- if they understand “the scientific concept” does that mean they are not as interested in fire suppression around their homes? Also notice that wildland-urban is defined as “the transitional zone between residential clusters and the wilderness”. There are plenty of lands that are adjacent to communities that are “wildlands” but not “wilderness.”

More partnerships between federal, state and private lands would bring together a fragmented landscape to tackle some of the climate-driven problems that have plagued forests in the past years. These include fires, pine beetle epidemics and floods.

“They don’t care about where that dotted map is, and they don’t care about any individual ownership,” Peterson said.

Water, roads and infrastructure are also at risk, said Peterson who has seen a distinctive change in the flows, levels and patterns of rivers. Floods, mudslides and other severe events that were once considered 100-year events are occurring more frequently.
‘Forest thinning’ gets a new boost

The Forest Service compiled several existing management changes across their forests to provide examples for the framework. In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, for example, foresters took on an effort to completely redesign the roads and culverts to withstand a higher water load, expected as torrential rains become more frequent. In California’s Inyo National Forest, staff created a decisionmaking tool that offered the implications of hundreds of different possible decisions, given a likely climate change scenario.

“In taking a risk management approach to adaptation, what we are doing is preparing for changes rather than changing what’s there,” said the Forest Service’s climate change adviser, David Cleaves.

Forest thinning, part of the “fuel treatments” that the Forest Service employs to reduce fire risk, will also increase given future predictions for climate change, said Peterson. Last year, legislators in Western states expressed frustration at a perceived lack of preventive action to halt forest fires, mandated under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Last year saw some record-breaking wildfires, including Arizona’s 550,000-acre Wallow fire.

But forest thinning, and its possibility of increase, has come under scrutiny. A report from Oregon State University issued last May questioned the practice of thinning as an effective climate strategy, as it reduces the size of forest carbon sinks — the wood mass that absorbs and holds carbon from entering into the atmosphere.

So we are doing fuel treatments to protect communities from fire, which is expected to increase due to climate change, but doing so is not an “effective climate strategy” based on this study. So confusing as we are mixing adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change. Also, to me it’s not that clear that we would not have to do WUI fuel treatments if there were no climate change.. in other words in the absence of climate change, given western ecosystems’ historic fire patterns, it still would be a good idea to do WUI fuel treatment.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as other environmental groups, has cast doubt on the use of forest thinnings to burn for biomass electricity, saying the rising demand may soon damage forests more than help them.

Thinning forests, and thinning them and using the thinned material for biomass, are two different things. This is confusing because we should be clear on whether NRDC and others doubt thinning for fuels reduction, as perhaps needed for fires under climate change, or doubt using the products for biomass. Based on this NRDC fears are based on scale, and not the technology per se.

“There have been a number of these types of articles,” said Peterson of the study. “Some say it’s a net deficit [of carbon], some say it’s a net positive, some say it’s neutral.”

For now, the Forest Service do not consider carbon sequestration when planning fuel treatments. The risks of devastating burning and millions of dollars in damage tip the scale to meeting current needs, said Cleaves.

“You may have to incur [carbon] emissions costs to achieve risk reduction,” he said. “You don’t have to do that in every situation, but it sure is possible.”

2 thoughts on “Social acceptance of fire needed in climate-changing forest – Climatewire interview”

  1. Yet another attempt at presenting only two options about “forests dying from climate change”. Yes, their are intermediate treatments that would be appropriate for today’s forests, other than clearcutting and strict preservation. We need to differentiate between non-commercial fuels treatments and commercial thinning. All too often, the media calls a small tree and brush Service Contract “thinning”. At the same time, projects that cut merchantable trees are labeled “commercial logging”, even though no old growth is cut.

    This is just another signal that America still isn’t progressive enough to accept real world scientific solutions to our many forest problems. The Wallow Fire will continue to show its “unnatural and unbeneficial” side, in the years to come.

  2. I’m not sure it’s an intentional lack of clarity from the media; I think it’s more that that’s the way it is presented by the people interviewed and the journalist simply does not have the time to investigate the nuances that we in the practical world of doing things are so familiar with.

    It’s interesting that Dave Peterson said that many studies have found different things about carbon. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the assumptions and methodologies of the different approaches. Maybe a nice project for a graduate class.. If you find something like this anywhere, please let me know for posting here.


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