Everyone, rural or urban, has stake in forests

Burn on Silas Little Experimental Forest
Burn on Silas Little Experimental Forest

Bob Williams’ comment below reminded me of this piece from April, by him and Dan Botkin. I thought I had posted it before, but couldn’t find it when I searched.

Here is the link and below is an excerpt:

Forest fires in the drought-stricken West and Southwest received a lot of attention last year, and scenes of several large, destructive fires were widely shown on television. Could this happen elsewhere in the United States?

In early March, columns of smoke rose from the Pine Barrens, visible from the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. One might think these fires are dangerous and should be suppressed, but they were intentionally lit by the Forest Fire Service of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, with more to be lit this spring.

Given the inherent dangers of fire to homes, and remembering Smokey the Bear telling us, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” lighting fires near big cities might seem like the last thing a government agency should be doing.

However, light forest fires are a necessity for the Pine Barrens, needed to sustain the natural forests and their biological diversity, and to prevent the kind of devastating, intense wildfires that can damage towns and cities.

In fact, most forests of America evolved with fires. They were originally started by random, periodic lightning strikes, but perpetuated for thousands of years by Native Americans prior to European settlement. Only in the last few centuries have people changed how fire is used in forests. The fire suppression of the recent past has created a growing fuel load and conditions that are ripe for a really large fire that will result in significant loss of life and property.

Suppression has led to high-intensity, hard-to-control wildfires that are devastating to forest ecosystems and more likely to burn through houses, towns, and cities. Modern prescribed burns in the Pine Barrens by the state Forest Fire Service reduce the fuel load. They demonstrate the way forests should be and need to be managed across our nation.

That rising smoke near the big Eastern metropolitan areas signals both a burgeoning acceptance that some change in the environment is natural, and a spreading recognition that to sustain our resources and to live successfully and symbiotically with our environment, we must accept and even promote these natural changes.

For centuries, people have lived, worked, and played in the Pinelands, all of which is part of the fabric that makes this forest so environmentally, ecologically, and economically unique. Iron has been mined out of the sandy soils. Berries, pine cones, and sphagnum moss have been harvested from the forests. The Barrens have been farmed, fished, and charcoaled for centuries. They supplied lumber for one of America’s earliest industries, ship building. New York City and Philadelphia were originally built with wood from the Pine Barrens.

After much analysis and debate, in 2005, the Pinelands Commission’s Forestry Advisory Committee stated, “Forestry, if practiced in accordance with sound management practices, can provide wood and wood products and ensure the protection of water quality and critical habitat for wildlife, as well as a way of life and culture that will otherwise soon vanish.” Surprising as it may seem, the Pine Barrens are, as they have been since the late 1600s, a place of active and valuable commercial forestry.

Today, in the 21st century, not much is heard about commercial forestry and its role in our lives and our forests in the public or the media. Although the history and products of the Pine Barrens demonstrate that we are a forest-dependent species, our growing urban culture has moved further and further away from a basic understanding of the land and the forests. However, if you breathe air and drink water, you need forests.

We are all part of forest ecosystems, not intruders – even those of us who live in metropolitan areas.

This raises a couple of thoughts:

1. For some SAF work, I have been doing phone calls with folks across the country asking them about fire; seems like the southerners (and folks in New Jersey) are more accepting of prescribed burning. Is it cultural? Less likely to escape because not so dry? Better procedures for control? Better relations with state air quality folks? I bet someone has studied at least some aspects of this question.

2. While looking for a photo, I found this piece which said

In addition, scientists expect that continued wildfire suppression, and the use of only very low-temperature, cold-season controlled fires, will over time change the composition of Pine Barrens forests by favoring oaks in their competition with pines for dominance of the forest. This potential fundamental alteration of the ecosystem will be gradual and will only be visible over a period of several decades or more.

So it sounds like the dominant species will change if only prescribed fires occur, because the fire effects are different. Will that be a change that’s good? or bad? or simply is?

3. Here’s a link to the Silas Little Experimental Forest.

12 thoughts on “Everyone, rural or urban, has stake in forests”

  1. Our many decades of work with prescribed fire in southern New jersey is showing that oaks drop out of the stands overtime. RXB burns the cambium of the tree oaks and over time most oak trees begin a slow decline while the both species of pine ,shortleaf and pitchpine respond well to rxb and pine regeneration overtime dominates. Our rxb experience is similar to the longleaf pine restoration in the southeast where rxb is used to keep the hardwood encroachment out of the restored longeaf forests! Fire does not promote oaks in our pineforests in southern NJ! I have never seen that- it will allow scrub oak to be maintained as a shrub understary but not tree oaks . Since scrub oak is a primary shrub component in pitch pine stands – it thrives with the pitch pine- but there is no conversion of pine stands to oak forests! Yes we use rxb all the time in our forests and hope to use it more . The limiting factor is wet weather in the winter and early spring and legal restrictions, but rxb remains a critical forest management tool here in our pine stands!
    Bob Williams CF

  2. When are we going to learn that there is not one rx, such as thin or burn, that will restore ALL forests in ALL eco-regions in ALL geo-areas equally well.
    So when Congress, in its infinite wisdom, passes legislation that attempts to force certain specific management regimes throughout the nation, it is bound to fail. And I might add, when Congress in its “wisdom” passes these multi-billion dollar dictates and then deliberately omits the funds to do the job, what do expect?

    I find it a pathetic joke that after thumping the USFS for its decades-old policies of total wildfire suppression (which these critics claim is the cause of our forest fuels issue), now some of these same people are shouting for more vigorous, instant response to all fires, even those in remote, non-threatening locations. Weird!
    Seems logical that if you as a management person have a very limited budget to fight fire, you will attempt to prioritize where you spend these funds. Fires in locations that cause risk to humans or structures will be attacked first, if resources are limited. Right? So where is the rub on “let burn” on fires in these distant, often non-commercial forests.

  3. Ed, I think that the “distant” is relative. Distant to small towns? And as you say depends on fuels and conditions..but having to guess which distant ones will blow up and get close is very difficult. In our country except for the depths of wilderness areas, nothing is really “distant” from human habitation.

    • I am very sure that most anti-management folks would have considered the West Fork Complex to be “remote”. Clearly, the decision-makers wanted to burn up more dead and dying forests, “safely”, if that is truly, indeed, even possible. They did have their window to stop the fire that burned only 150 acres in 9 days. ALL the warning signs pointed to a very large and very dangerous campaign fire but, they chose to gamble, when the odds were stacked against them. I wonder just what acreage would have been acceptable to let burn, if conditions were different. However, it appears that they were just “winging it”, with no real plan to put the fire out, once it inevitably got out of hand. This fact is why I’d like to see an honest investigation of this whole stupid situation.

      It makes me wonder just how many of those same acres could have been safely burned in the fall, with a $30,000,000 budget and just one helicopter. Certainly, choosing a time in the fall when an expected storm front was arriving could have resulted in a MUCH better outcome? It sure seems like the Let-Burn strategy ignores funding, in favor of the hope that the hugely-expanded fire will be “manageable”. We should not be hanging our hats upon “hope”.

  4. Sharon

    Re: “seems like the southerners (and folks in New Jersey) are more accepting of prescribed burning. Is it cultural? Less likely to escape because not so dry? Better procedures for control? Better relations with state air quality folks? I bet someone has studied at least some aspects of this question.”

    After 40 plus years of study and involvement in forest management and the forest industry:
    1) Burning is part of the southern culture (clearing land in the early days). Especially in the formerly extensive Longleaf pine forests where fire did very little harm except visually to the fire dependent grasses under the pines. Fire was advantageous to turpentining and in providing access to timber. Unless you’ve been lucky enough to see a Longleaf forest over 20 or so years old, you just can’t imagine how clean and beautiful it is. In addition, at one time, non land owning hunters punished large timberland owners by burning their lands if the owners tried to prohibit open access to their lands.
    2) A very big difference between the west and south is the prevalence of intensive forest management. Treating forestry more generally as an investment in the south has done more to protect forest lands than any uninformed preservationist has ever done. We learned a long time ago to put fire lines around stands or small groups of stands to stop small fires, including prescribed fires, and we learned to keep the stands thinned so that the fire will generally stay on the ground and so that their vigor will be maintained in order to deal with drought and beetles. When fires do get loose there is a lower probability that it will crown out and, if it does crown out, there is a higher probability that it will be brought back to the ground by clearcuts and former clearcuts with young regeneration. Beginning in the early ’90s the conservationists sealed the fate of the western forests with their uninformed pressure on uninformed politicians to shut down harvesting on federal lands. See their impact here http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/documents/sold-harvest/documents/1905-2012_Natl_Summary_Graph.pdf hence the tremendous reductions in the financial resources available to soundly manage our federal timberlands. Since there are more federal lands in the west than the south, the impact on the south was considerably less.
    3) Another big difference between the west and the south is a combination of moisture and SLOPE. Consider the drying impact of the daily upslope and downslope air movement in the west. To a large degree, the south steeps in even more heat but the lower air movement and higher soil moisture available to tap roots compensates to some degree. The narrow fire lines used in the south would do more harm than good in the west where, because of slope, fire wouldn’t even know that they were there. In the west, a fire line needs to be about the size of a clearcut.
    4) Since around the 50’s the states and the landowners in the south have maintained a tremendous infrastructure to fight fires. Economics have reduced the structure some. Every time that there was an out of control fire, everyone put all of their equipment and people on it whether it was on their property or not.
    5) I don’t have any numbers, but I believe that the miles of roads adjoining forests divided by timberland acres is much greater in the south due to terrain, population distribution, intensive management, and relatively insignificant push for more roadless areas in the south compared to the west. If you have an asset that you want to preserve/protect, you have to have access to it to protect/preserve it.
    6) In most of the south, viewshed is a word that is unknown. In the west, people seem double minded in that a clearcut based on sound forest management designed to preserve the forest, rather than the trees standing in one spot, is considered evil in that it harms the viewshed. Yet the much more extensive and longer lasting scar from extensive beetle damage and subsequent fire damage is considered acceptable or, maybe, it is deemed to be the result of global warming rather than a result of excluding sound forest management.
    7) As to “Better relations with state air quality folks” – I don’t know about that so much but our use of prescribed burning was set back in the south for a while by some accidents and loss of life caused by smoke. We learned from those tragedies and redoubled our weather prediction efforts and intensified our coordination with the state forestry commissions regarding our pre burn weather appraisals so as to do a better job of predicting wind drift. Its use is making a comeback. A long time ago, I fought fires in Northern California, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana. I am no fire weather expert but I have to believe that forecasting site specific weather in the south has to generally be a whole lot easier than in a mountainous region like the west with its large daily micro and macro weather variations exacerbated by the daily upslope/downslope heat cycle. A crown fire is the scariest thing that I know, but if I was going to be near one again, I’d sure rather have it happen to me in the south than in the west.

    In conclusion, the difference between the west and the south is a combination of: 1) greater acceptance, in the south, that forest management is generally a force for good and a desire to continue to have toilet paper available and wood products to provide shelter to our families and 2) terrain 3) timberland ownership patterns and the associated differences in incentives to protect the value of the assets and 4) the legal system which can be misused to hamstring sound forest management on public lands while insulating those same public lands from taking responsibility for damages to other property owners. That legal insulation is not extended to private landowners (i.e. the higher private ownership in the south results in greater legal exposure which results in more responsible sound forest management).

    • Gil: Nice graph and great summary! People used landscape-scale fire regularly in the West, too — in large part because many of the earliest US emigrants were from the south and easily recognized (and quickly profited by) the ancient patterns of fire-managed landscapes they had immigrated to.

      Use and acceptance has become severely limited through time: ranchers who regularly burned out hillsides and ridgelines for their livestock (sometimes called “fern burners”) were largely stopped in the late 1930s by organizations such as “Keep Oregon Green” and by the horror of the 1933 and 1939 Tillamook Fires. After the War grass seed became a big industry in the Willamette Valley and, beginning in 1948 and largely ending in the past 10 years, large fields were burned almost annually — often in the same locations where Kalapuyans had annually burned their crops of tarweed (“Indian wheat” or “Oregon sunflower”) less than 200 years earlier. Now it is illegal to heat your home with firewood in Eugene during the coldest times of the year, so you might be right in your characterizations of current western perspectives.

      It is difficult to believe how incompetent our representatives are in seeing the obvious and costly failures of the “ecological conservation” plans of USFWS, USFS, BLM, etc., the past 30 years, and how they have allowed the entire forest management and product manufacturing industries to go broke and become eliminated from so many rural communities during that time. Not that I’m a conspiracy theorist, but this whole series of misguided and destructive events has never made much sense to me. And we aren’t able to fix it for 20 years? Thank Gore that we didn’t have these people at the helm during the Tillamook Fires, WW II, or the Columbus Day Storm.

  5. Yes, thank you Gil for beautifully pointing out the rather significant differences between the South and much of the West…slope, humidity, micro-weather changes, road networks/access, etc. But some still believe in “one size fits all” viewpoint.
    Puzzles me greatly.

    • Ed, could you please elaborate on just WHO is pushing for the “one size fits all” viewpoint? Personally, I am for site-specific solutions, which include various treatments, both commercial, and non-commercial.

      Most of the Forest Service’s prescribed fire accomplishments happened in the South, as they seem to have a very good handle on relative humidities, which control the effectiveness and safety of controlled burns down there. Nearly one million acres were completed in the South, while minimal burning was completed on Forest Service lands, elsewhere. Again, the Forest Service fears the liability of prescribed fires, preferring the legal comfort (and high ecological and economic risks) of Let Burn fires. I’m NOT saying that Let Burn fires should be eliminated but, they surely need to be done differently.

      • Larry

        The one size fits all approach is the “hands off”, “Natural only” advocated by those who use everything from tree sit-ins to legal harassment in order to impose their uninformed wishes over those of professionals. If you really want to know organization names responsible for all of these actions. Any one of us could do a lengthy Google search and check a few industry sources to compile a huge list. Any one in the industry that has paid attention to the news over the last 30 plus years doesn’t really need such a list. If the SAF or some organization was going to confront these people and needed my help, I’d be glad to do some digging but, I’m not going to do it just to satisfy one person on this blog. Matthew recently posted a link to a 2003 ecology pub that certainly advocated “Natural Only”.

        This is but one of many instances: “The 1993 Pacific NW Forest Plan brokered by President Clinton, has not been implemented in 20 years. Individual Forest Plans were formulated, but, little of the plans have been implemented since the environmental groups continued their “file-a-lawsuit” process against the Forest Service”. This taken from a post at http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/what-good-is-a-plan-without-implementation/

        See the 30 year, nation wide, impact on USFS harvest levels (roughly proportional to the degree of sound forest management practices) brought about by these “hands-off” proponents as found at the following link http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/documents/sold-harvest/documents/1905-2012_Natl_Summary_Graph.pdf

        • Ummm, Gil, I don’t think that is what Ed had in mind. Ed seems to be more in the middle of the road, as am I. I think we see some changes going on, pulling some people and groups on the edges back, closer to the middle. Progress is slow but, it is good to see minds open up, in the face of forest realities. Some of those eco-groups are now seen as “sell outs” by preservationist groups. Some of us forest “realists” are open to “Ologist” forest values, too. It’s not all about board feet, and I am sometimes chastised for not supporting “V for Volume”. Yes, I am still pro-management, and I think we can work around some of the roadblocks, without ticking off the conservationists.

          I’d like to see Ed tell us what he means, in his own words. In the past, he has been critical of us pro-management folks.

  6. Larry, you asked a question: “Ed, could you please elaborate on just WHO is pushing for the “one size fits all” viewpoint?”

    I gave you my opinion on your literal question as to “WHO” – unconstrained by any context from Ed


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