Paper: “Fire and climate change: conserving seasonally dry forests is still possible”

PR from UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources below. The article referenced, “Fire and climate change: conserving seasonally dry forests is still possible,” is behind a pay wall.

I agree with the authors, but have they gone a step too far in stating that their findings ought to translate into actions that “should be a primary focus of management”?

The destructive wildfires that occurred recently in the western US starkly foreshadow the possible future of forest ecosystems and human communities in the region. With increases in the area burned by severe wildfire in seasonally dry forests expected to result from climate change, judicious, science‐based fire and restoration strategies will be essential for improving the resilience of forest ecosystems. We argue that fire use treatments (including prescribed fires and managed wildfires) as well as restoration thinning strategies, rather than conflicting with existing environmental objectives, will provide numerous co‐benefits, including enhanced biodiversity, increased water availability, greater long‐term and more sustainable carbon storage, improved forest resilience and adaptation to climate change, and reduced air pollution. Timber production, however, may have to be better aligned with fire management goals to achieve these co‐benefits. Taking immediate actions today to promote positive ecological outcomes in seasonally dry forests should be a primary focus of management, particularly in the western US.


Press release:

Experts advocate fire management to conserve seasonally dry forests

Fire has been a central component in California’s natural and human history for millennia. Native Americans’ use of cultural burns in landscape management, in addition to lightning-ignited fires that burned unhindered, have long impacted most of the state’s ecosystems. However in the late 1800s, California’s landscape underwent an era of Euro-American fire exclusion and suppression. As the United States began suppressing fire across western ecosystems, forests became increasingly dense with fuel which easily ignites in warm weather conditions.

In a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment today, environmental science, policy, and management professor Scott Stephens and co-authors investigate the role which fire and restoration thinning could play in restoring California’s forests. Stephens argues that allowing forests to burn does not necessarily conflict with the government’s environmental objectives to promote carbon storage and water availability. In the long-term, fire and restoration thinning can help forests continue to provide natural services while building ecosystem resilience to climate change.

A century of fire suppression coincided with the loss of larger, more fire-resistant trees from selective logging. With the worsening impacts of climate change, wildfires have grown increasingly destructive and high-intensity in recent years, and megafires threaten the biodiversity of many native ecosystems.

Stephens argues for the return of fire in California’s forest management techniques. “With climate change and continued ignitions from people and lightning, there is a great need to move decisively,” says Stephens. “The good news is rather than conflicting with other environmental objectives, fire and restoration thinning employed now will provide numerous co-benefits.”

The authors focus on two primary management strategies: burning and restoration thinning. Fire treatments include prescribed fires, in which managers intentionally burn an area in accordance with a site-specific plan. Prescribed burns reduce dead wood, leaf litter, and small trees, which act as hazardous fuel layers in seasonally dry forests. Additionally, forest managers can monitor wildfires that are ignited naturally by lightning and, where appropriate, allow such ignitions to burn—a technique that has improved the ecological resilience of several National Parks and forests in much of the United States.
Former graduate student lighting a prescribed burn with a torch

Restoration thinning—activities such as chipping, shredding, and whole-tree removal—can reduce fuel and mimic the effects of burning. However, mechanical thinning practices do not aid the many native species which rely on smoke and heat to germinate or on burnt habitat to thrive.

Importantly, the study describes how such management strategies can improve overall biodiversity, water quantity, and carbon sinks. Pyrodiversity, or the degree of heterogeneity in the age and size of a burned landscape, can support more diverse bird, pollinator, and flowering plant communities. The authors describe the challenge in maintaining complex tree canopy structures for threatened species, such as the California spotted owl. In addition to increasing streamflow and enhancing long-term carbon sequestration, the proposed management strategies could lower the likelihood of high-severity fires in the future.

“Even though increasing the scale of restoration is daunting, I am optimistic,” says Stephens. “Forests are just too important to the people and wildlife of California. But we need to act or severe wildfires and drought will continue to change forests right in front of us. We can and need to do better.”

Management strategies would need to account for the difficulty in controlling hazards from smoke, as well as how volatile weather conditions can cause undesired fire outcomes. To ensure the safety of the forest and nearby communities, the study finds that prescribed burn plans must integrate information on weather, topography, fuel type, ignition patterns, and other factors. The authors call for increased collaboration between Native American tribes and forest managers, highlighting the importance of longstanding indigenous knowledge and practices.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to impact fire suppression, an activity that necessarily involves groups working in close proximity. “Firefighters train, sleep, shower, eat, and fight fire in groups, and the effectiveness of firefighters depends on the ability to deploy and work closely to extinguish fires,” says Stephens. “New protocols are being developed for this summer and fall that will work to make groups smaller and to increase fire prevention. While these measures are needed this year, they do not address the fundamental fire problems in California forests that are addressed in this paper.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Merced, the University of New Mexico, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Colorado State University, and the University of Western Australia. Read the full paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment website.

14 thoughts on “Paper: “Fire and climate change: conserving seasonally dry forests is still possible””

  1. Steve
    IMO nothing could be a more important focus for seasonally dry forests than preservation through appropriate management. Of course that management may not be suitable for for other types.

  2. Steve asks: “have they gone a step too far in stating that their findings ought to translate into actions that “should be a primary focus of management”?”

    I ask: why *shouldn’t* their management recommendations be the primary focus of management?

  3. “Timber production, however, may have to be better aligned with fire management goals to achieve these co‐benefits.” Worth repeating. The focus should be on the condition of the forest, not on what you can sell from it. (And I don’t agree that the former has to depend on the latter.)

  4. To me this paper seems like what we usually talk about. But it’s nice to have it gathered in one spot. Note: this is a perspective piece, so it’s a science journal equivalent of an op-ed, with citations.

    The authors say that for a variety of reasons, it makes sense to do thinning and PB and WFU in dry forests. The authors go through these reasons in a nice organized way. We have all talked about this before especially in the series a few years ago “Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments.”

    It’s the timber section in the paper that I would have edited a bit. To me, if you’re going to make management recommendations, they should be specific enough that people like us can understand exactly what you are thinking.

    “Commodity production is one area of historical use of the US national forest system that may become increasingly challenging with the realities of fire management, particularly in the fire-prone forests of the western US. Managing for timber harvest in some locations appears to increase fire hazards (Vogler et al. 2015; Zald and Dunn 2018), while in other areas, such as in the southern US, timber production and fire hazard reduction are complementary (Stephens et al. 2019).

    That doesn’t really make any sense to me as written. You’d have to define what “managing for timber” means. I’m not sure most of the interior West National Forests do that. And the Southern US is not usually considered a dry forest, so why would that be relevant?

    “Where timber production is a desired activity, tools exist that allow planners and collaborators to consider the trade-offs among management for timber versus fuels reduction and strike a balance among objectives (Ager et al. 2014). “

    I think we’ve discussed here that the desire to get timber funds might make people mark more big trees than they otherwise would. I’m detecting a theme here…once people start writing about abstractions- like “tools” to consider, we lose track of what real world silvicultural changes they are talking about. Is “striking a balance among objectives” cutting half as many bigger trees as you otherwise would?

    “A more systemic challenge is that state agencies may be less supportive of allowing fires to burn when they have a timber production mandate. “

    I wondered how much California state land is managed for timber production. Here’s a Wikipedia entry
    There seem to be about 5000 acres in the Sierra, and I wonder whether the State would be more concerned about the timber or campgrounds, visitor center, etc.? According to this PSW GTR, at this particular state forest, timber production will be subordinate to recreation.
    But perhaps the broader issue is that states may not want wildfires going through their state parks, either. And communities don’t want wildfires going through their communities. And water providers don’t want fires running through their watersheds and so on. Old territory for us. Well-known challenges for doing PB or WFU on a broader scale.

    “However, some harvested areas can successfully support suppression activities (Moghaddas and Craggs 2007), further complicating the issue.“

    I don’t know what a “harvested area supporting suppression is” other than that clearing or thinning trees can provide fuel breaks.

    “Despite the opportunities to manage for multiple objectives, we suggest that, in light of the projected increases in fire extent and severity, timber harvesting practices in fire-prone areas of the western US should be consistent with fire management objectives.”

    I don’t know any practices that aren’t consistent with fire management objectives. Perhaps not following through with intended practices. Some specific examples might have been helpful. I would bet the authors knew some, and generalized, but it is difficult or impossible for readers to work from a generalization back down to what authors are suggesting needs to change. I’m really interested in what they think, but can’t get there from what they wrote.

    “Research suggests that there are opportunities to increase fuels reduction work and the flow of restoration wood byproducts from national forests, although a lack of viable markets and industry partners has limited these options (Schultz et al. 2019).”

    Thank you , Courtney et al. for providing a citation to what so many folks are hoping will help (and I would add, have been hoping and working on for many years).

    If I had to guess, it may be that the authors didn’t have the same background or memory of shifting from timber by itself, as a goal to getting trees as a byproduct of restoration/fuel treatment/forest health/accelerating old growth. The only places I’ve seen “getting logs out” as a purpose and need m/l by itself is for salvage. I wish we could have that discussion, because I think it’s important that we not talk past each other.

  5. “I don’t know any practices that aren’t consistent with fire management objectives.” Anywhere there are issues about logging old growth there should be questions about whether it is consistent with fire management objectives.

    “The only places I’ve seen “getting logs out” as a purpose and need m/l by itself is for salvage.” Anywhere that is suitable for timber production is about “getting logs out.” That may often be the primary purpose and need, but it’s easy enough to fog the mirror by talking about other arguable benefits.

    • I don’t think Stephens et al are proposing “logging old growth” — but thinning out younger trees in older stands to protect the old growth.

    • But people talk about old growth most where it doesn’t burn up regularly, which would not be dry forests. That’s why we need an example of specific prescription in the dry forests that would be good for timber and bad for fire management AND that the FS would be doing.

      So Jon, you are arguing that anyplace people manage to sell trees they are really only doing it for timber? Fuel treatments, roadside hazard trees? restoration to HRV?

  6. I don’t think I was speaking hypothetically because old growth logging still seems to be an issue in some places, but maybe HFRA has changed the landscape for practices (as it were), since using its provisions for fuel reduction (which seems to be the norm these days) would require “retaining large trees contributing to old growth structure.”

    I’m arguing that any place people sell trees from lands dedicated to timber production they can legitimately do it for timber purposes. And they sometimes admit it. All of the interior West National Forests are “managing for timber” in that sense. (Those three examples of other purposes you mention could arguably also justify a timber sale from lands that are not suited for timber production.)

    • Where is old growth logging still occurring (except perhaps Alaska)? If older trees are being cut, it is very likely that is isn’t clearcutting of the sort that was common in the 1980s and before. “Old growth logging” today probably means thinning to benefit old growth, and yes, some old trees might be cut. But not wholesale “old growth logging.” Times have changed.

  7. It would be useful to ask that question during forest planning. Here’s a couple of examples.

    The Nez Perce-Clearwater draft revised plan would allow it in some circumstances (like for “non-desired” old growth types that can’t be converted):
    MA2 and “MA3-GDL-FOR-04. A stand categorized as an old growth type other than those types described in MA3-FOR-DC-10 (a non-desired old growth type) should not be managed using a regeneration harvest prescription if it can be converted to a desired old growth type to meet desired conditions in MA3-DC-FOR-10.
    MA2 and MA3-DC-FOR-10. Amounts of ponderosa pine, western larch, western white pine, and whitebark pine old growth are maintained or increased from existing amounts. Amounts of western redcedar, Pacific yew, and western hemlock old growth are maintained through time.”

    Or a drier forest, this is from the Helena-Lewis and Clark final revised plan:
    Logging old growth would be allowed “Where project analysis has identified a need to remove a proportion of lodgepole pine old growth to achieve a diversity of age classes.” (FW-VEGF-GDL-04).

    I’m sure old plans allow it, but maybe projects don’t. My point was just that if thinning is done “to benefit old growth” (which both of these revised plans would also allow), they need to provide the science supporting that, in particular the effect on fire management (if that is part of the reason).

  8. And here’s a project example from the Los Padres:

    “The project allows trees up to five feet in diameter and centuries old, along with old-growth chaparral, to be removed along a six-mile ridge on Pine Mountain between Highway 33 and Reyes Peak. The larger trees can only be removed under certain conditions, such as when dwarf mistletoe is growing on the tree or when they are deemed a safety hazard.”

    Mistletoe? Really? And of course “worker safety” is totally up to the discretion of the Forest Service.


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