What Do You Think About?: Environmental Defense Fund’s Wildfire Comments

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reviewing what different environmental groups wrote in their USDA Climate Smart Forestry and Agriculture comments.  One I found particularly worth discussing is from the Environmental Defense Fund.

Our national wildfire strategy should have two priorities: 1) Protect communities in the line of fire; and 2) Reestablish natural fire patterns to protect ecosystem values and sustainably manage fuel loads. Reestablishing natural fire regimes can only be realized when fuel loads, particularly in the West, are greatly reduced using both mechanical treatments and prescribed and managed fire. Implementation will require an updated wildfire triage approach to ensure that we address the most pressing threats to communities and human lives, first. Using fire as a management tool requires as a precondition that communities feel that their lives and property are safe and secure. Where and when this condition is met, managers will have greater flexibility to manage vegetation in wildlands.
A special burden falls on USDA Forest Service due to its management responsibility for National Forests and Grasslands. USDA can act now to revitalize and reorganize the Forest Service in support of a new national fire strategy, an effort that will require an all-hands-on-deck commitment from staff scientists, fire practitioners, land managers and community outreach specialists.

I like their priorities 1 and 2, and their mention of fire practitioners. Many groups did not mention fire suppression or fuels practitioners at all. I’d think they’d be key to developing strategies to deal with wildfires.

Specific recommendations include:

· Establish a Wildfire Commission, co-chaired by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior and bipartisan western governors to develop a new western fire strategy that will increase the pace and scale of ecologically-sound fuel reduction treatments on all lands (federal, state, private and tribal), modernize firefighting response and increase the use of prescribed fire.
· Address significant gaps in our national approach to forest pest and disease — both native and non-native invasive pests and disease — including increasing funding for research, monitoring, detection and treatment on both federal and non-federal lands. USDA should work also with other federal and state agencies to address the significant risk to native vegetation arising from the wide import of products in wood packaging.
· Rebuild and restore staff capacity and morale within the USDA Forest Service by investing in science capacity within the research units, creating more sustainable career paths for staff, and creating a path to leadership positions for a diversity of critical job categories (e.g., not just timber and fire). Development of communication, community engagement, negotiation and partnership-building skills should be prioritized in recruitment and advancement.
· Expand year-round, career-track jobs for a new category of forest restoration practitioners that combine seasonal firefighting and forest restoration work.
· Create training opportunities for youth and members of disadvantaged

I don’t know that we need a new strategy, but I’m wondering what others think. And I do think involving the western governors would decrease the partisan fussing around the topic. I also like that they mention insects and diseases and even wood packaging! It seems like many environmental groups may not be concerned about the impacts of introduced forest insects and diseases, at least based on the letters I’ve read. I do think there is a path to leadership outside of timber and fire- I’ve seen a broad variety of folks. How about your experiences? I like the year-round career-track jobs for forest restoration practitioners, but perhaps that runs counter to other efforts to equalize the pay of wildland firefighters with other entities (as discussed here at Wildfire Today and many other places)?

I was also intrigued by this suggestion:

Build consensus within the science, forest industry and NGO communities to ensure that climate-smart forestry practices are recognized, valued and non-controversial.

and wondered what mechanisms the author might propose to accomplish this. I’m trying to contact the authors, but meanwhile you all may have ideas on whether this is a good idea, and if so, how to do it.

9 thoughts on “What Do You Think About?: Environmental Defense Fund’s Wildfire Comments”

  1. A lot of that stuff is ‘old hat’. Congress and the Forest Service consistently ignore the staffing problems in favor of embracing the minimal FTE’s bestowed upon them. The bureaucracy keeps filling upper level positions, while pretending that plan implementation is just fine and dandy, using inexperienced ‘warm bodies’, hired right off the street. We’ll never get any kind of “pace and scale” that way.

    It does seem like lower level staffing and career ladders are being addressed by this eco-group. I just don’t think Congress (or the Forest Service) sees this as a problem. They won’t make the changes needed to make a difference.

    • Totally agree, Larry…the top brass in the FS have framed the problem differently and they will be challenged to move off their framed problem. The decentralized approach to decision making has shifted dramatically in the past decade, with local decision makers getting their hands tied because of the politics occurring at higher administrative levels. The influence of the WO and the USDA on local decision making increased dramatically during my career.

  2. RE: “Reestablish natural fire patterns to protect ecosystem values and sustainably manage fuel loads. Reestablishing natural fire regimes can only be realized when fuel loads, particularly in the West, are greatly reduced using both mechanical treatments and prescribed and managed fire.”

    What about ecosystems throughout the American West that have mixed-severity and high-severity fire regimes? What percentage of the forested landscape in the American West has mixed-severity and high-severity fire regimes? What percentage of the land base of the American West has mixed-severity and high-severity fire regimes? What are the ecological costs of turning mixed-severity and high-severity fire regimes into low-severity fire regimes? Is it even possible?

    How many homes in the American West are found in the Wildland-Urban Interface? What percentage of these homes are “Firewise” according to the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Association and the research and findings of Dr. Jack Cohen, the longtime former USFS expert on such matters?

    • Matthew, one of the West’s big problems is that a great deal of forest has gone from low-severity to mixed-severity and high-severity fire regimes. The result in many areas is a change in forest/vegetative cover. That’s going to increase, if we don’t work to address the problem.

      FWIW, I’ve recently cut some firewood from a ~400-year-old ponderosa pine that died and then blew down. The surrounding stand has scattered large, old ponderosas, with a lot of young (~80 years old) grand fir and Doug-fir, and few if any young ponderosas. This transition in this stand is nearly complete — from a low-severity to a mixed-severity or high-severity fire regime, and a dramatically different stand type. It’s completely different in terms of wildlife habitat, too — there’s less of it now, since very few understory plants are available for forage. This transition could be reversed, if the young Doug-fir and grand fir were removed — it’s not too late. But projects like this are almost always litigated. What management strategy would you recommend? I’m honestly interested in your answer. If you say “no logging,” then what? And why? What is your “desired future condition” for stands like this?

  3. Rarely is a thinning project done solely for fire safety. There are silvicultural benefits to thinning projects, and some wildlife species benefit from a more open understory. In some forests, you cannot remove all the highly-flammable trees and still leave a properly-stocked stand. Sadly, some people think that just taking the big ones out will ‘thin’ the stand enough to ‘make it safe’. Others think that if you remove all the trees, a fire can’t burn through what is left. Trump’s “firestoppers” don’t actually stop fires.

  4. The situation you describe, Steve, is exactly the condition I experienced in the mid-1990s in northern Idaho. Traditional pine forests (ponderosa and white) converting to Douglas-fir and true fir stands. The early 20th century logging influenced this conversion heavily, but so did the market preference for pine versus true fir as a lumber product. A driving purpose of proposed timber sales was to reestablish the historic pine presence in the forest. However, it was not an easy selling point for people/groups who did not want to see logging occur on public lands.

  5. I suspect fairly broad agreement that past forest management in the form of fire suppression contributed substantially to the fire risks associated with fuel loads of today. There may also be at least some agreement that the fires of today have been, are currently, and will be reducing fuel load. I may be alone, but it seems a bit ironic that management actions such as prescribed fire and thinning get explicit credit for reducing fuel load, as if wildfire itself doesn’t accomplish much the same. It may be more ironic when we effectively continue fire suppression while declaring that fire suppression got us in our current predicament

    Yes, for sure, an unfettered let-it-burn strategy runs headon against social demand for suppression. Still, the benefits seem likely now as they would have been in the old days


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