Ten Common Questions About Adaptive Forest Management: I. Background and Context

Photos of Bethel Ridge, a moist mixed conifer forest in eastern Washington, show the difference in patchiness in 1936 compared with 2012. National Archives (1936); John Marshall Photography (2012)

It’s Science Friday, and today’s paper is 81 pages, so it’s a lot of science! The title is “Adapting western North American forests to climate change and wildfires: ten common questions” and the authors are:
Susan J. Prichard, Paul F. Hessburg, R. Keala Hagmann, Nicholas A. Povak, Solomon Z. Dobrowski, Matthew D. Hurteau, Van R. Kane, Robert E. Keane, Leda N. Kobziar, Crystal A. Kolden, Malcolm North, Sean A. Parks, Hugh D. Safford, Jens T. Stevens, Larissa L. Yocom, Derek J. Churchill, Robert W. Gray, David W. Huffman, Frank K. Lake, Pratima Khatri-Chhetri. Please let me know if you can’t access the paper, I also have a pdf I can post.

I think it’s super-relevant to our discussions here, and I thank the (many) authors for doing this review and organizing it to address many of the questions we have discussed over the years (most notably in the series “why we disagree about fuel treatments”).  I particularly like how the authors dig into some of the potential reasons for scientific disagreements.  If you disagree with the authors, then you are most welcome to describe your reasoning in the comments, and we can have a open public discussion about scientific disagreements that should enlighten us all.

The whole thing is worth reading for true enthusiasts (or those writing NEPA docs), but I’ll excerpt pieces to discuss. Here’s some of the background for why the review was written:


Although the need to increase the pace and scale of fuel treatments is broadly discussed in scientific and policy arenas (North et al. 2012, Franklin and Johnson 2012, Kolden 2019), there is still confusion and disagreement about the appropriateness of forest and fuel treatments. For example, recent publications have questioned whether large, high-severity fires are outside of the historical range of variability for seasonally dry forests, and whether the risk of high-severity fire warrants large-scale treatment of fireprone forests (Bradley et al. 2016, DellaSala et al. 2017). Others have questioned whether intentional management, including forest thinning, is effective or justified outside of the wildland urban interface (Moritz et al. 2014, Schoennagel et al. 2017).

Furthermore, debates around the management of fire adapted forests are occurring within the context of long running conflicts over timber production on public lands, especially federal lands, leading to questions about science-based benefits of management treatments where they align with economic incentives (Daniels and Walker 1995). Currently, management strategies employing active fire suppression and limited use of fuel reduction treatments are common for most public land management agencies.

Among the many challenges to active management on public lands (e.g., funding, adequate and qualified personnel, smoke impacts, and weather and fuel conditions that fall within burn prescription parameters), uncertainty in the scientific literature about forest management and fuel treatments is commonly cited in planning process-public comment periods (Spies et al. 2018, Miller et al. 2020). In the following sections, we examine ten common questions about forest management and fuel treatments. We summarize them in Table 1 and provide key citations that examine these questions. For each topic, we evaluate the strength of evidence in the existing scientific literature concerning each topic. Our goal is to help managers, policy makers, informed public stakeholders, and others working in this arena to establish a robust scientific framework that will lead to more effective discussions and decision-making processes, and better outcomes on the ground.


These include: (1) Are the effects of fire exclusion overstated? If so, are treatments unwarranted and even counterproductive? (2) Is forest thinning alone sufficient to mitigate wildfire hazard? (3) Can forest thinning and prescribed burning solve the problem? (4) Should active forest management, including forest thinning, be concentrated in the wildland urban interface (WUI)? (5) Can wildfires on their own do the work of fuel treatments? (6) Is the primary objective of fuel reduction treatments to assist in future firefighting response and containment? (7) Do fuel treatments work under extreme fire weather?  (8) Is the scale of the problem too great – can we ever catch up? (9) Will planting more trees mitigate climate change in wNA forests? and (10) Is post-fire management needed or even ecologically justified?

I’d like to take each question separately for discussion in its own post.


2 thoughts on “Ten Common Questions About Adaptive Forest Management: I. Background and Context”

  1. I played a role in shaping Crystal Kolden’s experience in selecting trees for ecological harvest. We were on the same marking crew, back in 1999, and were roomies in the timber barracks. This was before she chose her current profession, which I am happy to see. She also spent a year on the local Ranger District engine crew.

  2. Looking at each of these questions separately sounds like a great idea. With all of the fires in Oregon and California the past two (and 34) years, there is a great opportunity to compare differences in management histories and ownerships. This was discussed earlier in regards to the Bootleg Fire, and here is an interesting preliminary analysis: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/12/the-fire-moved-around-it-success-story-in-oregon-fuels-calls-for-prescribed-burns


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