Science is clear: Catastrophic wildfire requires forest management

Science is clear: Catastrophic wildfire requires forest management” was written by Steve Ellis, Chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR), who is a former U.S. Forest Service Forest Supervisor and retired Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director for Operations—the senior career position in that agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

I have extracted a few snippets (Emphasis added) from the above article published by the NAFSR:

1) Last year was a historically destructive wildfire season. While we haven’t yet seen the end of 2021, nationally 64 large fires have burned over 3 million acres. The economic damage caused by wildfire in 2020 is estimated at $150 billion. The loss of communities, loss of life, impacts on health, and untold environmental damage to our watersheds—not to mention the pumping of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere—are devastating. This continuing disaster needs to be addressed like the catastrophe it is.

2) We are the National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR), an organization of dedicated natural resource professionals—field practitioners, firefighters, and scientists—with thousands of years of on the ground experience. Our membership lives in every state of the nation. We are dedicated to sustaining healthy National Forests and National Grasslands, the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, to provide clean water, quality outdoor recreation, wildlife and fish habitat, and carbon sequestration, and to be more resilient to catastrophic wildfire as our climate changes.

3) As some of us here on the Smokey Wire have been explaining for years, the NAFSR very clearly and succinctly states:
Small treatment areas, scattered “random acts of restoration” across the landscape, are not large enough to make a meaningful difference. Decades of field observations and peer reviewed research both document the effectiveness of strategic landscape fuel treatments and support the pressing need to do more. The cost of necessary treatments is a fraction of the wildfire damage such treatments can prevent. Today’s wildfires in overstocked forests burn so hot and on such vast acreages that reforestation becomes difficult or next to impossible in some areas. Soil damage and erosion become extreme. Watersheds which supply vital domestic, industrial, and agricultural water are damaged or destroyed.

4) This summer, America watched with great apprehension as the Caldor Fire approached South Lake Tahoe. In a community briefing, wildfire incident commander Rocky Oplinger described how active management of forestlands assisted firefighters. “When the fire spotted above Meyers, it reached a fuels treatment that helped reduce flame lengths from 150 feet to 15 feet, enabling firefighters to mount a direct attack and protect homes,” The Los Angeles Times quoted him.

5) And in a Sacramento Bee interview in which fire researcher Scott Stephens was asked how much consensus there is among fire scientists that fuels treatments do help, he answered “I’d say at least 99%. I’ll be honest with you, it’s that strong; it’s that strong. There’s at least 99% certainty that treated areas do moderate fire behavior. You will always have the ignition potential, but the fires will be much easier to manage.” I (Steve Ellis) don’t know if it’s 99% or not, but a wildfire commander with decades of experience recently told me this figure would be at least 90%. What is important here is that there is broad agreement among professionals that properly treated landscapes do moderate fire behavior.

6) During my career (Steve Ellis), I have personally witnessed fire dropping from tree crowns to the ground when it hit a thinned forest. So have many NAFSR members. This is an issue where scientist and practitioners agree. More strategic landscape treatments are necessary to help avoid increasingly disastrous wildfires. So, the next time you read or hear someone say that thinning and prescribed fire in the forest does not work, remember that nothing can be further from the truth.

Chief Thomas and Taking up the Quest for a Land-And-People Ethic

While on the timely topic of Administration transitions, we were remembering Chief Jack Ward Thomas, and as I said yesterday, I ran across this classic speech he gave in 1992, an Albright lecture at Berkeley.

This call by JWT provides a nice lead-in to our soon-to-be discussion of The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict by Justin Farrell (note: any book links I use from now on will be affiliated with Amazon. I’m not affirming Amazon in any way, nor encouraging you to buy from them, but if you do buy from them, The Smokey Wire will get something. I hear this is a thing nowadays.).

JWT again..

Our society, at long last, seems to be moving toward the implementation of a land ethic. Leopold (1949:224-225) suggested an ethic in which:

“…a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The land ethic is still emerging (Linnartz et at. 1991). Such an ethic must be developed and applied with Clawson’s question of, “forests, for whom and for what?” ringing in our ears.

The most vexing of the problems to be faced in developing a useful ethic will be linking all that is implied in the “forests-for-whom-and-for-what” question with the biological capabilities of the land in determining forest policy and management.

The evolving ethic, a human concept after all, must include the needs and desires of people. That implies the provision of goods, products, and services from the land in addition to requirements for the retention of the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Leopold’s vision of what such an ethic might entail must be expanded to account for conserving biodiversity, attention to economic stability, preservation of productivity, and sustainable provision of good and services – simultaneously.

That seems a tall order, but we are further down that trail – intellectually, ethically and technically – than ever before. And, the path not yet taken stretches ahead.

(my bold).

And yet, here we still are, with the path apparently still not taken. Or it it there and the entrance is overgrown?

Thirtyish years later, I (recently) received an email from the Yale Forest School.

“Our School was originally founded in 1900 as The Yale Forest School, during the time when the American conservation movement began. The land ethics of founding individuals, such as Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold, have been core to the School ever since. In what ways do you think their land ethics are or are not relevant in today’s environmental space? Moving into the future, how would you like The Forest School to approach and embody these and/or other land ethics?”

Here’s the beginning of my answer:

I see three sets of ethics involved in what The Forest School students might learn.
(1) Traditional, old-fangled people ethics- for many, this comes out of a religious or spiritual background. AKA How we treat people. Ideas like social justice, equity, subsidiarity, attention to indigenous/local people, and so on.
(2) Land ethic such as articulated by Leopold. AKA How we treat the land. (But there is also the broader environmental ethic, including animal rights and so on, that are found in a standard environmental ethics class.)
(3) Professional and scientific ethics. AKA How we behave at work.

What we seem to be missing is a vocabulary for discussing these different kinds of ethics, and the cultures and history that influence them, at the same time. And how social and biological sciences might be relevant. Chief Thomas pointed out the need and I don’t think we’ve actually done it. Maybe someone has already figured this out (please link to other efforts); if not we’ll have to tackle it ourselves. Justin Farrell’s book give us some clues and vocabulary and may help point the way. More tomorrow.