Forest Policy, Water and Trout
by Marlin Johnson
What is going on here, and why should trout fishermen be concerned about what upland forests look like? Additionally, why should
you be concerned about forest policies made in Washington?
Let me start with water flows and where they come from. Here in the Southwest, the higher we go in elevation the more precipitation we find, and thus, the forest species that require more moisture than lower elevation semi-desert species. Much of the water in our New Mexico streams and rivers falls as snow or rain in our forests of pine, spruce and fir. As long as these forested ecosystems are healthy, clean water will continue to run off directly or infiltrate into the ground and later flow into our streams and rivers.
Many look at our green forests and assume they have looked and functioned about the same since time began. This is far from the truth! Our ponderosa pine forests today have 20 to 30 times as many trees today as they had 100+ years ago. They have gone from 20 to 50 trees per acre up to 500 and sometimes into the thousands of trees on each acre. A preponderance of the excess is in smaller trees, but some of it is in larger trees too. (How this happened is another story I could tell in a future article.) These dense forests cause less water to reach the ground, since they capture rain and snowfall on their needles and branches, and it subsequently evaporates. Of the water that reaches the ground, some is used by each tree, so again less is available for stream flow and ground infiltration with our dense forests.
Finally, and here is the big impact, when the trees are very close together, fire behaves differently than it did in the natural, open forests. Fire in a sparsely stocked forest usually burns along the ground, burning grass, pine needles and some fallen trees or branches. In a dense forest, fire becomes a living beast, often consuming everything in its path. As you have most likely seen on television over the last few years, flames twice as high as the trees are common. The ground is left with no protection when rains come, and millions of tons of ash, rock and soil are moved off the land and down through stream courses. You have probably seen pictures of the 10-foot deep mud flows around Durango that resulted when September rains hit the area burned by the Missionary Ridge fire. I hate to think of the effect of these millions of tons of silt in the Animas and other rivers.
Since the forests are far too dense they need some trees removed. There are basically only 2 ways to do this, burn them down or cut and remove them. Prescribed burning has its place, but often the forest is so dense that it is not safe to light these fires. At Cerro Grande in 2000, we saw how the best of intentions can go wrong. Most often, we land managers need to first remove some of the trees to thin the area, then re-introduce fire to help finish the job. What if we take out only the little trees and leave the big ones? This would create a monoculture of one size of tree, not the biodiversity that nature had here in the first place. We prefer being able to take trees of all sizes, concentrating on leaving an ecosystem that will resemble the pattern, density and resilience of the forests that were here before colonization.
Environmental laws (i.e. National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Etc.) written over the last several decades have each had different objectives and most of them have been needed to provide for orderly resource management. However, taken as a group and with many interpretations through the courts, then have became a mill stone around the neck of federal agencies charged with managing and protecting our federal lands. The Chief of the Forest Service recently released a report called the Gridlock Report, where he talks about “analysis paralysis.” The Forest Service probably spends far more of their annual budget doing paperwork and analysis than they do in managing the land because of the complex set of rules that have developed.
Often a project is designed by resource professionals such as foresters, hydrologists, soil scientists and wildlife biologists. The public is provided a chance to comment, and general concurrence of the local, affected public is obtained. However, under the current rules one person or group, often hundreds of miles away, can appeal and litigate and cause huge cost increases and delays in being able to carry out the project.
This is where the President’s healthy forest initiative and bills being debated in Congress come in. These are all attempts to free up the process of undue analysis and delays, and allow federal agencies and the resource professionals they employ to move faster to move our forests into a condition where the large, destructive fires of recent years are far less likely to occur. The idea of treating these forests to thin out trees is not corporate welfare; trees that are large enough to have economic value are sold to the highest bidder. It is costly to do all the planning and to remove the millions of trees too small to have any use, so to some, there may be the appearance of a subsidy. There is a cost of having healthy forests and healthy streams; you need to let the New Mexico Delegation know you
expect them to pass legislation to allow treatments that will lead to healthy forests. If not, we will only see more of the floods and mud flows and erosion that can continue for years after damaging fires.
Overly dense forests will burn. It is not a question of if, but when if nothing is done. While forest thinning treatments may initially cause some erosion, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to what will happen without it.