A Plan to Restore and Sustain Our Forests
by Jim Youtz, Marlin Johnson, and John Hinz
Entering the fourth consecutive season of drought, we hear warnings of a summer filled with catastrophic wildfires such as those that blackened millions of acres two years ago. While subnormal precipitation may worsen fires this year, members of the Southwestern Society of American Foresters (SWSAF) recognize that fundamental long-term changes in our forests are at the root of many forest fire emergencies.
Forests are complicated ecosystems in which plants and animals have co-adapted over generations. Interactions among different species and climatic conditions over centuries created southwestern forests that were adapted to fire, fire that was either started by lightning or by Native Americans. These fires were frequent and usually relatively cool, especially in the abundant ponderosa pine forests. After European settlement, a reduction in wildfire occurred due to fire suppression and grazing, which removed much of the grass that carried the fires.
With fewer fires over the past century, our forests have changed. Young seedlings that would have been thinned by fire survived and forests have become extremely dense. In one study, a site which had a presettlement average of just 23 trees per acre has increased to 851 (Covington and Moore, NAU,1994). Other studies confirm a widespread, significant increase in forest density and identify a related change in tree species, as shade tolerant firs replace more sun-loving aspens and pines.
These changes have created less resilient forests, which do not function or react to fire as they once did. There is now far less grass in the forest understory and less water available for streamflow and groundwater recharge. This has changed habitats for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Fires in such dense forests are no longer cool surface fires, but catastrophic events that damage soil, wildlife habitat, and watersheds. Often they become unstoppable and threaten human life and property.
Some believe we can have healthy and sustainable forests if we just walk away from them and let nature take its course. The high intensity fires that would occur under this scenario would cause forested watersheds to suffer long-term damage or require extremely costly stabilization and rehabilitation efforts.
Large fires in the West during the summer of 2000 drew national attention to the plight of these forests. Under presidential directive, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior developed a strategic management program known as the “National Fire Plan.” This Plan, adopted by all federal and state land management agencies, directs among other things, that steps be taken to treat unhealthy forests throughout the United States.
The National Fire Plan recognizes a critical need to reduce forest densities. Under some conditions, this can be done by careful use of prescribed fire. Often, however, forests will need to be thinned by cutting some of the trees. Though many trees are too small for traditional products, innovative uses are being developed for them. The SWSAF advocates using these trees where forest thinning is feasible and necessary.
Some groups and individuals have advocated that only lands near urban areas be managed to reduce hazardous fuels, while the remainder of the landscape be subject to management by wildfire. SWSAF counsels that this is an unscientific strategy which would subject the public to unnecessary danger, and the environment to severe degradation. And it won’t sustain our forests. Instead it will lead to undesirable, sometimes irreversible changes upon the landscape.
The National Fire Plan is sound policy that addresses both public safety and environmental restoration. SWSAF supports its recommendations and promotes appropriately planned fire suppression, urban interface hazard fuels treatment projects, and overall landscape-level forest restoration practices, which may include thinning and use of prescribed fire. SWSAF advocates that all forest landscapes be managed and restored, where possible, to conditions in which wildfires can again be permitted to play a natural role.
Jim Youtz and Marlin Johnson, SWSAF policy and legislative coordinators
John Hinz, Chair-elect, Palo Verde Chapter SAF
The Southwestern Society of American Foresters is a section of the 17,000-member parent Society of American Foresters. SWSAF covers the geographical region of Arizona and New Mexico. SAF is the national scientific and educational organization representing the forestry profession in the United States. SAF is the accrediting body for University and College Forestry curricula in the US. The mission of SAF is to advance the science, technology, education, and practice of professional forestry in the United States and to use the knowledge and skills of the profession to benefit society. Members include public and private practitioners, researchers, administrators, educators, forest technicians and students. Forestry and other natural resource professionals are invited to join the Society. Others are invited to attend local meetings and events. For more information about SAF, contact national headquarters in Bethesda, MD at 301-897-8720.