New studies released on forest fire history and solutions

2012-09-20 Ashley Bach

Forest fire season continues to shine light on issues like federal and state forest management, thinning and forest health. In Central Washington, several wildfires are currently burning and a new study out this week shows that the forest fire season in the West is much longer and more severe than it used to be.

Over the past decade, the average annual burn has been at least 2 million acres on U.S. Forest Service land, according to records studied by the research group Climate Central. That’s a scar the size of Yellowstone National Park. In addition, the West’s forest fire season has extended by 75 days compared to 40 years ago.

...“The Age of Western Wildfires” study published Tuesday reviews forest fire records of the past 42 years in 11 Western states, including Montana. It found that compared to the 1970s, there were seven times as many fires that burned at least 10,000 acres annually and five times as many that grew beyond 25,000 acres. Where the ’70s averaged fewer than 50 fires larger than 1,000 acres a year, those Western states had more than 100 on average between 2002 and 2011.

Meanwhile, the New York Times and High Country News report on a paper that posits a new theory: limited forest fires that thinned the forests did not happen as often over the last few centuries as people think. This kind of theory, though untested, would boost environmentalists' efforts to stop forest thinning and small, prescribed burns.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University, says that instead, environmentalists want wildfires to burn as much as possible.

As one firefighter put it, "fire is the environmentalist's way of thinning the forests." 

To protect our nation's forests from catastrophic fires, Anderson writes, the U.S. Forest Service should be allowed to "properly manage national forest assets."

A start would be to require environmental groups to post a sizable bond when they file lawsuits. If the area burns while the suit is in the courts, the bond would be forfeited to defray firefighting costs.

This would allow public involvement through judicial review but hold opponents accountable. This might lead to a more responsible form of environmentalism.

Washington State Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, in an op-ed in the Spokane Spokesman-Review this month, says active forest management means much more than just thinning projects.

Active forest management practices can make forest fires and wildfires more manageable, and that can mean less property and habitat damage, and less pollution of our air and water. Many (beetle) infested trees still have marketable value and based on my findings are still harvestable for six to 12 months after infestation. By harvesting these trees right away, we can use them to benefit our state’s economy, lumber industry and public school system, since that money supports school construction.

Considering how people in our state have been struggling for years to make ends meet and stay in their homes, and with my fellow state policymakers facing one budget challenge after another, it hasn’t been easy to draw attention to the health of Washington’s forests. However, as the Taylor Bridge wildfire and others have reminded us, the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of proactive forest management. Let’s get through the fire season, hopefully with no more catastrophic fires, and then get serious about improving forest health.