Wildfires bring focus back on importance of thinning


and federal forest management policy. The issue is hitting especially close to home this year, with the Taylor Bridge Fire (which was 100 percent contained only this week) burning 23,500 acres and destroying 60 homes an hour east of Seattle.

Even federal officials are surveying the scene and saying that more active management is necessary to protect forests from wildfires.

Ted Stubblefield, retired supervisor at Gifford Pinchot National Forest, had an op-ed in the Vancouver Columbian this week.

We need a forest stewardship through the use of seral stage management, a process driven by wildlife priorities that reflect all ages of vegetation in varying amounts across vast landscapes. More wood would be produced from our forests; more salvage of fire-prone timber would occur; which means more jobs; and priority would be given to all species of wildlife, and not just the chosen few dictated by the Endangered Species Act.

Our public forests would be at much less risk to wildfires; our wildlife would be more diverse and provided for with mixed types of habitat; and crown fires (those in the tree tops) would drop to the ground and be contained, because there would not be a continuous canopy cover.

Karen Ripley, a manager at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, took a reporter up to the Taylor Bridge Fire to assess what can be learned.

Up the forest road not even a mile, Ripley gets out of the sedan again. It’s thick with trees tight together – so no tree gets enough water. The overcrowding also makes it easier for pests to jump or fall from one tree to another. And there’s lots of insect damage. They eat the soft shoots off the branches and under the bark to where the tree transports its food and water….

Ripley says all of this adds up to big fires – like Taylor Bridge.

According to Ripley, the state has limited funds to more actively manage the forests, but thinning is still critical to maintain forest health.

“Forest management does make a difference in fire behavior in all but the most extreme cases,” (Ripley said.)

100 years of fire suppression and management for timber harvest has left the landscape altered. She says these fires will only become more common with global climate change which will warm these areas making the forest dryer and more susceptible to pests.

In Oregon, Martin Goebel and Patrick Shannon, two advocates for sustainable business, wrote in the Oregonian that more active federal forest management could help save a Eastern Oregon sawmill set to close its doors for good this year.

Like any business, Malheur Lumber needs a predictable supply of “restoration lumber.” No old-growth trees are involved. This requires all of us to pull together and act quickly. Our senators and representatives need to work to reinstate the kind of core federal budget levels that reward and build upon recent success. The Forest Service must direct funds and accelerate planning to ensure that restoration forestry happens in larger tracts and more consistently. Grant County and the state of Oregon must explore the possibility of using county road funds, to be lent for the planning of restoration projects while the feds respond. Nonprofit organizations must help advocate and organize short- and mid-term solutions.

There remain very real questions about whether federal and state officials are willing to increase the timber harvest enough to make a difference in both the severity of wildfires and the strength of rural economies.

For example, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative in Arizona (which we wrote about last year) was supposed to allow restoration thinning on 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forests in the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab, and Tonto national forests. But the program has never been fully implemented.

National Public Radio is in the middle of a multipart series, “Megafires: The New Normal In The Southwest,” which explores the struggle to make Arizona forests safer.

The White Mountain Stewardship Project near Flagstaff is a thinning project underway for nearly a decade. The Arizona Republic went out with logging crews this month and described the project as the “one of the largest single sources of work for loggers in the Arizona high country.”

Is it making a difference? In small doses, but the larger picture is still unchanged.

In 2011, another monster fire spread through the mountains — the Wallow Fire, the largest in Arizona history.

This time, fewer homes burned.

“Nutrioso, Eagar, Alpine would have been toast if we hadn’t thinned the trees over there,” said Dwayne Walker (logger for WB Contracting).

Even so, the land of loggers has changed, forever.

“It still burned a lot,” he said. “We lost a lot of the nicest forests in Arizona. Not even my grandkids will see what I’ve seen.”