The thick of thinning our forests


With the advent of wildfire season upon us, discussion is turning to the importance of forest thinning to protect rural communities and forest health. This time last year, the Wallow Fire in Arizona caused state and local officials to decry the inaction of the U.S. Forest Service to allow more thinning.

Now it feels like there are more thinning projects than ever before, even if federal forest policy is still very slow to change. In Arizona, while a lack of thinning is clearly contributing to the growth of large fires, federal officials say a thinning project actually saved the city of Alpine from the Wallow Fire last summer.

The same thing happened on a much smaller scale in Eastern Washington last month. A $200,000 project to thin dense stands of pine trees and prune low-hanging branches stopped a brush fire from spreading to nearby homes.

The work “kept the fire low-intensity and easy to fight,” said Steve Harris, DNR’s landowner assistance manager in Colville.

Just in the last week, thinning projects have been announced or covered in the media in Riverside State Park near Spokane and the Oak Creek Wildlife Area in Eastern Washington, as well as the Willamette National Forest and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon.

Lindsey Warness, spokeswoman for the Boise Cascade timber company in Idaho, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the political landscape may be changing.

According to Warness, many representatives from environmental groups are beginning to note the sad shape of national forests and are becoming more tolerant of changes in forest management philosophy.

This shift is happening none too soon, Warness said.

Speaking of the lack of adequately thinned federal forests regionally, Warness calls it “one huge tinderbox” and says “it discourages me a lot to see federal forests burning up and not a lot happening.” She compares the fire threat here to what is happening in Colorado.

The thinning projects currently underway are not even close to the harvest that timber companies want, so will they be willing to work on a vastly smaller scale? Here’s what a Salem timber operator told the U.S. Forest Service about the thinning project in the Willamette National Forest.

There are nearly as many questions about the project as there are tree to thin, such as How would sales be administered with multiple companies and industries involved? Who would take care of the debris, or slash, that would be left behind? Who gets access to the stand first? Could a cooperative of industry members be formed to work together on the project? And how quickly can regulatory issues be resolved so folks can get to work?

“Everything I got is riding on this,” said Mike Chastain of M&M Fire Fuels in Salem. “I like working in the district and working with you folks. Why can’t I just get in there and get to work? What can we do to get things along?”

“How many private companies are willing to step up and help?” Chastain asked. “This is an opportunity to rebuild the forest products industry from the ground up. Why not re-invent this industry?”

Whatever shape reform takes, current federal forest policy is not working, wrote Rufus Woods, the publisher of the Wenatchee World.

Experts say that the conditions in our forests are ripe for catastrophic fires. We so far have been unwilling to manage that risk effectively by removing forest fuels through prescribing burning and selective logging.

You don’t have to turn back the clock that far to see what happens when wildfires rage out of control. In 1994, North Central Washington was ablaze with wildfires driven by dry conditions and high winds, and helped along by years of fire suppression that had allowed fuels to build up to dangerous levels…

We need to develop pragmatic and thoughtful approaches to managing that risk for the long-term benefit of the region. We humans have mucked up a system that was very effective by successful stamping out fires for 50 or 60 years. What we saw in 1994 is a harbinger of things to come. We’d be better off aggressively managing the forests rather than letting nature take its course.