August 20, 2007

Restoration Forestry and 5 Myths about Wildfires

While conducting some research on the catastrophic "megafires" that have been plaguing the U.S. in recent years and their relationship with forest tree density, I ran across a terrific website that offers free downloadable and printable educational materials appropriate for all ages. It is operated by "The Forest Foundation which was created in 1994 to inform the public, specifically Californians, about the relationship between the environment and human needs."

The Forest Foundation is elevating key points in the forest management debate and building valuable relationships with government officials, educators, and community leaders. We bring forest science to today's students and tomorrow's leaders, and develop on-the-ground solutions to improve forest health throughout the state.

Education must be the agent of change that saves California's forests. More than 90 percent of Californians now live in urban settings, meaning most kids growing up here have little or no experience in the state's forests, rangelands, or farms. The next generation will be essentially disconnected from the natural resources they take for granted every day.

One of the concepts that their site successfully gets across is the counterproductive results of modern fire-suppression and restricted timber harvesting. Our forests are much denser than they were natively. Around Lake Tahoe - which has recently suffered a wildfire that destroyed over 250 homes - the forests are four times denser than they were 150 years ago. Beetle infestations from forest density further endangers tree health, wildlife diversity, and provides even more fuel for wildfires.

Timber harvesting on California's public lands is down about 90% since 1990. Yet demand for timber is up and will continue to rise with population increases. I believe it is hypocritical for Californians to enact "tree-hugger" policies that necessitate outsourcing wood harvesting and processing outside the state - particularly since it is counter-productive to the proper stewardship of our public forests. Our forests have become time-bombs in our midst that will cloud our skies with decades worth of particulate matter and greenhouse gases as they burn, rot, and decay.

Here are two sections from a well-researched, downloadable brochure that details techniques for solving the wildfire crisis through restoration forestry.

Protecting Communities and Saving Forests
by Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D

What To Do with the Excess Fuel

There is no doubt that California’s forests are plagued with excess fuels. What remains to be seen is how those fuels are dealt with. We could simply leave it there and watch it burn, we could remove some of it in prescribed burns or we can harvest it and put it to good use.

Clean energy
California’s ongoing energy crunch, goals of deriving more energy from renewable sources, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020 highlight another possible use for excess forest growth: biomass energy.

Biomass energy is produced by burning organic material and converting the heat to electricity or even converting the biomass to fuel for cars. Because trees can be replanted, forest biomass represents a largely untapped source of renewable energy.

Utilizing biomass energy has several advantages, especially when seen in the context of global climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the wildfire threat. Burning fossil fuels to generate energy releases tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Burning biomass to produce energy does not. In fact, biomass energy has a “net zero” carbon impact on the atmosphere.

The more energy we derive from renewable sources like biomass, the less need we have to burn fossil fuels that spew greenhouse gases into the air. Furthermore, the more excess fuels we burn to generate electricity, the less we have to watch burn in catastrophic wildfires.

5 Myths about Forests and Wildfires

It is important to distinguish between fact and fiction regarding certain myths that may advance agendas but block ecologically sound forest management. Those myths include:

Myth #1: We have to live with catastrophic wildfire. No, we don’t. Managing our forests to reduce fuel loads can make them safe again. Catastrophic wildfire was not a frequent occurrence in California’s historic forests; it need not be frequent today.

Myth #2: Fire is natural and good. There is a world of difference between the low-intensity fires that shaped California’s landscape for thousands of years and the mega-fires that now devastate thousands of acres at a time. Low-level fires cleared the forest floor of debris and regenerated forests. But we have suppressed natural fire for more than 100 years. Wildfires can now feast on unnatural fuel loads, decimate wildlife, sterilize soils and erase forests from the landscape for centuries.

Myth #3: Today’s forests are natural forests. Research and photographic evidence show that California’s modern forests are vastly different from historic forests. Today’s forests are far thicker than their historic predecessors, densely packed with up to 10 times as many trees. Forests have become dangerously overgrown, much to the detriment of wildlife and biodiversity.

Myth #4: Escalating firefighting costs are inevitable. It’s true that average firefighting costs have increased by more than $100 million per year since the early 1990s, but the trend does not have to continue. Spending a fraction of what we spend on fighting fires to manage forests so there are fewer dangerous fires in the first place could save taxpayers millions.

Myth #5: Commercial logging denudes hillsides and kills wildlife. Private forestland owners have proven that modern forest management can provide habitat for diverse wildlife and sustain forests for generations. The most productive forestland in California is privately owned, and research confirms that wildlife and fisheries from salmon and owls to deer and songbirds flourish on managed lands.

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Scott said...

Certainly a provocative piece. I think that the myths most fixed in the minds of the American public are #3 and #5. The average American who takes a drive into the nearest national forest is likely to have no idea that the forest they are seeing is radically different from what would have been seen last century. This is a function of the fact pointed out in your quote that most Californians, and I am certain that the case is the same for the rest of America, have very little connection to or experience with any non-urban environment.

C. Scott Miller said...

I agree with your comment.

The more I come in contact with Americans from the heartland of the cornbelt (Midwest) and the nation's wood basket (Southeast) the more ashamed I am at the hubris of urbanites who dismiss their perspectives as naive or uneducated.

I think there is a much greater credibility to the opinion of loggers and private timberland owners on the health of our forests than you can expect to get from disconnected urban journalists or college professors. Why? Because indigenous groups have a vested interest in the longterm impacts and a visceral feeling for the issues. Its the difference between being committed to being involved.

Those who are committed tend to agree with Dr. Bonnicksen - and it is not for some shortterm profit gain.