Opinion: Managing forest survival

Posted: September 23, 2012

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

The Forest Reserves, now called national forests, were initially set aside from the public domain to correct the devastation that was occurring to these high-mountain watersheds. Excessive logging, devastating wildfires and unregulated livestock grazing were negatively impacting thewatersheds.

Over a 60- to 70-year period, it took a diligent effort by the newly established U.S. Forest Service to restore the national forests to a productive state where the watersheds were stabilized, resulting in productive forests and variety in the resource.

In the past 40 years there has been a plethora of legislative efforts directing agencies on procedural requirements, and now the forests have come full circle. The forests of the interior West are again experiencing landscape-level changes. They are in a state of disrepair, with millions of acres of dead, dying, red and gray forests that have been ravished by insects and large, excessive wildfires, impacting the watersheds. Why?

The Salt Lake Tribune finally started covering the conditions last year with “Our Dying Forests,” an eight-page special report on the West’s vanishing conifer trees, but with a politically explicit bent that indicated the intent was to ensure that climate change was the problem. The editors’ statement of Sept. 24, 2011, read in part: “We at The Tribune intend this to change the conversation in Utah about climate change … .”

That’s not reporting; it’s editorializing. Although The Tribune examined many valid factors, it excluded the lack of “forest stewardship.” The absence of stewardship has contributed to these large-scale insect outbreaks and wildfires in these Western forests.

Forested landscapes are not static. Trees grow up and out, in search of sunlight, and annually continue to add biomass (stored carbon) until the trees die or are harvested. Without stewardship practices such as thinning or harvesting of forest products, there is more fuel accumulated per-acre annually (called fuel loading). When dry years come along, the trees aren’t as resistant to insect attack and more trees are killed, setting the stage for large, devastating wildfires.

All this adds to the lack of forest health so that wildfires are hotter and last longer and have a greater impact on watersheds. We have come full circle. Why?

The environmentalists have won the battle, but the public is losing the war. Their efforts to have more acres “set aside” as designated “roadless or wilderness” have prevented stewardship solutions. Where projects have been proposed, they have been challenged, appealed and litigated by hardcore environmentalists until the Forest Service has basically been prevented from initiating vegetation treatments to keep forests healthy. Why treat cancer when it’s in the formative stages? Wait until it’s too late.

The former Intermountain regional forester and Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth said about 10 years ago that 65 percent to 70 percent of the Forest Service budget was being spent on planning, appeals and litigation. What’s ironic is that the taxpayers pay for the excessive analysis process to meet National Environmental Policy Act compliance.

Just drive through the forests of the interior West and witness the grey skeletons of once-green forest landscapes or the blackened remnants of burnt trees. Ask yourself if this is what we want from our national forests. The eco-activists are primarily responsible for the loss of our timber industry and many of the conditions in our unhealthy forests from their efforts to prevent stewardship treatments. Our forests are just waiting for the next lightning strike or the errant spark. The Forest Service tries, but it is so entangled with the process and court action that very little gets done beyond fighting fires.

If our forests are to be made healthy again, something has to change. Hal Salwasser, a former regional forester and dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, said last fall that “we need to confront the consequence of the dysfunctional effort of federal forestland management.”

The system that Congress and the activist courts have created has hamstrung the agency. Hopefully, Congress can recognize this situation is not sustainable, and can see the need to simplify and get back to the basic forestry practices that restored the forests in the past.

This will bring back forest health for the multiple resources the national forests are capable of providing. It’s cheaper for Congress to fund beneficial stewardship programs — which provide investments in renewable resource jobs — than paying for ever-expanding fire suppression and legal bills.

Joel Frandsen is a former Utah state forester and is a retiree of the U.S. Forest Service.