In the war against wildfires, ecosystem restoration is the name of the game

The groundbreaking approach demands political will, community support, long-term thinking and a landscape vast enough to make a difference. In short, it's tough.
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Leecher Mountain back fire, Carlton Complex

The groundbreaking approach demands political will, community support, long-term thinking and a landscape vast enough to make a difference. In short, it's tough.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on forest fires.

Last summer's Carleton Complex fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in central Washington, made it clear that Smokey the Bear and his woodsy friends aren't the only ones at risk when the forest goes up in flames. As more and more people settle in the fire-prone "wildland-urban interface," the risk to human life and property keeps growing. Nevertheless, people keep building, and local governments, by-and-large, don't try to make them stop.

Lowering the wildfire risk to these communities is expensive and complicated. Getting rid of brush and dead and crowded trees along the wildland-urban interface costs more money per acre if there are houses in the way. It also costs more in political effort and frustration. Even if government agencies had more financial resources, explains University of Washington affiliate professor of environmental and forest sciences David Peterson, officials would still have to overcome public opposition to the smoke from nearby prescribed burns and to the loss of trees.

Ideally, this would all be self-sustaining: Logging companies could thin the forests, remove the brush and pay for it all with the money they'd make selling the lumber. In reality, a lot of that wood is pretty worthless AND it costs money to haul AND a lot of the areas where the forests need thinning no longer have sawmills to process the wood. "Right now, we don't have a mill," says Annie Schmidt, director of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, which is working to reduce fire danger to people and structures in the Leavenworth area. (Chumstick Creek flows into the Wenatchee River there.) "Right now, we feel that lack."

In the past, some logging companies that were nominally reducing fire risk profited through the back door. Under the George W. Bush administration and even under Bill Clinton, forest restoration was a scam, a way to let loggers into otherwise-off-limits areas so they could cut the big, valuable trees. Without such a scam, restoration work must be subsidized. "A lot of the wood is not going to pay its way out of the woods," says Chris Topik, director of the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America’s Forests program. But, he adds, "it may pay half its way."

Topik talks about the possibility of using portable mills and maybe portable biomass power plants — portable not in the sense you can load one into the back of a pickup truck, but that you could set one up, run it for 5 or 10 years, then take it apart and set it up somewhere else.

Forest restoration has become the name of the game. The proposed management plan revision for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest — the first plan update for a Northwestern national forest in this century — explains that a "shift in focus from commodity production to ecosystem restoration and forest health is being proposed." Some critics complain about a lack of fixed standards in this approach and about a chipping away at protections for the Northern Spotted Owl, but still, that shift in focus would be ground-breaking.

The goal of the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, which includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the Yakama Nation, the state departments of natural resources and fish and wildlife, "is to manage three million acres of forests by strengthening the landscape's resistance and resilience to the long-term effects of climate change, with warmer, dryer and longer fire seasons."

You can't restore a forest on a landscape scale unless you have a landscape to work with. The Nature Conservancy's Eastern Washington program director, James Schroeder, explains that some large-scale restoration in the eastern Cascades has become possible because the state and NGOs have managed to consolidate old checkerboard patterns of land ownership — left over from land grants awarded in the mid-19th century for construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad — into manageable large tracts.

(It's worth noting that not all forests can be made truly resilient. When people think of resilience, they're often imagining forests in which big, thick-barked ponderosa pines would naturally dominate. In the lodgepole pine forests we have now, on the other hand, trees naturally crowd together and start dying after 80 or 100 years. Inevitably, bugs move in. Inevitably, large areas go up in smoke. In the big ecosystem picture, that can be a good thing: Snowshoe hares need the forests of young lodgepole pines that grow back after a fire. And endangered Canada lynx need snowshoe hares. Homeowners don't necessarily take the long view.)

There would be more money available to restore forests if the U.S. Congress separated funding for fire disasters from funding for forest restoration, a sorting process that could make big fires less likely. "The Forest Service is going to run out of money again," Topik says. As a result, "the Forest Service operations money is going to be taken away." The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would establish separate funding to fight big fires, seems hopelessly stalled. "It's just stuck," Topik says.

(Update: After this article was published Topik emailed to say that "conditions on the ground changed significantly toward the end of the 2014 fiscal year as the fire season got milder in most areas of the country, and therefore less costly to manage. At the end of the fiscal year on September 30, the Forest Service was surprised that they did not have to transfer funds from non-fire accounts.  Earlier in the summer, and even earlier in the month, they had anticipated large fire borrowing, so they told the field units all over the USA to limit spending so the funds would be available for emergency fire suppression. Even though transfers were not necessary, there was still considerable disruption of management, including the kind of work that makes forests more resilient and reduces risks. This is not the way to manage an agency.")

While some people work to reduce wildfire damage over large landscapes, others work to reduce risk close to home. Chumstick and other local organizations around the West have been trying to drum up grassroots support for making communities less likely to burn. But most places still lack that kind of organized focus.

Have communities learned from the fate of Pateros? "It's pretty early days yet to answer that question," says Annie Schmidt of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalitions. "I hope so. If other communities were going to look at what happened there, the basic tenets of being prepared were reinforced. At the end of the day, it all sort of comes down to the old Boy Scout motto." Be prepared.

For an individual property owner, thinning the nearby woods and clearing a firebreak around a house can be expensive. In the Chumstick drainage, says Schmidt, getting a private contractor to reduce that fuel load costs about $1600 an acre; government cost-sharing covers only about half. Nevertheless, the expense can be easy to justify. Protecting a place against wildfire is kind of "like putting a good roof on your home," says the UW's Peterson. "You want to protect your investment."

For a community, though, reducing the risk of wildfire is a matter of creating institutions and culture, and doing it for the very long haul. "I'm not so sure there's an end" to the preparation, Schmidt says. "That's certainly an issue we work with." The people who remember the Carleton Complex fire won't be around forever. The danger will. "We have to adapt across generations," Schmidt says. "That's the challenge."

At best, no one is going to remove all the dead branches and thin all the crowded trees over a large area. Instead, just as innoculating some percentage of a population may prevent the spread of disease, treating some relatively small percentage of the land area — if it's the right percentage — may prevent the spread of wildfire. Reese Lolley, the Nature Conservancy's Eastern Washington forest projects director and chair of the Washington Prescribed Forest Council, says that on a 90,000-acre tract of dry forest near Ellensburg, the Nature Conservancy and its partners are looking at a lot of different factors that will help them determine which 15 percent (at most) they'll actually try to restore. The key, he says, will be choosing the land strategically.

Really, what does it matter if a forest burns down now, if you know it will regenerate in a century or two? In the big scheme of things, not much. In the context of our own limited lifetimes, it matters a lot. What we see going up in smoke today, may not regenerate in our lifetime. It's only natural that we want to prevent the destruction.

But ultimately, we can't. We can reduce risk, but we can't eliminate it. That's a tough message to sell. "It's about risk management," Lolley says. And he has found that "when you start talking probabilities, it's a harder discussion. People want assurance, a neat 'yes' or 'no.'"

"We know what to do," Peterson says, "but we don't have the resources to get that done." The Forest Service is working to reduce fuel loads. But it is running on a treadmill; in fact, it is moving backward on a treadmill. Peterson explains that the agency has just enough money to cover 20 percent of what should be done every year. At that rate, he says, "we will never catch up."

However forest management is funded, the federal government can't dictate local land-use decisions. Those will be driven by local government's desire for property taxes, developers' desire for profit and a lot of people's desire to get government off their backs — but still prepared to save our butts.

In theory, at least, the feds aren't totally helpless. "Federal incentives and disincentives could be used to expand WUI protection," suggests Headwaters Economics, siting such mechanisms as "federal assistance for local planning; eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction for homes in the WUI; and more." State and local governments could also exert some control, according to Headwaters, by "using local zoning ordinances, building codes, set-back requirements, and more to protect the WUI." In fact, incentives at the federal level could encourage state and local governments to take more responsibility.

Finally, notes Headwaters, "the federal government could act unilaterally, such as by requiring federal wildfire insurance for any WUI development near federal lands."

Lots of luck. With a little detachment — that is, when you're not worried about losing your own house or vacation cabin — it's easy to see the folly of letting people build in harm's way, then spending public resources to protect them from that harm. But in the (literal) heat of the moment, no one is going to let those property owners reap what they have sown, and it would be politically difficult to make future building less attractive. Translating logic into policy looks like an uphill fight.

Have people learned anything from this year's wildfires? "Excluding the United States Congress, I'd say yes, absolutely," says Topik. "People can learn." Perhaps he should also have excluded the Washington State Legislature. Governor Jay Inslee's "last budget sought $20 million for fuels reduction," according to Joseph O'Sullivan at The Seattle Times. Lawmakers only approved $4 million.

This isn't surprising to the Nature Conservancy's Topik. "The political process, unfortunately, is most responsive to these kinds of terrible events," he explains. "It's less responsive to doing things that will make such terrible events less likely."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.