Sustainability Report: After the Fire Season

Restoring forests is a complicated process

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Sustainability Report: After the Fire Season

After the smokejumpers go home and the TV crews move on, the forest landscape devastated by wild fire is primarily left to the locals and state to deal with. With many interested parties, this means there are as many opinions about how to address restoration.

Residents want to rebuild their homes. Business owners want to replace their lost structures. Township, county and city governments want to preserve their tax base and development opportunities (including tourism) while preventing any more damage from flooding, mudslides and other disasters that can follow a fire. Still others wish to protect the local flora and fauna, maybe pursue more restrictions on encroachment. Considering the increased frequency, duration and intensity of forest fires, the reclamation process ought to be well established. It isn’t.


Increasing Devastation

According to the National Wildfire Federation, forest fires are only getting worse. The organization draws a direct connection between global warming (climate change) and the threat of fires. The conditions they describe include:

1.burn.png A healthy forest can recover from fire naturally, but allowing that slow process to occur has consequences for those who live near that landscape. (Photo courtesy of Marc Mooney)

Longer fire seasons
Spring runoff occurs earlier, so summer heat builds up more quickly, and warmer conditions extend into fall. Western forests typically become combustible a month after snowmelt finishes; snowpack is melting one to four weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago.

Drier conditions
Summertime temperatures in western North America are projected to rise, increasing evaporation rates. At the same time, precipitation is expected to decrease by up to 15 percent.

More fuel for forest fires
Warmer and drier conditions are conducive to widespread insect infestations, resulting in broad ranges of dead/combustible trees.

Increased frequency of lightning
As thunderstorms become more severe, lightning strikes will likely increase. In the western U.S., a 1.8-degree increase in temperature is expected to lead to a six percent increase in lightning.

“The overall area burned is projected to double by late this century across 11 Western states if the average summertime temperature increases 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit, with Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah being hit particularly hard,” according to the organization’s website.

Current statistics about the increased frequency of fires since the 1980s makes this future seem more inevitable than fantastical. One study shows that in 1986 just over 2 million acres of land burned. That number skyrocketed to more than 10 million acres burned in 2015. This only underscores the need for a viable approach to forest sustainability.

Forest landscape restoration (FLR) is the subject of more than one research paper by Stephanie Mansourian, an environmental consultant based in Gingins, Switzerland. But a recent publication delves into creating a practical framework for developing and maintaining a plan for long-term forest restoration. FLR is defined as the “planned process that aims to regain ecological integrity and enhance human wellbeing in deforested or degraded landscapes.”

burnedforest.png The bodies of water in and near a forest fire are part of the forest landscape affected by a blaze. One issue of restoration is handling the dead wood, soil and fire suppression materials that flow in the water during and after the blaze. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Larsen)


Managing Forests

Those involved in the process have varying degrees of power and influence. Mansourian makes clear that the stakeholders—people, organizations and institutions who directly or indirectly benefit from the forest landscape—are of paramount importance. But other participants, such as governments (local, state, national, international) and entities involved in monitoring and ensuring compliance with laws and agreements, also have a stake in the process. In other words, it’s a messy situation.

“Without clear rules on the use of forests, on land and forest rights and on decision-making processes, efforts to restore part or all of the landscape are likely to be challenging,” writes Mansourian. “Because FLR seeks to balance ecological objectives with human ones, decision making will necessarily involve diverse stakeholders … with very different interests. Processes to allow these groups to air their expectations, needs and priorities, and that foster constructive discussions towards negotiated solutions, will be essential.

“FLR faces several governance challenges. For example, who decides what and where to restore? How are all stakeholders engaged? Who benefits? Who loses? How are benefits transferred? What institutions support (or hinder) FLR?”

forestfire.png Vegetation can return to a landscape devastate by fire, and some plant species need fires to thrive. (Photo courtesy of Theresa McGee)

One effort to address this process at the national level in the U.S. was the passage of Title IV of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which created the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The program is designed to “encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes.” The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages the program, which recently reported on 23 projects. They range in size—130,000 to 400,000 acres—and share an annual budget of $40 million supporting implementation and monitoring.

The USFS description of FLR efforts by Northeast Washington Forest Vision 2020 illustrates how this necessary collaboration can play out in daily life. The project focuses on the Colville National Forest (CNF), and has the goal of “restoring late/old forest structure and species composition—resilient conditions currently rare in CNF.”

“After major fires in the project area in 2015, Forest Service staff and industry partners came together to talk about capacity and how to address salvage,” the report states. “Partners came up with an initial list of 120 possible monitoring questions and then worked together to prioritize 12 key questions. The project brings together the Forest Service, Colville Confederated Tribes, Conservation Northwest, Rocky Mountain Research Station and others to carry out [a] monitoring plan.”

Forest restoration is an ongoing, international effort by multiple organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration and Global Environmental Facility. And scientific research demonstrates the results of many hard-won successes and failures. Mansourian references numerous studies related to landscape management to underscore the importance of finding balanced, sustainable solutions.

“In an FLR process, a challenge is to consider and understand all those affected (both positively and negatively) by the process,” she states. “Different stakeholders with a stake in the landscape have diverse motivations and interrelate in different ways…. An interesting case study demonstrates (unwittingly) the issue of poor stakeholder identification.

“Stakeholders representing restorationists identified the need to remove an invasive species—cordgrass—to restore tidal mudflats and channels. However, populations of the state- and federally-listed bird species, the [California-based Ridgway’s] rail, decreased substantially since it was thriving in the cordgrass,” continues Mansourian. “Had the stakeholders involved in species conservation been part of the restoration process, this may not have happened.”

Top photo by Pixabay, CC0

Margo is a science writer poking her nose into everything that piques her curiosity, from NASA and sea turtles to climate change and green tech.