Stewardship of our forests requires balance

Seeing the forest for the trees can be a frustrating experience, even if you’re a forester with decades of experience stewarding our public forests.

Appropriate stewardship of an ever-changing landscape, where results are not evident until decades later, is not for the faint of heart, especially considering the current condition of forests.

It is centuries late for a sit-on-the-hands approach to forest management as we’ve modified much of our forest and we must now decide what to do – and just as importantly, what not to do. Decades of fire suppression, which we once embraced as the highest priority in forest management, have instead left us with a forest significantly devoid of diversity and saturated with combustible fuels. And partly because this imbalance was decades in the making, it will require decades to bring back a balance.

There isn’t a quick fix; indeed, returning our forests to historic, natural conditions will require every tool in the forester’s backpack. Many of these tools attempt to mimic natural processes, but at accelerated rates and in targeted locales. For example, prescribed fires aim to diversify the forest, instigate new growth and reduce fuels through low-severity fire, while reducing the possibilities of high-severity “catastrophic” wildfire.

Recently, we have seen the promotion of legislation in Congress that would dramatically increase timber harvesting as a fix to the forest health dilemma. Just as the “no fires” forest management approach has proven to be a disaster, so would the “log it all now” approach. There is no direct correlation between the nationwide reduction in timber harvesting during the last few years and the increase of tree mortality – it’s the combined result of many factors. Timber production has fallen because of fewer housing starts, increased fuel costs and other market factors. While timber harvesting is often accurately touted for providing yearned-for rural jobs, other forest restoration work also provides employment.

Though we can never completely “log our way” to historical natural forest conditions, thoughtful and strategic timber harvesting can be a part of the solution along with prescribed fire and thinning. Such a balanced approach to forest stewardship is the key to responding to previous management miscalculations when we listened only to Smokey Bear’s admonishments.

If those federal lawmakers pushing for a “logging-only fix” to improve forest health and reduce wildfires would tune into scientific realities and the financial balance sheet, they would instead ramp up other stewardship activities. For example, funds targeted to forest restoration work, including the reduction of hazardous fuels, is known to cost many times less per acre compared with suppressing high-severity wildfires.

Some in Congress hope to enable a massive increase in logging through the obliteration of numerous forest-protection standards and environmental safeguards that have served us well for decades. As we know from our corner in Colorado, our forest provides us with much more than timber, hence standards and laws that ensure a balanced and measured approach to our forests are vitally important, and should not to be scrapped for an errant quick-fix approach to restoring natural forest conditions.

Jimbo Buickerood is public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

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