By Dr. Arielle Halpern
In the interests of transparency, I will make my biases known from the beginning: I am a vocal supporter of prescribed fire as a tool to safeguard communities, enhance healthy forest structure, and maintain the ecosystem services upon which we all depend. Fire is a natural abiotic process in the ecosystems of the western United States and beyond. The regular presence of fire on the ground is it’s own limiting factor: You can’t burn fuel that has already been burned.
H.R. 2936 was passed by the House of Representatives on November 1, 2017 and would effectively exacerbate the issues that is purports to mitigate i.e. the catastrophic wildfires that have been ripping through the western United States in the last decade. This bill rests on misguided assertion, encapsulated in the Republican Policy Committee’s Summary, that the alarming increase in the size and intensity of wildfires over the past 15 years is the result of a steep decline in timber harvesting. According to U.S. Forest Service researchers Hugh Safford and Kip Van de Water, the drastic increase in wildfire size and severity in northern California is due to an extreme departure from the frequency with which forests burned during the pre-European settlement era (Safford and Van de Water, 2014). Nowhere else in the state has the natural fire regime been so drastically altered during the fire suppression era than in northern California and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is no coincidence that these are the areas that have recently experienced the largest and most severe wildfires in the state.
Among its other shortcomings H.R. 2936 will also threaten communities and wildlife by fast-tracking irresponsible, large scale logging projects and diminish capacity for the public input and environmental checkpoints that have balanced the board feet quotas of the timber industry with restoration and conservation goals. With the diminished public and environmental input for which H.R. 2936 advocates, we risk the further threatening of endangered species and sensitive native habitats, increasing erosion with the building of access roads and excessive ground disturbing activities, and, above all, it fails to fix the wildfire funding problem.
The answer to the funding arm of the wildfire problem is certainly complex, but it is not to siphon more resources into fire suppression or to pave the way for unsustainable logging practices. That is the mindset that got us into trouble in the first place. One aspect of the answer is to increase funding that rekindles a safe and healthy relationship with fire, this includes funds to increase prescribed fire on both public and private lands.
Another area of emphasis needs to be on developing a paradigm of ecologically sound and environmentally friendly logging practices. Let’s face it: 100+ years of fire suppression and clearcutting has left us with a biomass problem. Our forests are desperately overgrown with densely packed, small diameter trees; however, there is hope: We can continue with the plantation paradigm or we can begin conversations on selective logging that encourages heterogenous age, species, and size class composition. This type of forestry increases biodiversity and reduces the spread and deleterious effects of high severity wildfire.
Yet another area in which we need to focus is sharing the liability between agencies and organizations (public, NGO, private and others) for fuels reduction projects so that we can all actively participate in the thoughtful stewardship of the forests we call home.
One has but to look at the list of entities who have given their support for H.R. 2936 to see who would benefit from the passage of this bill: Timber producers, loggers, and forest product user associations.
H.R. 2936 was received in the Senate on November 2, 2017. We here at the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center urge you to write to your senators and encourage them to vote against the bill. For further information or resources, you may read this analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association, or contact us.
Safford, H.D., Van de Water, K.M. (2014) Using Fire Return Interval Departure (FRID) Analysis to Map Spatial and Temporal Changes in Fire Frequency on National Forest Lands in California, Research Paper PSW-RP-266, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.