Collaborative Forestry in the Pacific Northwest - More Details

Above: Tree marked for protection.

Wildfire is an existential crisis facing some of our most cherished landscapes – the forests that provide refuge across dry, western landscapes.

Over the past 150 years, mismanagement (overharvesting, intensive livestock grazing, and fire suppression) has tipped these ecosystems dangerously out of balance.

Today, dry, frequent-fire forests are full of smaller trees and ground fuels. Coupled with rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and increased drought, this is a recipe for megafires.

Expecting nature to heal itself after decades of active mismanagement is like waiting for a river to remove a dam by itself. It also ignores the reality that these lands weren’t “left alone” prior to colonization. Indigenous peoples have been here since time immemorial and have a long history as active stewards of the land. Since the arrival of settlers, over a century of fire suppression has created a powder keg, and intervention is necessary. As with climate change, toxic mining pollution, and dams on rivers, people have created this problem, and it will not solve itself.

High-severity wildfires are more and more common, threatening the survival of communities and forests. Climate change plays an indisputable role in this, but fire suppression and logging practices are also key factors. Repressing fire and clearcutting old growth have changed the structure and biodiversity of forest ecosystems over time. Today’s forests are far less fire resilient than they were at the time of colonization. 

Further, a prohibition on traditional cultural burning and other Indigenous forest stewardship practices has also contributed to present-day conditions causing forests to be less resilient. Exclusion of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands has contributed to ecological and cultural devastation in numerous ways. WELC is committed to continuing to listen and learn from Tribes and Indigenous peoples who are willing to share their stories with us. We are also committed to advocating for forest management policies and decisions that have been developed with and are supported by tribal governments, including co-management and land back.

We have the knowledge and tools to reduce the worst effects of large wildfires. To accomplish this goal, we must undo the damage caused by more than 150 years of misguided forest use and mismanagement.

Western science and Indigenous knowledge alike suggest that forests that have recently experienced low-intensity fire are a lot more resilient to future wildfires, and lower forest density results in better-watered, hardier trees.

The path to restoration involves preserving as much old growth as possible, creating the conditions to develop older forests where none exist, and forest thinning to allow prescribed fire to restart the historic fire cycle. We support:

  • Returning stand density and species composition to the best estimate of historic levels, or to levels that the best available science indicates will likely be most resilient to climate change. 
  • Preservation of all old trees that appear to have been established prior to 1860, regardless of whether that results in a stand that is “too dense” according to the above research.
  • Thinning in and around stands of old trees to reduce stand densities to levels that will likely withstand wildfire and provide sufficient water to remaining old trees.
  • Where few or no old trees exist, remaining trees should be managed to develop stands of large, old trees of appropriate species composition as quickly as possible.
  • In roadless areas, where mechanical treatment is impossible, we recommend introducing fall prescribed fire under moderate weather conditions as soon as possible.

Collaboration

Communities that are meaningfully involved in the ecology of their surroundings will take better care of them. The same is true for conservation advocacy. To increase ecological resilience and foster a conservation ethic, we must thoughtfully work with tools that better root conservation advocacy in place and people.

Collaboration is one of these tools. It allows us to work with diverse groups in an open, inclusive process to address natural resource problems or issues of mutual concern that are unlikely to be solved individually.

Not all situations are ripe for collaboration. It takes the right people and the right kinds of issues. But when the circumstances align, we have seen collaboration produce durable, place-based solutions that enjoy broad support.

Sources 

WELC’s perspective on forest management is guided by science. We look to peer-reviewed scientific research published in reputable journals, insights shared by Indigenous peoples who have managed these lands for millennia, and lessons learned on the ground from land management practitioners and other restoration projects. WELC then works with its forest collaborative partners to use this research and experience to develop “zones of agreement” which integrate best available science and reflect inputs from all collaborative members. We then share those zones of agreement with the Forest Service, which uses them in its planning and implementation process, reducing the likelihood of lawsuits.

There is significant evidence that many of the dry, frequent fire forests (like those in eastern Oregon where WELC is engaged in forest collaborative efforts) need active management, including but not limited to thinning, reintroduction of fire, and restoration treatments of roads, streams, and degraded wildlife habitats. The need for restoration falls under three major themes: 

  1. Fire-adapted forests are significantly departed from historical conditions; 
  2. Fire-adapted forest stands are currently highly vulnerable to uncharacteristic disturbance dynamics (e.g. severe wildfire, drought, insect attack) that have significant negative consequences to human and natural communities; and, 
  3. Fire-adapted forests are poorly adapted to future conditions if left untreated.

Eastern Oregon landscapes are well adapted to low intensity surface fire, and many of the ecosystem services provided by forests in eastern Oregon depend on fire. Indigenous communities used fires for thousands of years to manage natural resources in eastern Oregon. Prior to the advent of fire exclusion policies in the late 1800s, a combination of human and natural ignitions created a rich mosaic of resilient forest communities that were shaped by and sustained by fire. Fire created new habitat structures, stimulated new growth, helped cycle nutrients, and removed excess fuels.

Fire exclusion policies have led to a significant deficit in fire relative to historical conditions in western North American forests. In the absence of low intensity surface fire that maintains open forest stands and removes fuel (e.g. plant material like grass, shrubs, fallen leaves and pine needles), communities, water supplies, and key ecosystem structures like old-growth trees are vulnerable to fast-moving high severity fire. These high severity fires are already here and their increasing frequency is apparent to anyone who has been living in Oregon (and much of the western U.S.). Unfortunately, the extent and impacts from these fires will grow as the climate continues to warm.

There are significant benefits to thinning practices that remove younger trees and provide resources necessary for old trees to thrive, even without reintroducing fire. Removing competition through thinning protects these older trees from the effects of uncharacteristic drought, disease, and insect attack. Limited evidence from studies on the Malheur National Forest in particular indicate that mechanical thinning in the absence of prescribed fire results in modeled fire behavior that is significantly less severe than untreated stands for up to a decade following thinning. However, there is a consensus among scientists that the only long-term solution to moderating the impacts of large high-severity fire is using prescribed fire to reduce fuel loads during favorable weather conditions.

Further Reading:

Goals:

Learn from the past and move forward using adaptive management 

Adaptive management applies new information about how forests have responded to past treatments into future restoration plans. Successful adaptive management requires developing new scientific research, monitoring at a stand and landscape scale, and planning that incorporates this new information. 

Restart the historic fire cycle using prescribed fire 

Historically, dry, frequent-fire forests saw low-intensity fires every 7-25 years. Reintroducing low-intensity fire can make wildfire more manageable, reduce high-severity fire risk to human lives and property, and scale down smoke events. WELC advocates for ecological resiliency through support for vastly more prescribed fire, conservation of older forest structure, and restoration of a range of fish and wildlife habitat. If Tribes and Indigenous peoples have an interest in cultural burning on ceded lands, we support that. Indigenous peoples have lived on this land since time immemorial and have their own history of cultural burning. We recognize that Indigenous peoples and Tribal nations may or may not want to share that history and Indigenous knowledge with WELC or with forest collaboratives.

Work with Tribal nations to ensure their concerns and desired outcomes are considered in the collaborative process

While Tribes, as sovereign nations, have a government-to-government relationship with federal agencies, the legacy of inequity based in a long history of mistreatment persists. We can improve forest management by: 

  • Building Tribal partnerships; 
  • Advocating for outcomes sought by Tribal nations in the collaborative context when appropriate, including managing natural resources to ensure that Tribal and treaty rights and resources will be maintained and that agencies only make management decisions after meaningful consultation with the Tribes whose rights will be affected; and
  • Responding to requests from Tribes for support in pursuing co-management opportunities on federal public lands. 

Educate the public using reliable sources with accurate information about forest management and wildfire

Understanding the causes of high-severity wildfire can be overwhelming. Rural citizens often distrust the government, including the Forest Service. Community members may also be unsure about where to start when seeking information about wildfire, including everything from the science around forest restoration treatments and reintroducing prescribed fire, to how they can best guard their homes from wildfire. The transparency and visibility of collaborative forestry can help bridge these gaps and create better outcomes for forests and communities.

Prepare for high-severity wildfires through resilient communities and forests

WELC supports strong state and federal policy which helps communities at high risk of fire prepare through programs such as Community Wildfire Preparedness Plans, Firewise Communities, and funding for land owners — both public and private — to treat ecosystems in the Wildland Urban Interface so that unexpected fire can be managed. This includes activities such as home hardening, developing evacuation routes, thinning vegetation, and prescribed fire.

Support Rural Economic Development & just transition from a logging based economy to a stewardship economy

Restoring forests to states of pre-colonization wildfire resilience can provide wood products to support jobs and a local manufacturing base in public land-adjacent rural communities. This presents opportunities for a diverse range of forest restoration jobs, including reintroducing and managing fire, pre-commercial thinning, and habitat restoration. Collaborative work supports a range of other opportunities including recreation, wood cutting, and small diameter wood and forest product use.

Shift the dominant cultural view of forests toward stewardship and reciprocity

The dominant settler cultural view of the land is as a resource awaiting extraction.We believe the land has inherent value and we advocate for it to be treated as a cherished friend and coequal partner. We are members of a community, not owners of it.  As a participant in natural ecosystems, humans have the capacity to have enormous impacts.  We seek a relationship to land and wildlife in which all living beings – human and non-human – thrive.  This is what we call long-term stewardship.  This requires humility first and foremost. It can’t be done without deep consideration of the needs of the trees, the fish, and the wildlife, and acting to keep them healthy and abundant, even as we thin some trees to build our homes. We must move from seeing the forest as something separate from us that is only there to serve us, to seeing ourselves as stewards who must take care of and give back to the land that provides us with so much. Our forests deserve reciprocity and respect, not just the bare minimum of sustainability.

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