Sunday, 30 January 2011

Our Western Forests Are In Danger But They Can Be Fixed

Restoration forestry is the process of restoring forests to a more natural condition. Most of the forests in the Western United States have been altered to an unnatural condition by over a century of fire suppression and past timber harvest practices. The current condition of our forests leaves them vulnerable to disease and catastrophic fires. Many people believe that we need to lock up the forests to protect them from human activity. The problem with that idea is that this does not allow us to fix the problem and it leaves them in an endangered condition. Even though past forest harvest practices have contributed to the problem, responsibly harvesting forest products can also be a viable tool to restore our forests
Forest fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem. Before the arrival of Europeans fires were started naturally by lightning. Native Americans would also start fires to improve hunting. Our western forests are naturally dominated by conifers which have thick bark that provides insulation that protects them from fire. In the past fires would periodically be ignited and creep along the forest floor. These periodic fires would benefit the forest by cleaning up the forest floor and burning much of the underbrush and small trees that would compete with the larger trees for water and nutrients. After a fire the large trees with their foliage held high above and out of reach of the flames were left widely spaced where they had plenty of room to grow in the nutrient rich layer of ash left by the fire. Out of this ash will sprout grasses and forbs that provide food for wildlife.
With the arrival of Europeans the Native Americans were displaced and they were no longer a source of igniting fires. Then early in the last Century we started putting out lightning fires. Without fires brush and small trees were able to grow and compete with the larger trees. Early in the last Century early explorers were able to ride their horses through our forests but now after a century of fire suppression the forests have grown so thick that it can now be difficult to walk through them. With so many trees competing for limited nutrients and water they are not as healthy and don't grow as fast or as large. The competition makes the larger trees less disease resistant less able to tolerate drought causing millions of trees to die every year from bark beetle infestations.
An even bigger problem comes now when a forest fire is ignited either by humans or lightning. The fuel load in the forests has become so high with all the thick trees and brush that now when there is a fire it will often burn at such a high intensity that it will incinerate the whole forest. Instead of having light fires that clean up the forest like they once did the thick trees and brush now act like a ladder and carry the flames high into the forest canopy where it kills everything including the big trees. These fires can be so intense that they sometimes bake the forest soil which can leave them impervious to water so precipitation just runs off causing erosion landslides and flooding. This baked soil can also make it more difficult to regenerate a new forest.
Some environmental groups advocate leaving the forests alone to let them burn because fire is a natural part of the forests. The problem with that idea is the forests are out of equilibrium and letting them burn often destroys them. Before we can allow fires to burn in a natural way the excess fuel load must be reduced. In many cases the most economically viable way of doing this is through commercial thinning where the excess trees are removed and utilized for wood products. In this way the sale of the wood products can help cover the enormous cost of restoring the forests. The excess conifers can be utilized to make products like lumber and poles. The hardwoods can be used to make excellent firewood.
Restoring our forests is an area where environmentalists and the forest products industry can work together to solve a problem. We can restore our forests while supplying our communities with jobs and forest products.