By Thomas Maness, Cheryl Ramberg-Ford and Allyn C. Ford Dean, College of Forestry
When it comes to proper management of our public forests, some would like to take a page from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. He posed the concept of non-action as an approach to life. In our forests, if we do nothing and let nature take its course, this line of reasoning goes, these landscapes will return to a more “natural state” on their own.
The trouble is, the natural state of forests includes fire — a lot of fire. They will never return to a state that existed in the past, because the conditions that created them no longer exist. What actions should we take to manage our forests for the multiple benefits we expect? We need to recognize that fire has a role to play and that, at the same time, we can reduce the risk of catastrophic loss.
As a worldwide leader in forestry, Oregon State University conducts balanced and unbiased research to help drive land management decisions. We have shown that our public forests would benefit from two proactive management techniques with a positive environmental impact: thinning and prescribed burning.
Thinning reduces the density of trees and allows the remaining ones to grow faster. Fire doesn’t move as quickly across the landscape. Removing branches on the ground — so-called ladder fuel — greatly reduces the risk of fire climbing into the upper canopy and getting out of hand.
Unfortunately, thinning is expensive. It costs taxpayer dollars, and there will never be enough to properly thin all of our forests unless we can simultaneously produce income to offset some of the costs.
Prescribed burning, on the other hand, is a relatively inexpensive option that accomplishes the same goal. By burning on a cool day when humidity is high, fire can be controlled as it reduces the fuel load and improves the health of the forest. It is an idea that is struggling to gain traction with the public.
We are conducting research that will indicate the best locations for prescribed burning. We are also identifying those where thinning would be preferred, such as near communities.
Today’s forest ecosystem was shaped by fire – both human-caused and natural – over hundreds of years. The pattern of trees remaining after one fire directly affects the next fire. The resulting forest is like a Jackson Pollock painting with random splashes of color and line. The uniqueness of a given ecosystem is marked as much by what is not there as much as by what is.
I and foresters around the country grow increasingly concerned with the health of our federally managed forest lands. We also worry about the health of rural communities. Due to many factors — a changing climate, political inaction, the financial burden of managing a huge land base that produces very little — our approach to these forests has created a landscape ripe for large fires.
Also like a Pollock painting, our federal forests are extremely valuable. Using proactive management techniques will help retain their value for years to come. We are working with leaders on all sides to help drive a more proactive approach for managing our forests and ensuring a healthy landscape for generations to come. Although we have made small strides, the time has come to take action.