Healthy Planet

The Tao of Forest Management

Doing nothing in our forests could lead to catastrophic fires

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.

Thomas Maness, Dean, College of Forestry

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.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.

6 replies on “The Tao of Forest Management”

Thanks for your article. i am an old-growth forester in Western Australia facing similar problems. However our forests could be thinned/burnt at a profit as many are located on water catchments. We are facing major ecological changes- water tables down by 15m , stream flow at one-fifth of past regimes and collapse from drought. politicians not interested or fearful of “green lobby”. happy to correspond further. regards Frank Batini MSc Oxon, BSc UWA, Dip For ANU MIFA

Yes thanks for explaining the need for active forest management! Here in southern New Jersey our pine forests have excluded from fire for 60 years in most areas and ” leaving the forest alone ” seems to the easy way out but one day soon fire will return and society will not be happy with what happens! We need to be collaborating with Mother Nature using both thinning and limited burning!!

I just take issue with letting thinning abatement costs be paid for by the extraction of old growth trees by the contract winning abatement companies. This was a practice during the Bush administration. It was a reward for the timber industry and a loss for the general public resources. Take this issue into your management studies. Is there any need for old growth in the forest school of fire management? Is there a way to pay for the contract work so we don’t have corruption at the expense of the uninformed public? Or is this outside of management issues.

Thanks for an interesting article highlighting the benefits of active forest management to meet a variety of objectives including healthier, more resilient forests and reduced impacts of wildfire. While protecting communities and built assets from wildfire is clearly important, forest managers also need to promote the benefits of good fire management for the forest itself. In the forests of south-western Australia we have seen unprecedented levels of tree mortality following recent wildfires, due to heavy fuel build up and greater consumption of large woody fuels under extremely dry conditions.
The Western Australian Division of the Institute of Foresters of Australia recently hosted a forum on Management of forested catchments – threats and opportunities, and papers presented at the forum are available to view and download at

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