Oct 12 2017

Forests need fires to flourish

By KC Eisenberg

The photos of the burns are shocking, and it’s impossible not to react emotionally: It looks like actual hell to see the charred remains of our favorite hiking trails, to see the blackened, ghostly sticks that were just recently lush green trees.

But we must remember that, to varying degrees, our Northwest forests evolved to burn. These fires, as shocking as they are to our eyes and hearts, are an essential component of forest health in the Pacific Northwest. Many species of trees and animals, including Sequoias, lodgepole and jack pines, and Melanophila beetles, require periodic fires to reproduce. The fleeting burnt landscape is home to dozens of unique species that can only survive in a recent burn. Pollinators thrive in the springtime blooms of sunny open areas. Soils are nourished as burnt wood decays. And then, ever so quickly, the forest begins to regrow.

Our forests need fires – the right kind of fires – to flourish.

Evidence shows that the best actions we can take in modern Western forests are an increasing tolerance for burns coupled with strategically-placed restoration projects that reduce fuel loads, thin overcrowded stands of young trees, and work to restore forests rich with trees of diverse ages and species. In areas that have historically been heavily impacted by logging, this work takes on extra urgency, as these areas are often the most prone to uncharacteristic fires.

Human disruption to the natural, healthy fire cycle is, we’re learning, often far more damaging than the fires themselves. When we enact policies to stomp out fires as soon as they start, we’re setting up forests for larger, more damaging burns down the road. If we go in haphazardly after a burn to “salvage” the standing dead, our heavy equipment compacts the soil and removes legacy trees that provide shade and important habitat.

And when we clear-cut vast acreage only to replant in dense, impenetrable monocrops, as we have done across millions of acres of the forested West, we’re asking for sick, stressed, dried-out and defenseless trees – in short, we’re asking for catastrophe.

Commercial logging projects are often not designed with restoration in mind, but there are increasing examples of successful projects that restore forests while also providing logs to local mills, and logging jobs to local economies. We’re proud to source wood from Malheur Lumber Company that is procured through the Blue Mountain Forest Partners, and we hope that in the near future, more of this type of lumber is available.

We also hope that, rather than using shock-and-awe photos and dire news reports as an excuse to open up new areas to extractive logging, our elected officials use this opportunity to boost funding for evidence-based, collaborative restoration projects that are designed to restore forest health and biodiversity while also supporting the growth of local economies.