We can restore the forests

  As a consultant who is involved with restoration silviculture from the ponderosa pine forests of New Mexico to the Oregon white oak forests of the Willamette Valley, I have been frustrated with the lack of understanding by the general public, as well as federal and state land managers, of the reasons behind the increase in catastrophic fires in the West: fire suppression, high-grade logging, and mismanagement (HCN, 7/7/03: Fire in the West: It's no simple story).

Although the problem seems overwhelming, returning the forests of the West to productive and resilient ecosystems will be a much easier and less expensive a task than challenges the U.S. has faced in the past, e.g. sending a human to the moon, building the great dams of the West, etc. However, to accomplish this feat, a much more coordinated approach, initiated and led by federal government, will be necessary. I suggest the following broad steps:

• Educate the public so that they understand why the forests are at high risk of catastrophic fires. Try to make them as passionate about forest health as they were about the harp seals.

• Plan fuels-reduction treatments at the landscape level. The prescriptions must be driven solely by ecological considerations and not economics.

• Forget about trying to find a use or market for the small-diameter trees removed from the forest. With timber prices at a 20-year low across the West, commercial thinning will be impossible unless larger trees are removed, thereby defeating the purpose of the fuels-reduction projects. Just burn it or chip it — don’t try to make gold out of dog poop.

• Commit to spending $40 billion over the next 20 years. At $1,000 per acre, an army of forest workers could reduce the fuels on over 2 million acres a year, achieving the goal of 40 million acres in two decades, and costing the taxpayer a mere $10 a year.

Marc D. Barnes
Central Point, Oregon

The author is senior project manager for Consulting Foresters and Restoration Ecologists.