Forestry fandango


In 2013, the U.S. Forest Service thinned and intentionally burned more than 2 million acres of the nation’s public land, which is largely in the West, in order to improve forest health and reduce the risk of destructive wildfires near houses and towns. That’s an impressive figure, until you consider that the agency itself acknowledges that at least 80 million acres — more than 40 percent of the entire national forest system — is in need of similar treatment. How on earth will we ever get caught up?

The short answer is that we won’t, at least not intentionally. Jodi Peterson, HCN’s managing editor, explains one reason on page 3: The Forest Service currently spends the majority of its annual budget fighting wildfires instead of restoring sick forests to prevent those fires from happening in the first place. It’s forced to regularly steal from restoration and other programs to cover firefighting cost overruns. Efforts to change this have gotten stuck in a gridlocked Congress.

Another reason is that, even with truckloads of money, the Forest Service and the diminished logging industry just can’t seem to do the job. As investigative journalist Claudine LoMonaco reports in our cover story, the agency has struggled to get its biggest restoration effort — the so-called 4FRI project in northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine belt  — off the ground, despite support from a wide range of stakeholders. By now, loggers were supposed to be making good progress on the project’s first phase — thinning 300,000 acres of spindly, dog-hair thickets to create healthy groves of the kind of large pines and meadows that don’t burn so hot, while supplying markets with useful wood-based products. But the Forest Service hired a questionable contractor who quickly folded, and there are troubling signs that a second contractor might also be in trouble.

The agency’s sour relationship with environmentalists, whose lawsuits battered the Southwest’s logging program, also factors into 4FRI’s problems. Old-school agency managers resist hard-and-fast restrictions on logging the larger, more valuable pines, while environmentalists insist that these trees are essential habitat for threatened spotted owls, rare goshawks and a host of other species.

The Forest Service’s near paralysis, made worse by limited funding, suggests that the overall effort to restore our forests will remain modest for years to come, even as wildfires grow larger in this era of drought and climate change. The agency has proven that it can manage small-scale thinning projects that help rural economies as well as forests. But greatly increasing the scale of this work is simply not practical, even if the problems with projects like 4FRI are overcome. In the meantime, Mother Nature will continue to manage the forests with the kind of gigantic wildfires that restructure entire ecosystems almost overnight. That’s a humbling prospect.

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