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Forest management, wildfires and climate change

Climate change doesn't cause wildfires so much as wildfires release more greenhouse gases that many believe cause climate change.

Published on September 24, 2015 8:48AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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As firefighters struggle against the deadly plague of wildfires that has scorched the West this year, politicians are chiming in with their theories about what causes them.

California Gov. Jerry Brown thinks climate change is to blame. Other politicians agree, saying it caused the drought that has made the region more vulnerable to wildfires.

While drought certainly has contributed to the wildfire nightmare, other causes have played a larger role. The poor management of federal land, which has allowed forests to become overgrown and bulging with fuel for fires, is the primary cause of the increasing number of large wildfires.

This year alone, 3 million acres have burned in seven Western states. If Alaska is included, the area burned totals more than 8.1 million acres. For the years 2005 to 2014, an average of 6 million acres has burned annually in the U.S., mainly the West. Most of those 10 years predate the four-year drought in California or the droughts in any of the other Western states.

National forests are not parks. They should be open to grazing, recreation, commercial timber operations and other uses. That used to be the case. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management managed timber on a rotational basis, assuring a sustainable supply for lumber, plywood and paper mills.

Under the current administration, however, those uses have been reduced, either as the result of lawsuits filed by environmental groups intent on evicting ranchers and others from the forests, or by the Forest Service, which is closing a large percentage of national forest access roads to public use. In Montana, for example, 9,000 miles of the 32,000 miles of national forest roads will be closed. Closing these massive areas to access assures that they will never be properly managed for multiple use or thinned to reduce wildfire fuel. They will become de facto wilderness areas — and stockpiles of fuel for wildfires.

Similar road closures are planned in other national forests in the West.

In the wake of this year’s catastrophic fires, even the most hard-headed politicians seem to agree that the forests need to be “better-managed.” We will translate: They need to be logged, either through thinning or through commercial timber sales. And more livestock grazing is needed to reduce the amount of vegetation that piles up as fuel for the next wildfire.

This is a statement of the obvious. The only answer to reducing the size and intensity of wildfires is to reduce the amount of fuel in the forests.

Near John Day, Ore., which has suffered through wildfire hell this year, retired BLM forester Bob Vidourek showed Capital Press reporter Sean Ellis the difference between forestland that had been thinned and neighboring land that had not. The managed land was barely touched by the wildfire that roared through the area. The unmanaged land was devastated.

But there’s more to the issue than managing publicly owned natural resources. Those who say they are concerned about climate change should also be interested in managing public land to minimize the number and size of wildfires.

The reason: Wildfires release massive amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which are linked to climate change. A study released this year by the National Park Service and the University of California-Berkeley found that wildfires were responsible for 5 to 7 percent of California’s total carbon emissions between 2001 and 2010. Forests are carbon sinks, storing carbon in the form of wood fiber. When a wildfire burns the forest that carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide.

That alone should convince everyone, no matter where they stand on the climate change issue, that public land needs to be well-managed, not locked up.

As it stands, poor management of public land and locking up vast tracts of national forests will ultimately destroy valuable publicly owned resources — and release more carbon dioxide that many believe exacerbates climate change.



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