Better wildfire resilience in America’s forests is a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service, but so is the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative to set aside more land for parks and other uses, an agency official says.
The initiative’s goal is to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and water by 2030 with focuses on collaborative conservation and restoration of lands and fish and wildlife habitat, voluntary conservation, creating more parks, increasing access for outdoor recreation and creating jobs.
Many of the plan’s focus areas “are directly related to priorities and needs that we have in managing the national forests and grasslands across the country,” said Chris French, U.S. Forest Service deputy chief.
They are also directly related to the work the agency does with states and private landowners on stewarding forests, he said.
“They actually align really well,” he said during the Public Lands Council’s virtual annual meeting this week.
“Our highest priority and probably the greatest issue that we need to manage in sustaining our national forests right now, especially in the West, it is addressing the impacts of wildfire,” he said.
In the last two years in particular, the agency has seen fires of a size not seen before, with 70% of the landscape burning at “high severity,” he said.
“Ranchers know that and see it because it affects their land and communities,” he said.
That alone in the conservation goals of America the Beautiful and national forests is the agency’s highest priority, he said.
“So looking at that topline goal of investing and creating jobs around restoration and resiliency, creating that resiliency across our national forests, restoring them so that they can withstand wildland fire, that they can withstand the impacts of fires, reducing those threats to our communities, that’s our greatest focus,” he said.
If the U.S. isn’t able to increase the scale of resiliency at a scope that matches these fires, “we’re going to miss the boat” on conservation goals, he said.
The Forest Service is working closely with its scientists and with communities and states focusing on the highest priority areas to identify actions and treatments “that will actually start to change what we are experiencing,” he said.
Under the conservation goals of the initiative, the majority of the agency’s focus is on that. But there’s a tier of other things the agency is doing, including managing for wildlife corridors and access to public lands.
Those are spaces with a lot of opportunities and a lot of focus right now to try to figure out how to create more investment for managing or preserving landscapes, he said.
The agency is also working with states and communities to assess open spaces and how to work with private landowners to address the resiliency of landscapes to wildfires, disease and insects, he said.
“In terms of the broader conservation message, we’re looking at it in this 360 (degree) way,” he said.
The agency also sees great opportunity for connecting people with landscapes. It’s looking at a set of investments to increase public landscapes for recreation, particularly in places it might not have invested in previously, so that more communities can be part of national forests and grasslands, he said.