Reduce wildfire risks to mitigate climate change

There’s been a lot of hand wringing lately among federal officials about American forests, climate change and the “new normal” of longer and unnaturally severe wildfire seasons.  Scientific evidence suggests climate change is contributing to profound ecological changes in our forests.  If policymakers are serious about mitigating these impacts and reducing carbon emissions, they should support efforts to actively manage our federal forests and reduce the size and severity of wildfires. 
 
Wildfire seasons are now on average 78 days longer than the 1970s, and there’s been a sevenfold increase in fires of 10,000 acres or more.  Carbon emissions are expected to increase by 50 percent by 2050, according to university and federal researchers.  This is not a new problem, as NASA estimates that carbon emissions from fires are up 240 percent across the American West since the 1980s.  One study estimates that fires in the U.S. release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.  Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of California found that wildfires can contribute a larger proportion of the carbon dioxide released in several western and southeastern states.
 
{mosads}California has become ground zero in our forest health crisis.  With about 29 million dead and dying trees, climate change and prolonged drought have resulted in unprecedented tree mortality that helps fuel catastrophic wildfire.  Over 300,000 acres burned in California in 2015 alone.  Several years ago researchers found that wildfires burning during an eight day period emitted the equivalent of about 25 percent of the average monthly emissions from all fossil fuel burning in that state. Another study indicated that California’s wildlands are responsible for about 8 million tons of carbon pollution annually, more climate pollution than is released every year by the entire economy of Vermont.  
 
No one is suggesting that proactive forest management can prevent all wildfires or reduce wildfire carbon emissions to zero.  But, it’s undeniable that forest health plays a major role in the size and severity of today’s wildfires.  Sixty to 80 million acres of our national forests are at risk of wildfire, insects and disease, according to U.S. Forest Service estimates.  The decline in timber harvests and thinning on federal lands, combined with a century of wildfire suppression, have left many national forests unnaturally overgrown.  And if a burned forest is not rehabilitated, as is often the case on federal lands, trees may not naturally regenerate and dead logs left by the fires emit carbon long after the fires have been extinguished.  Instead of serving as a carbon sink, many national forests are becoming a carbon source and a net polluter.  
 
Due to current policies, even well-intentioned ones, federal land managers are only restoring a fraction of at-riskforests on an annual basis.  One factor is that the Forest Service spends over half of its funding on wildfire suppression, exhausting its budget and forcing the agency to redirect funding from programs that help restoreforest health.  Fixing the problem of “fire borrowing” is critically important, but it is only a half-solution if more work isn’t being done on the ground.  To even come close to achieving forest restoration goals in our lifetimes, the agency needs the policy and legal tools to increase the pace and scale of forest projects today.  
 
To do this, Congress must address the primary factors limiting the management of our national forests.  Often times, forest management is constrained by litigation and the cost and time required for the Forest Service to satisfy well-intended but burdensome compliance requirements.  After a forest project is developed, it can take the Forest Service as long as three years before a single tree is removed.  Policies that expedite work on vulnerable forests can not only reduce the severity of wildfires, it can provide climate benefits long after the work is completed.
 
Researchers estimate that harvested and regenerated forests will provide approximately 30 percent more total carbon sequestration benefits than unmanaged forests. That’s because more than half of those benefits come from replacing fossil fuels with carbon-storing wood products.  Through active forest management, harvesting a ton of wood provides more sequestration benefits than leaving that ton growing in the forest. 
 
We should empower our federal land managers to improve the health of our forests, reduce carbon emissions and protect their environmental and economic benefits for future generations.  Rather than hand wringing over the “new normal,” it’s time for policy makers to pursue sensible solutions that make our forests more resilient to the impacts of wildfire and climate change.

Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates for active management of federal forest lands.

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