Salvage opportunities can lock up carbon, restore forests more quickly

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The 2020 fire season has proven once again that passive management of National Forests is a recipe for disaster. As of early September, wildfires have consumed over 1.7 million acres of National Forests, mostly in the Western United States. 

These fires have grown explosively under extreme fire weather conditions and in forested stands that are — in many cases — extremely overstocked. Stands of trees have developed on the National Forests following almost a century of fire suppression and several decades of little harvest into tinderboxes with hundreds of trees per acre, in stands and forest types that historically had just a few dozen trees.

In the Rockies, stands of trees decimated by bark beetles in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s have dried out under drought conditions and have sparked into late-season blazes that are damaging watersheds, fouling the air and threatening communities, particularly in Colorado and Utah. The belief that these beetle killed stands did not represent a significant fire threat has turned out to be mistaken.

While some leaders debate the role of climate change versus forest management as these fires rage, we propose a proactive solution that addresses both issues simultaneously. By acting quickly to salvage usable timber, the Forest Service can prevent even more carbon from reaching the atmosphere. Standing trees killed by these fires still have value for timber, but they must be accessed quickly. Whether these trees are used for lumber or biomass energy, the effect on climate change is positive either way. Lumber stores carbon for decades or longer in structures. Biomass energy replaces fossil fuels. The emissions from biomass are quickly recycled back into new wood growth as forests are replanted.

In order to get new forest stands growing, much of the damaged timber must be removed. Failing to do so will allow burned areas to generate thick brush, which can prevent the return of forested stands for decades. Historically, the Forest Service has not been able to recover much timber from burned areas. To do better this time, the Forest Service must: declare an emergency on all federal lands at elevated risk of wildfire, including lands identified on risk maps and in community protection plans; allow creation of fuel breaks along roads, trails and transmission lines, or creation of defensible space, to be carried out concurrent with required environment studies; and use expedited authorities wherever possible, including issuing Emergency Situation Determinations for salvage, on the shortest time frame possible.

The Forest Service has done an admirable job recovering damaged forests on many forests impacted by wind events in the Eastern U.S. The DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi recovered timber from tens of thousands of acres damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin is actively recovering damaged timber from a massive windstorm in 2019 than damaged timber on over 15,000 acres.

Our forests are facing threats from extreme weather and fire, driven at least in part by climate change. Unfortunately, we’ve put our National Forests on the back foot by allowing them to become too dense, making them even more vulnerable to these events. We can give our forests the head start they need on recovery by clearing away damaged trees and getting new ones planted and growing. These new trees will immediately begin removing unwanted carbon from the atmosphere.

We can’t wait for nature to take its course. The time for action is now.

Bill Imbergamo is the executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition. Follow the organization on Twitter @FederalForest.

Tags California wildfires Climate change fire management fire suppression forest fires National Forests wildfire mitigation wildfires Wildland fire suppression

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