In the wake of one of the worst fire seasons in Montana history, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have called for more logging and thinning in forests as a way to "fireproof" the state and create more jobs at lumber mills.
But several wildfire experts contend that fires will keep burning and sending smoke into valleys, especially during unusually hot and dry periods like this summer. While there isn't a clear scientific consensus on the best approach to manage such fires, a common theme among experts who spoke to the Missoulian is that more forest management alone isn't the answer.
"Often the argument is made that if we spent less on suppression, we could spend more on forest management, thinning," said Tania Schoennagel, a forest landscape ecologist and fire researcher at the University of Colorado. "If we spend more money on thinning, it's not necessarily going to make fires go away and it's not going to break the strong relationship between fires and warming and drought."
In September, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed all land managers at all levels under the Interior Department’s supervision to “adopt more aggressive practices, using the full authority of the Department, to prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques.”
It’s that word “prevent” that the wildfire experts who spoke to the Missoulian say gives the general public unreasonable expectations.
“We can’t let politicians make promises for us that we can’t deliver on,” said Andrew Larson, an associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana. “Fuel reduction and forest restoration treatments are designed so that when a fire inevitably occurs, management of the fire is safer and the ecological effects of the fire are less severe.
"Thinning and fuel reduction treatments will almost never prevent a wildfire. That is not their purpose," Larson said. "But, thinning and fuel reduction treatments are an important management tool and they are quite often effective at achieving their intended purpose of moderating fire behavior and effects.”
Larson said thinning is the practice of cutting some trees to change the forest structure by reducing the number and sizes of trees, the forest composition by controlling the abundance and types of tree species, and the forest pattern by affecting how the trees are arranged in space. The focus is on the trees left behind to grow.
In the Northern Rockies, researchers said, the strongest predictor of the number and intensity of wildfires is the year-to-year variation in summer drought.
"Montanans should expect hundreds of thousands of acres to burn, and to endure many days of smoke, during summers that are unusually hot and dry," Larson said. "No amount of thinning or logging will change this because in drought years, high elevation and subalpine forests will burn.''
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Montana found that since 1999, only about 7 percent of fuel-reduction treatment areas in the United States were subsequently hit by wildfires.
Kevin Barnett, a research associate in the Department of Economics at UM, helped quantify the frequency and extent of fire and fuel treatment interactions on federal lands across the U.S.
“The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program received a lot of financial investment and resources over the past 15 years,” he explained. “We treat quite a lot of landscapes each year. And less than 10 percent of that had even (been) burned by a subsequent fire. So that raises more broad general questions over the efficacy of fuel treatments to change regional fire patterns.”
Since 2006, when the Forest Service allocated about $290 million per year for the hazardous fuels reduction, there has been a steady rise in the discretionary funding allocated to that program. Barnett said in fiscal year 2017 the Forest Service spent roughly $375 million on the program.
“It boils down to: Not a whole lot of the treated area we’ve put in has been impacted by fire,” he said. "It raises questions about the cost-effectiveness of fuel treatments."
Some areas aren't even open to treatment. The Wilderness Act of 1964 precludes any forest management that degrades natural conditions, such as thinning, harvesting or road building.
Thinning can also have negative effects. For example intense thinning in young Montana forests can damage habitat for snowshoe hares and Canada lynx. Because the latter is a threatened species, there are limits on what can be done to areas designated as critical lynx habitat.
There is, however, a strong scientific basis for using thinning and prescribed fire treatments in dry, low-elevation forests in Montana and throughout the Intermountain West, Larson said.
“Such treatments can alter fire behavior, make conditions safer for fire managers during wildfires, increase the likelihood of protecting homes, and reduce fire severity” as measured by the amount of vegetation killed, he said. “Forest scientists and managers, myself included, need to do a better job communicating to the public and to policy makers what we can and cannot achieve with fuel reduction and forest restoration treatments.''
Schoennagel, who specializes in the implications of forest management policy, said fire managers would be wiser to use taxpayer dollars to focus their efforts on fuel treatments around homes and infrastructure, especially in the wildland-urban interface.
"Thinning can help protect the things we value where people live … but it will not make wildfires and large-acreage burns go away,'' she said. "Thinning, no matter how much we increase the rate of it, will not be able to to outpace the influence of warming on wildfire area burned.''
In the forests of the Rockies, knowing where to thin can be a game of chance.
“Did they know last year that those areas were going to burn this year?” she asked of Montana's fires this summer. “It’s a little bit of a crapshoot whether the treatment you put in is going to encounter wildfire in the next 10 to 15 years, (during which the treated area) remains effective in reducing fire severity.
"Simply because forests in the West are so vast, the chance of burning in a place we’ve pre-treated is so low. It’s not a very effective lever. We don’t know where fires are going to happen.”
Schoennagel said that despite significant increases in areas burned since 1970 due to rising temperatures — Montana saw an average 2- to 3-degree rise between 1950 and 2015, according to a recent report by Montana State University — wildfires destroy only about 1 percent of western U.S. forests even in the worst years. As the climate gets warmer and drier, the fires will continue to burn not only near communities, but also in remote, high-elevation, inaccessible terrain.
Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Montana Republicans, have called for more forest management in recent months. Both have also assailed what they call “radical environmentalists” who they say stall logging projects with lawsuits.
“Here’s one of the problems we have in Montana,” Daines said during a recent teleconference. “We have radical environmentalists who are blocking projects to remove dead trees even in some cases, lodgepoles that died from insect infestation. We have radical environmentalists that do not represent the vast majority of Montanans who believe in a common-sense, balanced approach. They stop these projects.”
Daines' staff supplied studies that have guided his decision-making and policy speeches on wildfires and forest management. For example, in 2014, the Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy issued a report titled “Why Sierra Fuel Treatments Make Economic Sense.” Although it was written about the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the report concluded that the economic benefits of landscape-scale, fuel-reduction treatments far outweigh the costs of wildfire. The report found that although fuel treatments cost significant amounts of money, the long-term cost savings exceeded the cost of the initial investment because it saved structures, commercially viable timber and biomass that could be used for energy production.
Schoennagel challenged some of those conclusions in testimony May 17 before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Federal Lands during a hearing called “Seeking Better Management of America’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests.”
She contended that most forests in the West are not overgrown due to past suppression, and forest management tools like thinning and prescribed burns can’t outpace the rise in wildfires.
“However, if strategically placed, such management can reduce fire severity, help firefighters protect communities and hopefully reduce the cost and risk of suppression,” she said.
Schoennagel and a team of other fire and forest experts recently published a research paper arguing that the current approaches to fighting and attempting to prevent wildfires through suppression and fuels management are inadequate. The team contends that fuels reduction “cannot alter regional wildfire trends” and that new approaches are needed.
Among the recommendations:
• Reducing fuels where fires are most likely to burn and where protection is most needed: near residential developments and in low-elevation forests where fuels have built up from past suppression.
• Allowing more wild and prescribed fires to burn, where safe, in order to reduce future fire risk and help ecosystems adapt to future conditions.
• Planning and retrofitting residential developments to withstand inevitable fire.
• Creating incentives to promote fire-adapted land-use planning.
• Targeting thinning on private land in the wildland-urban interface in dry, low-elevation forests.
• Managing forests for future conditions and climate change.
Schoennagel told the subcommittee that a wide range of scientific studies have shown that snowpack is melting one to four weeks earlier than historically normal, and fire seasons are almost three months longer. In the 1970s, there were 20 large fires per year and now there are more than 100 large fires annually.
“Further warming is expected — 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next few decades — which will spark ever more wildfires, perhaps beyond the ability of many western communities to cope,” she testified.
Daines said earlier this summer that the “climate has always been changing.”
“Go back to 1910,” he said. “We had the Big Burn, 3 million acres. In the 1930s we had the Dust Bowl. My ancestors living up on the Hi-Line had to leave our state to go to Canada.
"The climate has always been changing,'' he said. "We go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, droughts, etc., extra precipitation. We are in a warm cycle right now. We are in drought conditions here in Montana and consequently we’re having a severe fire season.”
Larson agreed that 1910 was an “epic” drought year.
“It’s absolutely true that there is variability in the climate and drought is worse in certain years,” he said. “That doesn’t somehow negate the fact that humans are causing the climate to warm.”
Larson also said that fires are an essential part of the ecosystem. For example, although most people associate wildfires with a short-term loss in the water quality of nearby streams because loose soil erodes into the waterway, it provides long-term benefits.
“Over the long term you can only have healthy stream habitat with periodic delivery of large wood and sediment into aquatic network,” he said. “There are short-term negative consequences to waterways after a fire, with turbidity and fine sediments, but it’s better over the bigger, longer-term picture.”
Larson also said that many species, such as the black-backed woodpecker, have evolved to live in burned areas. And he said fires play an important role in cycling organic matter in forests.
The reason why thinning is often not appropriate or effective in high-elevation forests is because the average time between fires in those areas is usually very long, between 100 and 300 years, Larson said.
That's also true for low-elevation forests in moister places, like far northwestern Montana, he said. “Deeper snowpacks and later snow melt, more frequent summer rains, lower summer temperatures and higher relative humidity make for shorter fire seasons. … Consequently, these cool, wet forests primarily burn in big, severe fires during drought years like 1910 and 2017.”
Things are different with dry, low-elevation forests.
“Historically, ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer forests burned, on average, about every 5 to 40 years,” Larson said. “These frequent fires kept fuel loads low, and maintained low-density, open forests dominated by large, fire-resistant trees. Fire suppression has increased fuel loads and tree density in these forests, and past harvest removed the largest and most fire-resistant trees. The result is dense forests composed of small, fire-intolerant trees and very high surface fuel loads. Our past management — fire suppression and high-grade logging — of these dry, frequent-fire forests created the current need to reduce fuels and restore conditions.''
So why hasn’t there been more fuel reduction or forest restoration treatments in dry, low-elevation forests?
“Perhaps the most frequent reason is that the majority of trees that need to be cut to reduce fuels and restore forest conditions are small and of low or no economic value,” Larson said. “This means that fuel reduction and restoration treatments frequently cost money, rather than generate a profit.”
Another reason is that on U.S. Forest Service lands, the legally mandated planning and analysis process is lengthy and involved.
“Combine that with declining budgets and workforce reductions, and things just take a long time for the Forest Service,” Larson added. “Some politicians like to cite appeals and litigation by environmental groups, which is a factor, but it is relatively minor compared to the economic, budget, and workforce constraints.”