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Seeley Lake fire 2017

In this 2017 file photo, a converted DC-10 jumbo jet drops a load of retardant on the Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake. Examinations of that fire and the Lolo Peak fire, also in 2017, showed that even heavily logged timber stands had little effect on either fires’ progress. 

The U.S. Forest Service’s “shared stewardship” approach to wildland firefighting will take more resources than the agency currently has, architects of the new strategy say.

And the challenge of cleaning up 35 million acres of hazardous forest fuel with little or no commercial value could require Americans to get used to much more fire and smoke. Acting Deputy Chief of National Forest Systems Chris French said even ending the “fire-borrowing” problem that saw half the agency’s annual budget going to fire suppression instead of forest management wouldn’t solve the fire-deficit problem.

“Does it solve the funding needs for the scale of the problem we have to address?” French asked in a Thursday interview with the Missoulian. “That’s going to take a lot more capacity beyond the fire-funding fix.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled the Forest Service’s “Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes: An Outcome-based Investment Strategy” on Aug. 16. The plan, which French helped draft, rethinks the agency’s approach to wildfire, invasive species, drought and disease in the nation’s 3 billion burnable acres.

“We are protecting more communities and watersheds, producing more timber volume, and treating more acres for hazardous fuels than at any time in the past 20 years,” the strategy states in its introduction. “Yet catastrophic wildfires and corresponding loss of lives, homes and natural resources have continued to grow, partly because our treatments have been uncoordinated and not at the right scale.”

Two of the past three years have seen more acres burned in the United States than any time since 1952. Rocky Mountain Research Station Director John Phipps said as troublesome as wildfires appear now, we need to get used to dealing with even more fire. That’s because a century of keeping fire out of the woods has left a deficit of unburned fuel in forests that need fire to stay healthy.

“Pre-settlement, 20 percent of California was on fire every year,” Phipps said. “That’s the scale of the problem. Lots of communities are doing wildfire protection planning, but they’ve been looking at, on average, 50 times less than the large landscapes we need to be concerned about.

“This is not about pruning trees,” Phipps continued. “Today, on average we’re treating about 1 to 2 percent of the area we need. We need to create conditions where 30 to 40 percent of that area can be treated with low-intensity ground fire before we get a significant reduction of risk.”

Phipps was co-author of another paper in April pointing out the nation’s “business-as-usual attempts to exclude fire from systems that evolved with frequent fire will in some cases simply amplify feedbacks that increase long-term risks.” The resulting paradox, he said, was a firefighting force that put out 98 percent of its incidents with initial response, but still reeled from the 2 percent of ignitions that turn into catastrophic megafires.

“It’s not a question of if fire will return, but when,” Phipps said. “And if when it returns happens to be a bad day and a bad location, it will outrun our ability to do anything until the weather changes.”

Forest Service timber sales annually affect about 200,000 acres a year, while hazardous fuels treatments cover 1.9 million acres. On average between 2008 and 2017, two-thirds of those treatments were prescribed burns. The strategy notes that in fire-adapted forest types, “research has shown that mechanical treatments alone are not effective in managing risk … or sustaining resilient fire-adapted forests. Moreover, fire is the only tool available for reducing fuels and improving forest conditions on many landscapes.”

The new strategy calls for greater state, tribal and local involvement to co-manage the risk of forest management. But while it specifically calls on state leaders to take “a leading role in convening stakeholders to discuss the wildland fire environment,” it makes no commitments about where money would come from to act on the decisions.

Although Western Governors’ Association Executive Director Jim Ogsbury was standing beside Perdue when the strategy was rolled out, he did not have a clear idea of what might be expected of states in the shared stewardship.

“Last week's announcement is conceptually in line with Western Governors’ forest management priorities,” Ogsbury wrote in an email on Thursday. “But as we said then, the devil is in the details. The governors stand ready to sit down with the Department of Agriculture to start working out the details of a truly collaborative relationship that will leverage the strengths of states.”

Montana Sen. Steve Daines was part of a bipartisan group also joining Perdue at the unveiling. The Republican senator said Perdue was drawing on his own experience as governor of Georgia in expanding the decision-making.

“This is where we’ve got to get the states and forest service looking at priorities and risks,” Daines said. “We don’t have the resources to do it. Sec. Perdue says 'I want the states to come forward to say where the greatest risks are.' Let’s become better partners with the states. There’s too much work to do and not enough resources to go around.”

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester also noted the plan doesn’t offer specifics about who should pay for the work. He liked the idea of working across state and federal jurisdictions to confront the problem.

“This plan is a direct result of the bipartisan bill we passed earlier this year,” Tester emailed on Thursday. “As Montana battles another intense and expensive wildfire season, we must ensure firefighters have the resources they need to protect life and property. Fires don’t recognize administrative boundaries, and improving state and federal cooperation will help improve forest management. This plan will spur better forest management and strengthen our state's outdoor economy.”

French said one way to balance the equation was to find more markets for wood that’s too small, or diseased to make 2-by-4s or other traditional lumber products. That could mean biomass for burning or fuel conversion, landscaping cover, or even new forms of construction material like cross-laminated timber.

“What we hear from industry partners is even if it’s low value, if you can provide sustainable, reliable supply, you can go from low-value to something that’s high-leverage,” French said. “It’s a strong emphasis of the agency to look at those products that come from restoration and fuels-reduction work and make them valuable in the market.”

Craig Rawlings of the Missoula-based Forest Business Network said he hoped the strategy would lead to more taxpayer dollars getting used for proactive forest management rather than firefighting. He also looked forward to an opportunity to direct more wood to new industries.

“We have millions of acres that aren’t dead that need to be cleaned up,” Rawlings said. “There are a lot of stands of timber that if entrepreneurs knew markets were there, we could thin that out and take more care of it. If we treat it like a product, the entrepreneurs will find a way to make money on it and pay something for it.”

Rawlings also acknowledged that prescribed burning was a more inexpensive way of treating the forest than harvesting. And according to Forest Service research, more burning must happen for even productive timber land to stay healthy. Examinations of last year’s Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak fires near Missoula showed that even heavily logged timber stands had little effect on the big fires’ progress. But past burn scars and prescribed burn areas did slow or redirect the fires.

“We know in these fire-adapted systems, there’s no substitute for fire,” Phipps said. “Even in areas where there’s commercial value, if we want to reduce the fuel density of forests, we still have to bring fire back.”

That raises several challenges. The first is how to reshape public opinion about the need for fire. That means getting people used to having smoky air in the spring and fall, when prescribed burns can take place under safer conditions and release up to 10 times less toxic pollutants than mid-summer megafires.

It means doing a lot of pre-season homework mapping and categorizing fire-prone areas. Tools exist to help communities identify places that need lots of protection, places that buffer those vulnerable areas, and landscapes that actually need fire. Phipps said that can include both prescribed fires and wildfires that get at the fire deficit.

“Prior planning opens up possibilities for us,” Phipps said. “In a year like this year, it’s not a good strategy to take risks and allow fire to roam on initial attack. But two or three years out of 10, we can allow fire to roam.”

The Forest Service strategy envisions much more community-level planning. However, someone has to pay for that scenario development work.

“There’s a whole host of people to help us with the funding of it,” French said. “That way we’ll be able to leverage more skills, more dollars and capacity. It’s about once you know where you should be doing this work, how do you prioritize? It’s not just the spread-the-peanut-butter approach we’ve had in the past.

“We need to mutually agree where the best places for investment are,” French said. “The way to get ahead of this is mutual, collaborative, cooperative work across the communities affected. We can’t do it alone.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.