Smarter planning leads to healthier forests. By demanding that our government make decisions based on the best available information, NEPA ensures that forest management remains the product of a science-based decision-making
Wildfires are a natural process and play an important part in keeping our forests healthy and renewing wildlife habitat. However, decades of misguided fire suppression efforts, combined with the effects of climate change, have drastically increased the risk of unnaturally large and dangerous fires.
The vast majority of western dry forests are at risk of large, high-intensity fire because of the effects of poor forest management over the past century. The primary factors that lead to current forest conditions include logging large trees, fire suppression, and livestock grazing. Since the beginning of the 20th century, all three of these factors have been present in western forests, and they continue to play a role today.
Decades of data show intense logging has contributed to the problem. Logging operations have historically removed the largest and most fire-resistant trees. The young trees that replace cut trees are highly susceptible to fire and serve as fire ladders, allowing the fire to reach up into the canopy of the forest. Because fire-suppression efforts have been intensive and have effectively removed fire as a thinning agent from most forests, many small trees that would have been killed by fire have been allowed to survive. Besides being prone to fire, these small trees are present at such high densities that their growth is slowed by intense competition.
The relatively frequent, low-intensity surface fires that historically burned in many forests were carried primarily by ground vegetation such as grasses. But livestock grazing on our public lands has severely reduced the amount of grasses, and fires are now able to burn only when there is a significant buildup of woody debris, often leading to severe fires. By shading the ground, grasses would suppress the growth of tree seedlings at the youngest stages. With grasses reduced or cropped short by livestock, tree seedlings are much more likely to survive, growing at high density and encroaching on meadows and grasslands.
Improved forest management practices and increased funding to fight these fires are essential to protecting local communities and national parks while ensuring healthy landscapes.
In the short-term fire prevention dollars must be focused on areas where people live and work. Safety should be the number one priority. Moving forward, a responsible fire policy should be geared towards reducing the severity of unnatural forest fires and reintroducing fire as a natural component of the ecosystem.
Clearcutting is a logging practice which involves completely clearing an area of trees, regardless of their size and usability. Remaining scrub and brush are usually burnt in large burn piles that can cast a smoky haze over the area for several days. A clearcut area may be relatively small, or may span for miles, and is often clearly visible through the air, along with the scars of logging roads cut to access it. This abrupt removal of trees can have a serious environmental impact on the surrounding area.
Clearcutting may profoundly alter local rivers. If logging comes close to the banks of the river, as it often does, it eliminates the shady shield of trees, which can cause the temperature of the river to elevate. Even a few degrees can make a huge difference to native plants, fish, and amphibians, and can cause a significant population decrease. Clearcutting also destroys habitat for a wide variety of animals, including many endangered species, and significantly increases the risk of forest fires.
Thinning and other forest management activities designed to remove hazardous fuels can and do limit the dangerous prospect of out of control wildfires, but such activities should only be carried out after an environmental review has been completed. In a word, these decisions must remain the product of a science-based decision-making process. Recovery of some sagebrush grassland, for example, a fragile and slow-growing ecosystem that has historically served as the primary fuel for the relatively frequent low-intensity surface fires that burn in many forests, can take many decades.
By demanding that federal decisions are made based on the best available science, NEPA ensures that no single use or priority eclipses the others.
NEPA also provides a public review process for citizens to challenge troublesome forest management decisions. Limiting the NEPA’s public review process and restricting the ability of citizens to challenge troublesome forest management decisions would lead to excessive, inappropriate, and poorly-located logging projects within our national forests.
Instead of addressing the most critical issues facing the Forest Service – wildfire funding including fire suppression costs that are consuming over half of the Forest Service’s budget and diverting funding away from already starved preventive program areas – opponents in Congress continue to push an irresponsible agenda prioritizing timber industry profits at the expense of the time-tested principle that the federal government should make the best decision based on the best available information. Such legislation, designed to circumvent the Endangered Species Act (ESA), NEPA, and other environmental protections, could actually increase the risk of forest fires.
What is needed more than anything renewed focused on wildfire prevention measures such as controlled burns, hardening cortical infrastructure, and applying defensible space to create a buffer between communities and forests. By deliberately igniting and controlling fires, land managers can limit the danger of devastating blazes. These prescribed burns use up some of the fuel available for uncontrolled wildfires, offering one way to reduce risk. Prescribed burns can also restore balance to ecological processes disrupted by long periods of fire suppression.