Land Protection: More than Conservation Easements

September 11, 2015

Maucieri easement — still smoking but the forest survived. Photo: Rogers Hardy

Fire! It’s really bad this year, and earlier than usual. The news has featured daily reports of new fires, the progress of firefighters, lives lost, homes and businesses and towns destroyed—frightening pictures, tragedies, heroics—along with commentary on drought and record breaking heat and “tinderbox” conditions. If you live in the Inland Northwest, you have seen at least the haze produced by wildfires in the region; maybe you have smelled the smoke, felt your eyes stinging or experienced respiratory distress. Your neighborhood might have been evacuated, or worse. Fire has touched some of INLC’s easements and partner properties. What’s happening? What can we do?

Carlton complex 2014

“Mega-fires”—wildfires that burn more than 10,000 acres—have increased dramatically during the past four decades in the West. U.S. Forest Service data show that mega-fires are seven times more frequent today and burn twice as much land as they did 40 years ago. The average fire season also lasts two and a half months longer than it did in the 1970s.

The costs have been huge, not just in lives lost and property destroyed, but also in escalating fire-fighting costs. Fighting last summer’s Carlton Complex fire in Washington, which burned more than one quarter of a million acres and destroyed 300 homes, cost $100 million. The Carlton Complex fire was, to date, the largest fire in state history, and was only one of many fires in the region in 2014; this year’s fire season, however, may ultimately be equally or even more catastrophic.

Backfiring near Glacier in 2007 – courtesy of Inland Forest Management

The wildfire problem has been a long time coming, and is being worsened by drought and climate change. The emphasis on fire suppression in the past century has made western forests more susceptible to extreme fires. “The current condition of our forests, with trees that are smaller and at a higher density, creates situations where now the forest is less resilient,” Reese Lolley of The Nature Conservancy told Jefferson Public Radio. Smaller wildfires reduce fire fuel and eventually create habitat and help regenerate trees, he added. The impulse to suppress all fires, though, combined with other factors, has led to enormous swaths of forest that are essentially giant bonfires waiting for a spark.

Kirk David lives on Cedar Mountain, near Silverwood. A retired forester, he is executive vice president of the Idaho Forest Owners Association. Here is his take on how wildfires have gotten worse, and what to do: “Ever since we arrived to populate and ‘develop’ the West, the predominant attitude about and response of our immigrant society to fire, now a century and more on, has undeniably guaranteed that it is no longer a threat of ‘if’ a fire might come to the forest where we live, but most assuredly now only a waiting game for ‘when’ a fire will happen in the forest where we live! Mimicking – to at least some large degree – what normally happened naturally before we arrived, thinning overcrowded (stressed and unhealthy!) trees and removing excess accumulated fuels (woody debris and brush) is the wisest solution we can implement to lessen the destructive intensity of the fire that will visit us all eventually. This observation is not intended as doom and gloom, but as constructive advice to intelligent and resourceful people.”

Before and after FireSmart treatment. Photos: Steve Bloedel, Inland Forest Management

Research shows that there are, indeed, effective steps in reducing the impact of wildfires. In Arizona, thinned forests and prescribed burns helped stop the huge 2011 Wallow Fire before it reached homes, according to ecologist Morris Johnson of the Pacific Wildland Fire Science Laboratory. “As it hit the thinning treatment there’s a transition in the fire type,” Johnson says. He goes on to describe this transition as going from “active crown fire,” where there is continuous flame across the entire forest canopy, to “passive crown fire,” where only the tops of individual or small groups of trees burn, but the fire does not spread as easily or encompass the whole forest. Even more dramatically, a recent study by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service showed that a 12,000-acre “doughnut hole” within the Carlton Complex fire zone remained untouched by the inferno. The area survived, the researchers believe, because it had been previously thinned and burned. They say that 9.5 million acres of Washington and Oregon forests would benefit from the same management that protected the doughnut hole.

In addition to thinning and prescribed burns in forests, there are also ways people can work to safeguard their homes and personal property. Steve Bloedel is a forester with Inland Forest Management. He oversees the FireSmart ™ program in Kootenai County. The program helps landowners reduce wildfire risks around homes. These programs are designed to help private property owners reduce the risk to life and property from the threat of wildfire by creating shaded fuel breaks near homes and businesses. A “shaded fuel break” is a treed (rather than open) area where potential “fuel” for a fire has been reduced or eliminated; constructing one is the process of selectively thinning and removing more flammable understory vegetation while leaving the majority of larger, more fire tolerant tree species in place. Steve said, “Whether it is working to create a community fuel break or managing a remote private forest, I am always thinking of fire and its influence on our landscape, both from a historical perspective leading to the present condition and with consideration to potential future impacts. The exclusion of fire and resulting changes to our forests necessitates management.”

Some of my Washington forest landowners also weighed in. They have found that burning small hand stacked slash piles is effective around the house and even in the woods, BUT one needs to be in an area where burning is permitted.* Fire is by far the most efficient tool for creating defensible space. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sometimes shares the costs of mechanical mastication, an alternative to burning. For those landowners who seek help with their forest management education, INLC easement holders suggest the Washington Farm Forestry Association and the national Tree Farm system. They also echoed the forestry professionals in pointing out that with a century of fire exclusion and high-grade logging (meaning taking the best trees and leaving the worst for the next forest) we have de-evolved our forests from fire resistant pines and larch to fire loving fir. The US Forest Service PNW Research Station has many reports on wildfires, and how the species mix has changed in our forests.

INLC works to protect land in many ways. Conservation easements not only proscribe development, but often require forest management plans and oversight that help to minimize damage from fires. “Fire is not necessarily an enemy, but it is a force of nature that we can live with if we plan for it,” says Dave Peterson, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “We’re going to have fires. We cannot stop [them], but we can reduce their intensity.”

*Please DO NOT BURN when conditions are extremely dry and fire bans are in effect! Stay safe!