Empty Prescriptions, Black Toothpicks: The Forest Service’s Modern Struggle

In the Methow Valley, WA the United States Forest Service is waging a war against wildfire. In 2014 and 2015, severe wildfires devastated the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, leaving much of the landscape covered in, as USFS wildlife biologist Kent Woodruff says, “black toothpicks.” The war against fire consists of three fronts: fuel reduction and relocation, a fight against outdated policy, and a campaign to educate the public about sustainable forest management. Mike Borowski, a forester and timber sale administrator, works to reduce fuel loads within national forest land through commercial sales to logging companies. Others orchestrate prescribed burns to remove excess fuels that transform small burns into blazing infernos. The Forest Service also enlists the help of the public, allowing those with permits to cut snags for firewood. 

However, old policies, including Late Successional Reserves (LSRs) – stands of old growth forests reserved for endangered wildlife habitat even in the absence of those threatened species – can prevent effective forest management. The management is halted by environmental groups, who appeal proposed forest plans that would allow more management options. These issues, according to USFS rangeland manager John Rohrer, stem from a lack of public education about forest management. When the reasoning behind USFS practices isn’t understood, the proposals are more likely to be rejected., leaving the USFS with their hands tied. The inability of the agency to act how it must is best summed up by Rohrer, who firmly states: “we just need more flexibility to respond to changing times.”