How Can Humans Best Manage Nature’s Forests?

The forests in the Methow Valley are burdened with an “epidemic of trees” from 100 years of fire suppression, according to Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist for the US Forest Service. Forests now have denser tree cover and underbrush. With the effects of climate change fast approaching, the Okanogan National Forest will encounter more varying winters and hotter, drier summers. With more fire fuel and a drier climate, forest fires will burn hotter, more frequently, and scorch soil and mature trees more than previous fires before fire suppression. This trend has already become reality—each big fire year is unprecedented in magnitude, from 10,000 acres in 1994 to over 625,000 acres in 2015. These mega-fires burn hotter and turns the landscape into “black toothpicks,” requiring primary succession and a slower recovery process than for smaller ground fires the forests are accustomed to. Beyond ecological and wildlife ramifications, mega-fires impact communities by burning down homes and threatening the health of firefighters; scorching public graze lands and cattle; and polluting the air with smoke and vast influxes of carbon dioxide. The Okanogan National Forest and others like it need adaptive management to help lessen the effects of climate change. There could be more rigorous thinning, logging, and forest underbrush removal, and/or an expansion of prescribed burns to create fire breaks and reduce fuels, but there are challenges: funding limitations, NEPA processes, risks to ecological intactness, smoke regulations, and community support. Remediation may not even be effective. But the train is undeniably accelerating. Though any action may not be perfect, as Kent says, “it’s hard to be too bold.”