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Another perspective on managing fire-prone forests

Odion and DellaSala (Guest Opinion, Nov 20) shared some opinions about fire and thinning policy in federal forests of Southwest Oregon. Their message to the public was that fire is the natural feature of the Rogue River Valley landscape, and that action to suppress fire, in part by thinning, is contrary to the natural development of vegetation there. They imply that expending resources to suppress fires near houses and forest plantations is acceptable, but that natural forests, in general, benefit from the periodic fires of the region. I question the definition of "benefit" in this context, hence justification of the message.

The Forestry Intensified Research program at Medford facilities of Oregon State University focused a decade of intensive efforts on reforestation of public lands nearby. Their focus was on reforestation or afforestation (including fuel management) on areas that exhibit a repeated-fire tendency. This research was concentrated on potentially productive land where the federal government had abandoned efforts to maintain conifers.

The question of whether fire-promoted shrub/hardwood cover is the "natural" cover is worthy of examination. I refer that question to those, including Dr. Bob Zybach, whose work at Oregon State University reconstructed the use of fire in the livelihood of Native Americans. If those natives used fire to clear land for food crops hundreds and thousands of years ago, does that make it "natural"? What happens if the evergreen brush does not burn?

The FIR program discovered a number of low-impact practices that would restore conifers on the fire-prone landscapes. I have maintained the only FIR studies that continue to this day more than 30 years later. Our findings indicated that controlling manzanita, buckbrush and other fire-prone shrubs and hardwoods is relatively easy. Moreover, selective removal of the shrubs reveals that planted ponderosa pine grows very well on sites the feds had written off! After clearing and planting pines, there still are some ceanothus, manzanita, madrone and poison oak clumps out there, plus many herbs that disappear under dense brush cover within a few years. Let's follow this idea a bit more to get back to thinning as the primary forest practice.

Odion and DellaSalla and I agree on the point that thousands of acres of thinning are not likely to create the condition they prefer. (Note: it is not a scientist's responsibility to choose any particular outcome. They described their preference as what grows after repeated fires).

There are those advocating selective harvest only, including at least one or more from Oregon State University and elsewhere, who promote this approach as the salvation of public opinion in forest management.

The concern here is not biology, it is public protest over clearcutting; they postulate that "people" will allow "some" harvest if it is selective. It is a politically positive approach. So do it? This is a vote for process, not outcome.

Thinning is useful in long-term management. It takes far more than thinning to maintain all objectives. The fire-prone forests under discussion can maintain complete mixes of native species with "even-aged-wthin-stands" management on a landscape scale.

In this system, clearing existing vegetation (clearcutting or site preparation) in patches of 20 to hundreds of acres, yields some timber and prepares for planting local conifers. After 30 or so years, thinning every 10-20 years is continued until the stand is about 80-100 years old and has 30-50 big trees per acre. Then the stand is allowed to grow 50-plus more years in near-old-growth condition to create habitat. Harvesting by clearcutting then begins the cycle again.

This kind of management maintains forest cover in all stages and provides protection for all species, and fuel management. Within each cycle are all the stages with habitats for all species that come and go with time. Each is always present somewhere when the cycles are all in different phases. The research that I continue to lead after more than 50 years suggests that controlled disturbance is a part of keeping the long-term objective in sight.

Many of our mature forests in the area are now living because fires have been suppressed. It is hard to satisfy everyone. Helping people understand long-term consequences of breaking the fire cycle, as we approach in our research, is a part of our job as professors at public institutions.

Part of that story is that clearcutting is a relatively low-impact alternative to wildfire, and manages fuel and habitat within specified boundaries. If we allow random fires to manage our vegetation, fires will run until they threaten houses and forests that are doing their jobs well. Do we fight them only after thousands of acres have been made into snags? At what price? The Biscuit fire sure did a number on a lot of species. And how much old-growth habitat is left there?

Mike Newton is professor emeritus at the Oregon State University College of Forestry.