Wildfires and Forest Management
Charting a new path towards more fire resilient forests and communities.
Nature Conservancy scientists and policy experts are grappling with a dramatic change in the role of fire in the Northwestern U.S. as a warming climate and a century of fire suppression drive ever larger and more intense blazes.
These days, wildfires are often more severe than they were historically, when frequent burns were integral to healthy natural cycles in forest ecosystems. Sparks generated by lightning went untamed. Native Americans used fire to manage the land.
In the late 1800s, settlements, road-building and livestock grazing began to impact Northwestern forests. Logging removed the most valuable and fire-resilient trees.
After the more than two-million-acre “Big Burn” centered in North Idaho in 1910, fire suppression became the norm for forest management, largely in response to catastrophic fires that tore through the landscape and claimed nearly one hundred lives.
This meant putting out any and all wildfires as quickly as possible.
But scientists and forest managers are now reconsidering when to use fire and when to put them out.
Forests without Fire
Without fire, forests have grown dense. This density and layering of trees can make forests prone to insect and disease outbreaks. These crowded forests provide a path for flames to reach high into the tree top or crown, where they can spread from crown to crown.
So, what can we do to reduce the frequency of catastrophic wildfires? The answers include fixing funding and land management policy, restoring our forests to historically healthier conditions and helping to educate and prepare people who are living near fire-prone areas and are affected by them.
Fire Funding Fix
In 2018, a team of policy experts at TNC, which included TNC Idaho’s former Government Relations Director Will Whelan, helped pass monumental legislation that would support the U.S. Forest Service in managing forest and wildfires. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch championed the legislation.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act was a critical piece of legislation that has made natural disaster funding available to the Forest Service to fight fires. Dedicating funding for firefighting will free up funding that can be used for proactive management to reduce the risk of megafires.
We are working collaboratively with the United States Forest Service, and other partners and agencies to manage forests and wildfires.
This includes a range of forest practices such as thinning smaller diameter trees and using controlled burns that reduce highly flammable fuels. In other places, restoration may include reducing the density of larger trees and creating a network of openings in the forest canopy that was typical of many Idaho forests in the era before fire suppression. Such practices enable the continuity of the timber harvest industries that local communities depend on, while giving ponderosa pine and other fire-resistant trees more room to grow.
After forest thinning, professional fire teams can conduct controlled burns under safe conditions. These burns mimic the frequent, small fires that historically cleaned out the shrubs and small trees of the forest's undergrowth.
Living Near Wildfire
The Nature Conservancy is working with the USFS on a 3,100-acre forest restoration project in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Eastern Idaho, near Yellowstone National Park. The Yale Creek project brings together experienced scientists and land managers to reduce fuel for fire by removing dead and fallen trees as well as standing mature green trees on public land near communities deemed at high risk to wildfire.
“The hope is that after this project is complete, the change in fuel, crown spacing and forest structure will keep a crown fire from continuing onto the subdivision and will bring it back down to the ground, where firefighters can safely respond,” said Matthew Ward, TNC’s watershed manager in East Idaho.
This effort is part of a two-pronged approach, as the Forest Service reduces fuel on public lands, TNC and others are offering technical and financial assistance to nearby private landowners to help them reduce fuels on their property, to further improve forest conditions and improve the safety of communities living near wildfire.
This article was adapted from one written by Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager for the TNC Washington Chapter, and Will Chen, Marketing Intern.