Editor’s note: As we were preparing this feature on forest restoration efforts in eastern Washington, we learned of the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona. Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with the families of the fallen firefighters who died protecting a community. We are grateful to all of the brave firefighters who dedicate their lives to protecting people and property.
Megafire, Mega Problem
As destructive fires have blazed through Washington, Colorado, Arizona, and many areas of the western United States during the past few years, The Nature Conservancy is more committed than ever to improving the health and resilience of our eastern Washington forests.
Not only do these forests provide clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and places to hike and camp, they also support local jobs in the timber and recreation industries.
A recent study by Conservancy scientists show that 2.88 million acres of eastern Washington forests are in need of restoration: Over the past century, the suppression of natural fire coupled with a warming climate have led to overgrown understory trees and dry forests that invite devastating megafires, which in turn threaten to destroy the benefits eastern Washington forests provide.
All Fires Are Not Equal
Wildfire as it has functioned naturally in the western United States is beneficial to forests, spurring new plant growth and removing small understory trees that compete for nutrients with big old trees like ponderosa pines and act as fuel for the next potential fire.
But the megafires of recent years take a toll on the landscape and impose huge costs for suppression. In 2012 alone, some 334,577 acres burned in eastern Washington, consuming 317 structures and costing over $88 million dollars to suppress. The problem is compounded by spreading residential development: With more people living in forested areas, more homes and families are at risk when forests burn.
(Learn more about the nuances between destructive and beneficial fire with Ryan Haugo, a Conservancy scientist for Washington and Idaho.)
Problem-Solving with Partners
It’s essential that the Conservancy and committed partners act quickly to restore eastern Washington forests to make them less vulnerable to megafires. Forest collaboratives comprised of private stakeholders, as well as state and federal agencies, are coming together across the West to overcome barriers and find solutions to the issue of improving forests’ resilience and health. The Nature Conservancy is engaged in and is a leading partner of many of these collaborative groups in Washington:
Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative: The Conservancy took a lead role in forming the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative in 2006 with the aim of bringing together state and federal agencies, the Yakama Nation, and private landowners to increase the pace, quality, and scale of restoration projects across 2.3 million acres of eastern Washington forest. Success is achieved through protecting and acquiring key areas of forest land, collaborating with local communities, and actively restoring forests using techniques such as thinning smaller trees and prescribed fire.
Another top priority of the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative is building a sustainable local economy and enhancing job opportunities while restoring forests. In particular, The Nature Conservancy is working to foster and support businesses in the region that use wood produced by thinning, thereby creating jobs and also returning revenues back to forest restoration.
Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition: The Nature Conservancy is engaged in the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a group of diverse stakeholders working together since 2002 to promote forest restoration that is beneficial to forest health, public safety, and local economies. The coalition’s priorities, such as fuels reduction projects, serve as examples of successful collaborative work for the public and similar organizations.
North Central Washington Forest Collaborative: The Conservancy is a leading partner in initiating The North Central Washington Forest Collaborative.
The Nature Conservancy helped to establish the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, a coalition of agencies and stakeholders working to safely introduce more prescribed fire into the landscape. Fire was a natural element in many areas of eastern forests; and by carefully reintroducing controlled burning to these areas, the Conservancy and partners can attempt to control overgrown understory trees and plants while also attempting to mimic natural forces.
On the Ground Solutions
In addition to working with partners to make large-scale decisions about the management of eastern forests, the Conservancy is at the forefront of active forest restoration. At Oak Creek Wildlife Area, for example, the Conservancy, working with partners, is leading forest restoration in the 20,000 acre Tieton-Oak Creek watershed, thinning understory trees and shrubs according to a carefully designed plan: Cutting away small 10- and 20-year-old Douglas firs gives 400-year-old ponderosa pines light, air and water to thrive. Thinning smaller trees also prepares the forest for controlled burning, which further enhances the forest’s resilience to future wildfires.
The Nature Conservancy will continue to use and advocate for innovative conservation and restoration strategies to promote healthy forests across eastern Washington. With the help of dedicated partners, The Conservancy can put in place forest management tactics that mimic natural processes, one of the best sustainable defenses against megafires.
With your generous donations and contributions, The Nature Conservancy can work to ensure that these forests mature as resistant and resilient to destructive megafires, while also continuing to allow communities, businesses, wildlife, and people to benefit from the region’s rich resources.