Sweet, smoky summertime
As we slide from the fresh green foliage of spring into the deep emerald of sultry summer, we are blessed with a season of longer daylight, warmer temperatures, family vacations and campfires. Last night I enjoyed the first fire in the backyard fire pit of my daughter’s new home ... complete with s’mores. I am thrilled that my grandkids will remember their childhood with campfires at the lake, camp and home.
As we enjoy our campfires this summer, the threat of wildfire is a concern that is never far away in my mind. In the Great Lakes region and most of the Eastern U.S., fire danger is usually the highest in May just before leaf out, as dry winds blow down across the Canadian Shield. As the director of the Department of Natural Resources in Michigan, I never slept well in the month of May. Fire danger was a constant companion. Daily fire danger briefings were part of my routine and more importantly, part of the daily routine of firefighters throughout the state.
In our Western states, however, summer is the time of greatest fire danger. High fuel loads in undermanaged forests coupled with dry, hot temperatures create the perfect storm of conditions for tragic wildfires. Aside from the tremendous toll these fires take in potential loss of life and property damage, they add large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, burn organic soils and cause significant runoff into our headwater streams.
Unfortunately, in some of our forests across the U.S., fuel loads are high due to disease, insect kill and lack of management. The U.S. Forest Service has identified 80 million acres badly in need of management or restoration.
Goals for restoration and creation of young forests are also significantly lagging. As young forests mature without being managed, the wildlife that thrive in this habitat type, including the wild turkey, ruffed grouse, elk, and golden winged warbler, declines. Almost 60 percent of the birds that depend on young forests have experienced significant population drops in recent decades.
So, how are we addressing these concerns? At our national convention in Nashville last February, I had a chance to sit down with Vicky Christiansen, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and we discussed these issues. Fire suppression efforts have consumed much of the budget for the Forest Service, creating a vicious cycle of reactive firefighting, rather than proactive forest management. I challenged her and the Forest Service to think about how we could work together to put more effort into proactive forest management and begin to really move the needle on the backlog of forest management projects. In turn, Chief Christiansen challenged me to rally other conservation organizations to join our efforts to step up management.
Several weeks ago, that conversation resulted in a partner meeting in Denver, Colorado, co-hosted by Chief Christiansen and myself. We gathered partners from traditional conservation groups along with the insurance industry, utility providers and private investors to discuss opportunities for broad collaboration. I was pleased that all of the attendees pledged their support to proactive and innovative forest management ideas. While the NWTF and partners have done great work in the past, we all need to increase our efforts to restore our forests to health.
We will also need regulatory change if we are going to address this issue on a broad management scale. While past legislation helped address fire borrowing (the practice of using management funds to pay for fire suppression costs), it did not resolve these regulatory issues. Current environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act were well intentioned; however, anti-management organizations have used it and other laws to turn active forest management into a slow, expensive endeavor.
In an effort to address this problem, Congressman Bruce Westerman, a professional forester, has introduced the Resilient Forest Act of 2019, in the U.S. House of Representatives to expedite forest management and protect against wildfires. This legislation would streamline the environmental review process and pilot an arbitration program, rather than lengthy litigation, for collaboratively developed proactive forest management projects.
The NWTF looks forward to working with Congress to pass effective legislation that creates meaningful environmental review and eliminates overly burdensome processes that prevent badly needed forest management. We also greatly look forward to working with the Forest Service and partners to alleviate the backlog of critical forest management projects. By appropriately managing the headwater forests of our nation, we can enjoy clean water, cleaner air, carbon sequestration, wildlife and outdoor recreation.
Thanks for your efforts to help us Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.
— Becky Humphries, NWTF CEO