The forest management conundrum

Wildlife biologists and forest managers in the western U.S. face difficult choices on a daily basis when it comes to managing both public and private lands in order to maintain healthy forests, improve wildlife habitat and increase or sustain species diversity. Many of those choices are compounded and further complicated by the dramatic change in the overall forest composition, the continued decline of land management agency budgets and the increase of wildfire across the landscape. 

For example, over the past several decades there has been a dramatic increase in wildfires and the need for agencies to suppress such fires to not only save forest resources but to save human communities. Those necessary fire suppression activities and the reduction of other activities, such as active forest management, have changed the dynamics in many forests, resulting in shifts of dominant tree species and thick unhealthy vegetation that fuels wildfire, which ultimately compounds the above issues. 

Land managers often have limited options to sustain forest habitat for a variety of wildlife species while restoring these same forests to a condition that is more resilient to disturbance, including wildfire. The conundrum presents an enormous challenge and leaves land managers grasping for applied solutions.  So how can managers maintain or restore suitable habitat conditions for wildlife species and prevent large, high-severity fires while creating a healthy forest ecosystem?

NWTF CEO Becky Humphries provided testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Federal Lands in support of new legislation to address forest policy reform and encourage active forest management. The below excerpt from that testimony further outlines the complex issue facing land management agencies across the country and, specifically, America’s Western Wildlands, one of six designated areas in the NWTF’s America’s Big Six of Wildlife Conservation plan.

“Professionally trained wildlife biologists know that forest diversity at the landscape level is the key to proper management to achieve species diversity and robustness. There are four fundamental criteria each forest species needs for survival:  food, water, shelter and space. Depending on how a forest is managed, various amounts of these criteria become available to the animals living there. Wildlife managers consider active management the best solution to meet the habitat requirements of the largest variety of species. Active management creates young forest habitat, which provides adequate food sources, nesting habitat and hiding places for forest wildlife. Throughout the United States we are losing this diversity on a landscape-level scale, in many cases because our forests are becoming more homogenized and over-mature.”

Many believe that management activities to promote a mixture of forest conditions could provide the balanced solution that managers have long sought. Forests that provide a range of conditions, from open patches to older, more mature stands, emulate a landscape historically forged by frequent, low-intensity fire. When these forests experience wildfire or other disturbances, they are likely to be more resilient and able to sustain conditions that meet the needs of a variety of wildlife species.

— Mark Hatfield, NWTF director of conservation administration

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