Today's choices, tomorrow's forests
by Professor Douglas D. Piirto, 3/12/2006
How Americaís forests look 10, 50 or 100 years from now depends
in great part on the decisions we make today.
Most Americans sit on the side of forest-management debates. As
long as they can buy lumber and vacation in forested mountains,
all must be right with the world.
But nearly 12.5 million acres have burned in the West in the
past five years. Lumber demand, meanwhile, is at an all-time
high, driven by near-record housing starts.
Too often after fires, we watch valuable timber simply rot.
Look at Julian outside of San Diego, or around the Giant Sequoia
National Monument where the McNally Fire burned 150,000 acres.
Or in Placer, Amador and El Dorado counties, where the Freds,
Power and Star Fires burned 40,000 acres, or in Southern
California where the Old and Cedar Fires burned 370,000 acres.
The difference between reforesting charred landscapes and
leaving them alone to let nature take its course can be as stark
as night and day. Private forestland owners generally harvest
dead trees after fires to accelerate the return of a healthy
forest and keep their land productive. They plant native-species
seedlings, minimize erosion and provide diverse wildlife
But on public lands, itís a different story. In many places
where private land abuts public forestland, a distinct post-fire
property line emerges with green trees on one side, shrubs and
charred sticks on the other. Without reforestation, forestland
conversion to brush field may be permanent, or the return of
forests delayed a century or more.
Choices have to be made. Itís not OK to sit by and watch.
Often, doing nothing after a catastrophic fire can cause the
greatest harm to forest resources like soils and waterways.
Post-fire rain can lead to mass erosion and mud slides. Charred
trees falling on their own can increase future fire danger.
We seem willing to spend millions to fight fires, but not to
restore the national forests they destroy ó even though we could
do so at virtually no cost to taxpayers.
Removing dead trees and creating a landscape where trees can
grow is a critical first step in forest restoration. But timing
Fire-killed trees rot and lose their value quickly, usually
within a year or so. Charging forestry companies to harvest some
dead trees they could then sell to sawmills could generate
revenue to fund reforestation. But delays can be fatal.
Delays from ďanalysis paralysisĒ and scientifically unfounded
appeals of reforestation plans can cost taxpayers millions.
After two fires in the Tahoe National Forest in 2001, for
example, the USDA Forest Service estimates such delays cost
about $5 million in lost revenue. Consequently, reforestation
that could be self-funding goes largely undone.
For most of the past half-century, charred forests were
harvested and replanted as a matter of course and common sense.
Many forests today, like those east of Sacramento that surround
the Big and Sugar Pine reservoirs, are the result of post-fire
restoration. Today, the Forest Service tries to restore only a
small portion of charred lands and most of those efforts are
We have the science and technology to safely and efficiently
harvest, replant and manage fire-damaged forests. We can harvest
wood and reduce erosion. We can renew forestland while providing
diverse wildlife habitat and helping to meet a growing demand
Are our other options really preferable? Should we leave
hillsides blackened? Harvest other forestland more aggressively?
Stop using wood in favor of non-renewable materials like
concrete and steel whose production increases greenhouse gas
The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act now being debated
in Congress is an attempt to return common sense to forest
restoration and expedite forest recovery. It doesnít relax
environmental protections, but accelerates decision-making and
public review processes to create a more efficient system for
forestry professionals to regenerate forestland.
We have the means to save our forests. Letís fix the system.
(Douglas D. Piirto holds a PhD in forestry from the
University of California and is forestry department head at
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He
served on the Giant Sequoia National Monument Science Advisory
Board convened under President Clinton and is a registered