Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of columns about Idaho’s forests.
One common thread in many if not all of our current environmental conundrums is climate change. Whether we’re talking about forest health, warming oceans affecting salmon returns or water availability, the causes and solutions are varied, but climate change has a hand in one way or another.
When it comes to forest health in Idaho and across the West, decades of fire suppression efforts, and limited logging and thinning, particularly on federal lands, have played a role in leaving our forest susceptible to wildfires, insects and disease.
However, the role of climate change can’t be denied.
“The overwhelming causes of wildfire are warmer and drier summers and warmer and drier climate in general in the Western United States,” said Jen Pierce, a professor of geology and wildfire expert at Boise State University. “While logging and thinning certainly can be an option for reducing hazards of wildfire around established communities for certain types of forests, it’s not logistically or economically feasible that logging and thinning would be able to reduce wildfires.”
Estimates suggest that at our current rate of forest treatment efforts, it would take 121 years to get to all the forest land we need to get to.
Pierce points out that the Eagle Creek Fire near Hood River, Oregon, in 2017 jumped the Columbia River. “The Columbia River is a mile wide in that spot — a mile wide.” No amount of logging or thinning would have “held back” a wildfire of that magnitude.
Brad Brooks, of The Wilderness Society, said “there’s some truth in there” in the argument that logging can benefit the environment and help mitigate the effects of fire, but “it’s a little more complicated than that.”
“The idea that we can control fire is just not true,” he said. “What is true is that you can protect communities and ensure that when you do have a natural disturbance, you can mitigate the damage as much as you can.
“Fire has always been on the landscape,” Brooks said. “Fires don’t destroy forests. They are necessary for forests.”
Bill Higgins, resource manager for Coeur d’Alene-based lumber producer Idaho Forest Group, said more active logging on state lands has increased forest variability, wildlife habitat variability and greater firebreaks. He “absolutely” believes increasing logging on federal lands would improve the health of the forests.
Higgins said climate change is a huge contributor to massive forest fires, but he supports the argument that increasing logging can help decrease “uninterrupted fuels” that turn fires from hundreds of acres into thousands or even tens of thousands of acres.
Different types of forests, whether they’re ponderosa, lodgepole pine or douglas fir, have different life cycles and different fire cycles, whether it’s a burn every 5 to 10 years or a burn every 200 to 300 years.
But forests have natural life cycles and fire is sometimes the natural, expected end of that life cycle.
But those fires are tending to be larger because of climate change, Brooks said.
“Wildfires today are not all because of fire suppression,” Brooks said. “You can’t ignore climate change. Climate is at or even more of a factor today.”
That’s not to say that we just throw up our hands and say that climate change is making things worse, so there’s nothing we can do about it.
Let me be clear: I am not going to pretend that I have the answer to wildfires in Idaho. The issue is complex and involves environmental concerns, roadless and wilderness protection, hazardous fuels treatment, logging, wildlife protection, even the types of forests we have in Idaho, which are diverse.
Even within solutions, there are obstacles. Even if we were to increase logging as a means to reducing fuels or creating fuel breaks, the existing infrastructure of mills, trucks and even workers couldn’t handle the extra capacity needed. Forest treatment is limited by budget. Access to some forests for either logging or treatment is limited by terrain. Access to some forests is limited by lack of roads or limits because of federal regulation. Putting out wildfires is limited by money.
The obstacles and therefore the solutions are multiple, and they depend on a whole host of varying factors. There is no one magic solution. Closer to reality is that the solution requires a little bit of everything: a little more logging, a little more hazardous fuels hazard, a little less regulation on federal land, a little more firefighting, a little more education of the public about fire safety.
Logging is not the solution, but logging is part of the solution. So are hazardous fuels treatment, prescribed burning, regulation reform, increased firefighting efforts and public education.
Idaho’s shared stewardship program is a good start, and it also provides a good model moving forward — a model for bringing different interests together, including environmentalists, legislators, private industry, landowners both large and small, and public and private scientists.
Because if we don’t work together on the multitude of solutions, the effects of climate change are going to overwhelm everything else.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
What is this column all about?
This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.