4 Dec 2007, 2:09pm
Management Policy
by admin

Helms Testimony October 3, 2023

Testimony of Dr. John A Helms: Responses to Questions for the Record
Following Sept 24, 2007, Hearings by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Wildfires require a combination of fuel, temperature, and oxygen. Of these, the only factor that can be managed is the presence and distribution of fuels. Given that the most intense and catastrophic fires occur in dense forests, and since experience has shown that when wildfires encounter less dense and more open stands fire intensity commonly drops (USDA PSW 2007), it seems clear that increased efforts must be made to thin overly-dense stands. In doing so, irregular mosaics of stand density should be created that remove ladder fuels to reduce opportunities for fire to burn into tree crowns.

Since it is clearly impossible to rapidly treat all 180 million acres the Forest Service estimates are in hazardous condition, current efforts to create “Defensible Fuel Profile Zones” (DFPZs — Quincy Library Group/USDA FS, California), “shaded fuelbreaks” (Agee et al. 2000) and “Strategically Placed Landscape Area Treatments” (SPLATS or SPOTS in California’s Sierra Nevada — USDA FS) are all worthwhile exploring. These are areas 1/4 - 1/2 mile wide, usually along roads or strategically placed in which fuel loadings are reduced to reduce potential for crown fires, interrupt fire spread, and to provide defensible space to fight the fires.

Although not free from criticism, these efforts are initial steps in the right direction. More adaptive management and pilot studies (such as the Fuels Management National Pilot Project 2007 funded by the Forest Service) are needed to demonstrate efficacy and cost effectiveness and to communicate lessons learned from these and other projects and forest treatments (Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center 2007)…

Wildfires are driven by both fuel and temperature and are made particularly devastating when combined with low humidity and high winds. Modeling shows that, in general, changing climate will likely result in more wildfires. However, fires won’t burn without fuel, and fire intensity increases with fuel loading. A prudent steward of forest lands would therefore reduce hazardous fuel loads and remove a portion of trees that provide ladder fuels that enable flames to reach the canopy.

The amount of fuels in a forest can reach 15-70 tons per acre (Sampson 2004) and this fuel loading cannot be removed by prescribed burning without incurring substantial risk. Therefore some preliminary mechanical treatment is required. This could be cost-effective if the smaller-dimension biomass could be used for cellulosic ethanol production and the larger material converted into wood products that store carbon. A major hurdle on public lands is to make this material available through long-term contracts that provide a sufficiently stable investment climate that will enable industry to construct the necessary processing plants for both ethanol and wood products…

…Wildfires are indeed increasingly hard to fight and release 75-80 tons CO2 or more per acre (Sampson 2004). Fires that can be several hundred thousand acres in size are clearly emitting millions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Once forest stands are restored to more natural density levels, prescribed fires can be used which emit about 18-20 tons CO2 per acre (Sampson 2004).

Decisions to permit natural fires to burn are based on diverse criteria that assess the risk to private property, ecological systems, and societal values. The Wildland Fire Use approach is commendable, however one must accept the likelihood that, initially at least, some ecological and societal values will be damaged and air quality will be affected. This points to the importance of providing the public with quality information regarding the goals, risks, and benefits of the program…

In general, rates of germination, establishment, and growth of trees after wildfires are slower than those of shrubs and grasses — in particular sprouting shrubs and hardwoods. It is therefore common for pioneering shrubs and grasses to rapidly colonize and dominate burned areas for many decades. This is less true for the “fire-type” conifers such as lodgepole pine that have serotinous cones evolved to open from the heat of fires. Forestry research and experience shows that vegetation growth after fires varies from brushfields to successful tree regeneration depending on such factors as the availability of seed. Surveys in California’s Sierra Nevada have shown that mature true fir forests having no shrubs in the understory can have 2 million viable seeds of shrub species per acre that remain dormant in the soil until heat from fires cracks their seed coats and stimulates germination. In contrast, tree seeds do not commonly remain viable in the soil after two years and seed crops have periodicity from one to seven years.

After a wildfire, a prompt assessment is needed of post burn conditions to determine the likelihood that desired vegetation of diverse species will become established. The desired mix of vegetation cover needs to be defined and the timeframe in which preferred conditions of tree cover, habitat, and soil cover should be attained needs to be identified. Experience has shown that those areas likely to become brushfields or have high potential for erosion need to be promptly planted to return them to forest conditions. Brushfields often have conifer seedlings underneath them, but it can take 50-100 years for the trees to overtop the brush and form a forest canopy. Burned areas that may regenerate satisfactorily to the desired species mix without treatment or are ecological reserves not needing treatment should be identified in the post-burn assessment.

In all cases, the post-burn analysis should identify the costs, benefits, and risks associated with action or no action. Decisions should ensure that society is best served by using treatments where necessary to rapidly restore the preburn mix of forest values, habitats, uses, and watershed protection…

Healthy forests and their associated wildlife habitats and watersheds are priceless assets providing the nation with critical values and uses. The sustainable management and conservation of forests is crucial to societal welfare. When forests are allowed to become overly dense the trees lose vigor and become susceptible to insects, disease, mortality, and fire. This is exacerbated under conditions of overall rise in temperature, drought, and storms. It is therefore in society’s best interest that, apart from ecological reserves, wilderness or similar areas, forests be sustainably managed to maintain forest health and provide the balance and diversity of values and uses that society needs.

The argument that forests, especially national forests, should be left unmanaged and that “nature knows best” is understandably appealing. However it does not recognize that the condition of our national forests is far from “natural”…

The challenge is how to accomplish this in a socially acceptable and economically feasible way. Societal acceptance can probably only be achieved through a combination of Congressional leadership and science-based information outreach. In particular, decision-making processes are needed that emphasize stakeholder common interests in restoring healthy forests to reduce wildfires, mitigating the effects of climate change, and striking a balance among competing values and viewpoints. The overall policy goal should be to restore and sustainably manage the nation’s forests for the welfare of society at large. Since fuels treatments and thinning are costly, it is critical to explore ways and means by which these costs can be offset by utilizing the biomass in the form of energy or renewable wood products. The desirability of this option becomes apparent when one appreciates that using wood can reduce carbon emissions where it is used in place of alternative materials that life cycle analyses show have higher energy requirements in manufacture.

I used the word “responsible” in my testimony in the context that failure to restore forest health and reduce impacts of wildfire and insects on wood supply, wildlife habitat, and water supply is to abdicate current society’s responsibilities to present and future generations…

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta