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Forest management: The words matter

The words we use define how we think about things. In forest management, words are oftentimes used to mean something very different than what they have meant in the past.

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed two large-scale tree removal and prescribed burning projects for the Santa Fe National Forest. They are also developing the basic blueprint for further projects – the revised Forest Plan.

Past projects have resulted in barren, dry and ecologically unhealthy appearing forests. Prescriptions have called for removal of the vast majority of trees throughout large areas of forest, and for new growth to be burned off regularly so the forest understory never recovers. The Forest Service’s stated objective is to moderate fire behavior and increase forest health.

The terms the Forest Service uses to describe its project goals and methods embody many unproven and incorrect assumptions about the effect of such draconian treatments on our forests and how useful they are in the cost/benefit analysis. This language makes it difficult for the public to think objectively about Forest Service proposals. Each of the following frequently used forest management terms sounds like restoration, but translates into widespread cutting and burning of our forests:

• Forest restoration. Is removing the vast majority of anything restorative? Or is it destructive? Bringing in heavy equipment to cut down and chop up the majority of the trees in a forest damages the forest floor. The soil becomes compacted and erodible, and the delicate structure both underneath the soil and of the forest understory gets torn up. The slash left behind can cause bark beetle outbreaks. Most past treated areas still appear barren and unhealthy.

• Resilient forests. In their manual, the Forest Service defines resilience as the capacity of an ecosystem to return to its previous condition after such impacts as fire. Once a forest is largely cleared of trees and vegetation, it is much easier after a fire for the forest to return to its previous condition than would be the case for a fully functioning forest ecosystem with an abundant tree canopy and heathy understory. But is that resilience?

• Thinning. Removing 90% of trees throughout large areas of forest is not thinning. It’s almost a clearcut. The word thinning sounds innocuous and beneficial, as in thinning a garden, but when the vast majority of vegetation is removed, the forest ecosystem becomes almost unrecognizable as forest.

• Fuel treatments. Intensive tree removal and burning are called “fuel treatments.” The forest is alive. Trees and the surrounding understory are so much more than fuels that it greatly misrepresents the situation to simply call them fuels as if they are piles of firewood. The ecosystem is highly complex and sensitive to impacts, and we have not yet understood the consequences of such massive disturbances to it. The poor results of past thinning/burning projects makes this very clear.

• Forest health. The Forest Service claims that widespread fuel treatments will increase forest health. Large-scale fuel treatments have not generally produced any apparent increase in forest health if that means a natural and functional ecosystem. The term “forest health” is used without a clear view about what it means in reality, how it can be achieved, or if it is even possible to increase forest health through intensive interventions in our dry southwestern forests.

• Fire-adapted forests. Fire is natural to our forests. This term suggests that we can adapt to fire forests considered overgrown by the Forest Service by introducing a regimen of frequent low-intensity prescribed fire that would largely replace the natural fire regime, which includes fire of all intensities, even high-intensity fire. However, a mixed-intensity fire regime is essential for healthy functioning of the forest ecosystem. Also, a recent study indicates that the Forest Service has overestimated many-fold how often fire burned historically in our forests (William Baker, 2017). We can adapt forest communities to fire by fire-proofing structures and the 100-foot radius around homes.

• Fire risk. There has so far been no successful effort to characterize what or where fire risk exists in our forest. The Forest Service commissioned a fire risk study for the Santa Fe “fireshed,” and it was based on a number of unproven and incorrect assumptions. Two well-respected scientists evaluated the fire risk assessment and found that it cannot reasonably be used to support forest management decisions.

We need to look at what’s about to be done to our forests with a clearer view and using more objective terms. Newer research indicates the current approaches do not benefit our forests, or us, and can cause great harm to the ecosystem.

What can you do? Engage with forest issues. Insist that the Forest Service do comprehensive analysis, an Environmental Impact Statement for both large-scale projects proposed for the Santa Fe National Forest. And support locally based environmental groups that are on the front lines of protecting our beautiful and irreplaceable forests.

Sarah Hyden lives in Santa Fe