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How forest management reduces wildfire risk, according to PERC's Hannah Downey
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Last month, as hazardous smoke from wildfires in Canada engulfed large swaths of the United States in a smothering haze, Montana’s GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke and Senator Steve Daines, among other politicians, asserted that a lack of forest management was to blame for the staggering blazes.
“I have zero empathy for D.C. politicians complaining about the smoke. If you won’t allow us to responsibly manage forests, you should have to deal with the consequences just like we do in the West,” Zinke wrote on Twitter.
“The bottom line is this: we either better manage our forests or our forests manage us,” said Daines.
Climate advocates contested that the rhetoric added up to denial. “Imagine being a Republican climate change denier in Congress – you show up to work at the Capitol today, see the skies filled with smoke… and you still don’t get that we need bold and immediate action to save our planet? Ridiculous,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) wrote on Twitter.
Lost in the soundbites loomed a big question: what exactly does active forest management entail, and how does it work? Does supporting it actually mean denying the effects of human-caused climate change?
For Hannah Downey, active forest management offers a way to mitigate wildfire risk in the present moment, while not dismissing the long-term effects of a changing climate.
Hannah serves as the Policy Director at the Bozeman-based non-profit PERC. The organization pushes an arguably unconventional take on conservation writ large: that it should be driven by market-based incentives, be voluntary and not be subject to a lot of regulation. While PERC does not deny the impact of human activity on the climate, you’ve got to really dig to find explicit references to climate change on its website.
While my conversation with Hannah focuses on the partisan divide around conservation, and the logistics of forest management, she currently advocates for other related issues as well: facilitating shared forest management between federal agencies and state / tribal / county entities via Good Neighbor Agreements, expediting new forest management and logging projects (by reversing the Cottonwood decision) and reducing regulation around prescribed burns.
PERC is also in the midst of interesting collaborations with private landowners on projects to manage migratory elk populations and reduce disease in cattle.
Read on to learn more about the philosophy that guides Hannah’s work, the details of PERC’s approach to mitigating wildfire risk and her evidence that it works.
Max: PERC has a quote from the writer and environmentalist Aldo Leopold on its website: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” What does that quote mean to you?
Hannah Downey: It kind of stops and slaps you across your face a little bit.
That quote shows that we all have these intersecting roles: you have the landowner and the direct land managers, be it on private land or public land, who are on the ground doing a ton of this work. Rather than saying [to these landowners] “You are the enemy,” we say, “How can we have a role in supporting the work that you are doing on the ground?”
Do you encounter resistance or skepticism from landowners?
With some of the traditional landowners, [who are often] the classic multi-generational rancher, for so long the environmental movement has been equated with heavy regulation and punishment for doing things with the land. It's saying,
”Stop doing that. We instead need this [land] for endangered species,” or “Don't plow your field, we need it for this.” They're saying, we've been treated as if conservation is being done to us rather than with us.
And so I think part of PERC’s role in all of this is to come in at the ground level and say, as landowners, not only are you making a living for yourself, but you guys are providing incredible wildlife habitat.
When you strip away some of the jargon or soapboxing, these landowners understand that what they put into their land and what they do to their land impacts how the crops grow. What are we actually talking about here? Healthy soils, healthy landscapes, healthy wildlife populations. They are the ones who are engaging with resource regeneration on a day-to-day basis.
I have some guesses as to what that jargon might be, but what comes to mind for you?
I keep coming back to conversations about climate change, right? [With] all these concerns over climate change and climate justice, when you boil them down to really tangible examples, there's kind of a communal buy-in to them. But a lot of the climate change discussion has some really touchy wording.
Does the term “climate change” itself feel partisan to you?
That's a really tricky one. [Sometimes] we let that term get too politicized, right? Does it become a green New Deal conversation? Are we going to ban gas stoves? I blame both sides equally for trying to hype that up and get headlines.
I recently spoke to the science writer Karin Kirk for this newsletter. I’m paraphrasing, but she basically made the argument that forest management can be effective, but that we need to prioritize a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, or forest restoration becomes less relevant. What do you make of that argument?
It's really important to consider forest management and climate in tandem. I think forest management is a really important tool that we can use to ensure that climate efforts are worthwhile.
[For instance], California's 2020 wildfire season erased 16 years of emissions cuts that they had made. If we are investing all of this time and money and resources in climate, we need to make sure that one catastrophic event or one catastrophic wildfire season can't wipe that out.
Part of this is just thinking short-term versus long-term. [If we] invest all of our resources in climate and forget to do any of the fuel stuff, that's not going to change our wildfire season this August or next year.
I think it would be incredibly unfair to only focus on climate and to not focus on what can we do right now, which is a lot of that fuel management and forest restoration.
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Let’s get into some of the particulars of your approach to forest restoration.
It's really important to note the scale of the issue that we're talking about here. Within just the Forest Service, we're looking at 80 million acres in need of restoration. 63 million acres are at a high or very high risk of wildfire. And to put that into perspective, the Forest Service currently only treats about 4 million acres per year. So we have this really big daunting problem. And we're seeing all of that play out with record fire years.
PERC is supportive of forest restoration, and I am supportive of forest restoration, as a tool to decrease wildfire risk. Forest thinning is a part of that, but it is not all-encompassing. So when we talk about forest restoration, that really means, how can we better manage the fuels that are in our forests: tree density, dead trees, underbrush, shrubbery, basically all the things that can start on fire and create these catastrophic wildfires.
Mechanical thinning can be commercial timber harvest, but it can also mean removing some of the small diameter timber in forests where overgrowth is a huge issue and trees aren't able to grow large and old, and just become thin twig-like things that are overly dense and can go up in flames really quite easily. That is not necessarily profitable.
Prescribed burns are a really important tool, too: how can we strategically set these low-intensity burns to help clear out some of the undergrowth?
Are there case studies or other examples you can point to where this strategy has worked?
A big example that I think highlights the intersection of the forest work with climate implications is that really terrible [fire year I mentioned] in California.
There was also an example in the Klamath National Forest where a forest restoration project was proposed to help reduce wildfire risk. And that got all held up. There was a lot of concern from some of the stronger or more traditional environmental community that harvesting or clearing and restoring some of those timberlands was going to harm the federally protected Northern spotted owl.
[While that debate was taking place], a wildfire came through and actually burned up that forest and destroyed the exact habitat that so many of those environmental litigants or activists were trying to protect.
There's a really telling example when the Bootleg Fire ran through Oregon a few years back. As that fire burned through, there were places where the forest had not been managed or restored at all, and those burned tragically. [But] there were areas where some of the mechanical thinning had taken place, and those places fared better. But the areas that fared the best were actually where the Nature Conservancy on some of their preserved lands had been able to do some of the mechanical thinning coupled with prescribed burns. That's not to say nothing burned because things did burn, but by reducing the fuels built up there, they were able to bring the fire down to a manageable level where firefighters could help get things under control there.
I’ve read the argument that when you thin a forest, more sunlight hits the forest floor, which facilitates the growth of more vegetation that could become more fuel for fires. What’s your take there?
I'm not like a scientific expert on that side of things, but I’ll share some of my anecdotes and experiences in Montana. If we want trees to grow bigger and get to an older growth stage—acknowledging there are so many differences between a lodgepole pine forest and other types of forests and all those sorts of intricacies—they need to have this space—and subsequently the sunlight—reaching them to grow.
There's a really compelling example just south of Bozeman where the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Forest Service have started doing some really proactive restoration work to try and reduce wildfire risk.
You go kind of through that landscape for about a mile or so, and you look around and there are so many dead trees and toppled over trees and some shrubs. It's so dense. There's not a lot of light reaching the floor. There are no grasses. It doesn't look good. The trees are fairly scrawny. There's not a lot of green leaf growth and things like that.
Then you're able to get up a little higher and you cross into where the Forest Service has done some work. You can tell that some machinery had been up there. It looked kind of shocking, but now things are starting to grow back. There's lots of greenery, there's lots of growth. It feels like the trees have been able to reach their leaves out and get some sunlight. It looks amazing.
But I do think you're also right: you can't just do restoration work once and then never come back and touch it.
We can't just go in and manage our forest once and expect nothing to happen. We have to kind of continually upkeep these things. We can't just say, great, we did that 40 years ago and then expect everything to be fine.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing…
Calling all fans of margaritas, mezcal, tequila and tacos: The 2023 Northwest Margarita Fest—organized by BSCH alum Tony Montoya—takes place this Saturday, July 8, from 1-7PM in Caras Park in Missoula. See you there!
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.
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