The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service (USFS) recently announced a new strategy for managing the impacts of catastrophic wildfires and the impacts of invasive species, drought, and insect and disease epidemics.
The strategy is outlined in a report titled, “Toward Shared Stewardship across Landscapes: An Outcome-Based Investment Strategy.” The report explains that concerns continue to grow amidst longer fire seasons, the rising size and severity of those fires and the expanding risks to communities, natural resources and the safety of firefighters. Taking those factors into account, the report states, “We are rethinking our approach to land management. We will work closely with states to set landscape-scale priorities for targeted treatments in areas of highest payoff.”
In announcing the plan, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue referenced the wildfires burning in California this year and the losses he witnessed in a recent trip to that state. “I saw the devastation that these unprecedented wildfires are having on our neighbors, friends and families.” He added, “We commit to work more closely with the states to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires. We commit to strengthening the stewardship of public and private lands. This report outlines our strategy and intent to help one another prevent wildfire from reaching this level.”
Work done through the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), included in the 2014 Farm Bill, has allowed the USFS to make strides in cross-boundary work with states. In fact, as of June 2018, 163 GNA agreements on 59 national forests in 25 states had been signed to complete a variety of restoration activities. Additionally, the report said the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill further expanded the GNA and other authorities, allowing the agencies to do more work across boundaries.
Although fire mitigation efforts have been ongoing, the report notes catastrophic wildfire and the loss of lives, homes, and natural resources have continued to grow “partly because our treatments have been uncoordinated and not at the right scale. Although locally successful, we have rarely succeeded at the scale needed for lasting impacts across landscapes.”
The USFS outlined its seven-step concept of activities for an outcome-based investment strategy:
• Working with states to co-manage risk across broad landscapes;
• Using new scenario investment planning tools for targeted investments;
• Focusing work on broad outcomes;
• Capitalizing on the authorities created by recent legislation;
• Changing the USFS’ own internal processes to get more work done on the ground;
• Using a full suite of active management tools including the right kind of fire at the right times and in the right places; and
• Applying a risk-based response to wildfire.
A key component of the new strategy is to prioritize investment decisions on forest treatments in direct coordination with states using the most advanced science tools. This allows the USFS to increase the scope and scale of critical forest treatments that protect communities and create resilient forests.
The report discusses fuel build-ups often in overgrown ponderosa pine forests (areas of fire exclusion) that may require the use of mechanical removal of trees and brush, followed by prescribed burns. It points out, “To diminish the fire deficit and thereby mitigate fire risk, the Forest Service and partners will need to step up the use of prescribed fires and managed wildfires in concert with timber sales and mechanical treatments.”
The effects of fire exclusion can be called a “fire deficit,” which can vary depending on many factors. The fire deficit is the difference between the historical rate of burning and the current rate of fire frequency (whether wildfire or prescribed fire) plus mechanical treatments.
Shared stewardship, as the report’s name implies, is discussed throughout the 24-page report, which explains the outcome-based strategy has three core elements:
• Determining management needs on a state level. USDA and USFS will prioritize stewardship decisions directly with the states, setting priorities together and combining mutual skills and assets to achieve cross-boundary outcomes desired by all.
• Doing the right work in the right places at the right scale. The agencies will use new mapping and decision tools to locate treatments where they can do the most good, thereby protecting communities, watersheds, and economies where the risks are greatest.
• Using all available tools for active management. The agencies will use every authority and tool they have to do more work on the ground, including timber sales, mechanical treatments, and carefully managed fire, working with partners and stakeholders to choose the right tools.
“The challenges before us require a new approach,” said Interim USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to mitigate and to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them.” — Rae Price, WLJ editor