Fire is a fact of life in the West, but the fire season is now 80 days longer than in the 1970’s and summers are hotter and drier. Fire suppression has led to accumulations of small and medium-sized trees, making wildfires harder to control and more damaging to the land and adjacent communities.
Over several decades, the Forest Service was unable to get funding for forest-watershed restoration efforts. Further, funds allocated for restoration were diverted to fighting wildfires. And with little work being done on our National Forests, adjacent communities suffered as forest activity diminished.
Alarmed by these trends, a diverse group of private and not-for-profit interests came together forming the Payette Forest Coalition (PFC). Despite different backgrounds, our group found a shared interest in reducing uncharacteristic wildfires; improving wildlife habitat, water quality and watershed health; enhancing recreational access; and supporting the economies of local communities.
The PFC has supported treatments like thinning of forest stands to remove “ladder fuels” growing underneath large legacy trees, and seasonal prescribed burning. The forest products industry is now outfitted to remove smaller trees, no longer depending on large-diameter trees favored by sensitive wildlife. Their employees are now part of a restoration workforce improving forest health.
This collaborative effort has helped the Payette National Forest craft several landscape-level restoration projects on over 119,000 acres to date. Treatments include reducing hazardous fuels on 24,000 acres surrounding communities, providing maintenance on 1,200 miles of roads, restoring 160 miles of stream habitat, and re-engineering 18 stream crossings for bull trout. The local mill added an extra shift to accommodate this work.
As if these results weren’t telling enough, the “proof in the pudding” became clear this summer. When the Mesa Fire roared up onto the Payette National Forest from private property last month, it hit one of these collaboratively developed treatment areas. Fire managers report that the fire dropped down to the ground into a more manageable, low severity fire, as hoped.
However, regarding the work on another collaboratively shaped project, a recent court ruling found the Forest Service failed to follow its Forest Plan for the Lost Creek Boulder Creek Restoration Project (LCBC). Of course, the Forest Service needs to follow its own regulations and address any deficiencies. However, let’s be clear what NOT doing this work means while the courts continue to deliberate: without prescribed burns and noncommercial thinning at least 40,000 acres remain at risk of mortality from insect, disease and fire; 25 culverts will not be replaced (to the detriment of bull trout); and 55 million board feet of logs will not be manufactured into wood products while maintaining the approximately 1100 associated jobs. Projects like LCBC are crucial to reducing the impacts by the “new normal” of fires. This is why PFC will continue to work with the agency and other stakeholders to restore our forests and watersheds, and get this important work done on the ground faster.
Submitted on behalf of the Payette Forest Coalition Steering Team,