Guest opinion: Poor forest maintenance is a crisis; Romney fire plan could be ‘game changer’

December 3, 2015, was my final National Leadership Council meeting with the US Forest Service in Washington, D.C. Chief Tom Tidwell spoke forcefully and eloquently about the need for immediate change in the way wildland fires are managed, and he concluded by saying, “I do not care what it takes, we will not have another year like we had in 2015.”

While he highlighted first and foremost the tragedy of firefighter fatalities, the idea that aggressive forest management equates to effective fire management was also obvious in his words. At that meeting, the next 100 years of conservation were discussed, with the creation of more resistant, resilient landscapes as benchmarks of success. “Now is our time,” Chief Tidwell declared.

Soon it will be six years since that important meeting. Looking back, not much seems to have changed. The country cannot wait any longer. The 2020 fire season is far from over, and already more than 8.2 million acres have burned. I predict about 10 million acres will burn before the fire season ends.

Six of the 20 largest wildfires in modern California history have been this year. The Oregon towns of Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix, and Talent have been “substantially destroyed.” People have died, along with countless wildlife and domestic animals. Stories of loss and grief are gut-wrenching.

Enough is enough.

Recently, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has proposed the “Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2020.”  This could be the “game changer” we are looking for.

Call to action. In 2018, I organized my thoughts on the same topic into a document I refer to as a Call to Action — to address this national crisis. That is, the lack of healthy, resilient forests and other wildlands, and the associated large, high-intensity wildfires that destroy everything in their paths. The mantra is simple: Sound forest maintenance ensures effective fire management. As of October 19, 2020, almost 4,000 people had signed on.

The current “Call to Action” lists 10 priorities for the current wildfire season that recognize that the ultimate goal is still enhanced forest maintenance that reduces wildfire size and intensity, but also acknowledge that “[2020] is a very different year and things need to be done very differently.  Senator Romney’s proposal will be an incredible addition.

Action Items. The call to action includes five main sections:

  *   National commitment
  *   Statement of intent
  *   Vision
  *   Strategy
  *   10-year plan of work

The national commitment would be a declaration by federal, state, and local governments to maintain America’s forests so that the number of large, destructive wildfires is reduced. The statement of intent announces the nature of a long-term campaign and critical leadership to support the national commitment.

The vision. Ensure that America’s forests are healthy, sustainable, and more resilient to disturbances in order to protect people, landscapes, and communities from the destruction of large, high-intensity wildfires. The strategy includes two guiding documents: The Forest Service’s Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes: An Outcome-Based Investment Strategy and the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

Additional investments are key. In the mid-1990s, about 16 percent of the Forest Service budget went toward the fire effort. It is now more than one-half. If the 2021 proposed budget prevails, that figure will approach 70 percent. The need for additional resources to increase forest maintenance cannot be overstated. A funding gap has been created, and it’s never been closed.

Another key point that must be highlighted: Any additional investments must include innovative biomass uses. Recently, biomass innovators have turned to solutions that offer opportunities for high-volume, high-value markets for lower-quality wood [i.e., hazardous fuels]. For example, wood-based nanotechnology offers a revolutionary opportunity to create new jobs and strengthen America’s forest-based economy. Applications include structural composite panels for construction, flexible electronic displays, and automotive parts.

It is estimated that these kinds of innovative uses of biomass could reduce future fire-suppression costs in the range of 12-15 percent [some say as high as 23 percent]. In terms of recent fire-suppression expenditures, this represents an annual savings exceeding $1 billion!

Please read the full current call to action at tinyurl.com/y4aoust8 and consider adding your name to the growing number of supporters.

Michael T. Rains became a private consultant after retiring in 2016 after a 48-year career with the US Forest Service, where he served as deputy chief and director of major field units in science and technology transfer. Rains began his professional career as a wildland firefighter in California in the mid-1960s. He is coauthor, with Tom Harbour, of “Restoring Fire as a Landscape Conservation Tool: Nontraditional Thoughts for a Traditional Organization,” in 193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and More Resilient US Forest Service, published by SAF in 2018.