A study published in the June issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is the first to analyze recent federal strategies to restore forests on western U.S. forestlands. Tania Schoennagel of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Cara Nelson of the University of Montana evaluated treatments implemented under the U.S. National Fire Plan (NFP); activities included removing trees, shrubs, grasses and litter with the goal of either protecting communities from wildfires or restoring open forests and low-severity fire.
They found that 43 percent of forest area treated away from communities fell within forest types predicted to have a clear restoration need. For example, almost one-quarter of the total area treated was concentrated in ponderosa pine woodlands -- the archetypal forest for restoration. Most of the area treated in Arizona, New Mexico, California and Arizona was in forest types predicted to have high restoration need. However, 14 percent of treated areas occurred in locations where the restoration need was predicted to be low, while 43 percent of treated areas occurred where restoration need was predicted to be either variable or unknown.
As other researchers have noted, restoration is needed in areas such as ponderosa pine-dominated forests where past grazing and fire suppression has increased tree density and raised the risk of uncharacteristic high-severity fires. But forest types that are naturally dense and in which high-severity fires are the norm, fuel restoration treatments are unwarranted.
Only one percent of the West's forested area that lies away from communities was treated under the NFP from 2004 to 2008. The authors note that, given the low proportion of forest area treated and the low chance of such treatments subsequently burning during the treatment lifespan, it is imperative that treatments confer ecological benefits regardless of subsequent wildfires. In addition, Schoennagel and Nelson conclude: "Although restorative fuel reduction will be needed in many ecosystems, we recommend that future policies move beyond an almost exclusive focus on fuels and explicitly consider climate and an expanding WUI [Wildland-Urban Interface] as important drivers of increasing wildfire risk in the western U.S."
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