Controlled burning may become an accepted and adopted restoration practice

Controlled burning may become both an accepted and adopted restoration practice

Timely and targeted use of fire to reset the ecological clock for a natural landscape area has been a desire for ecologists for many years. Controlled burning can play a critical role in maintaining certain habitats that were previously prone to lightning-initiated fires or were set intentionally by Native Americans to improve hunting grounds. Fire can suppress or kill invasive species, the heat and smoke can assist in seed germination, and removal of ground litter can favor rare ephemerals and other herbaceous species.

Native Americans used fire to keep the Serpentine barrens in Pennsylvania open for hunting
Native Americans used fire to keep the Serpentine barrens in Pennsylvania open for hunting

In a ground-breaking study, the U.S. Forest Service seems poised to adopt controlled burning on an incomprehensible scale – 9.5 million acres, which is about a 1/3 the size of Pennsylvania.

More than 11 million acres of dry forest in Oregon and Washington are in need of restoration, according to a new study reported Monday by scientists for The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Forest Ecology and Management, is a comprehensive, data-driven analysis of where, how much and what kind of activities are needed across the fire-adapted forest landscape of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and southwestern Oregon to restore ecological processes.

A team of ecologists from The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service Region 6 found that:

The scale of restoration need is big. About 40% of all forests within the study, 11.8 million acres including federal, state, and private forests, are in need of restoration. Restoration can include disturbances such as thinning and burning and-or time to grow larger and older trees.

Restoration thinning and burning are immediately needed on about 9.5 million acres.

Thinning and burning alone cannot restore our forests. Following thinning and burning 5.7 million acres will subsequently need time to grow larger, older trees.

An additional 2.3 million acres of forest land do not require disturbance now, but simply need time to grow larger, older trees.

Restoration needs vary greatly with vegetation type and landscape context.

Ongoing maintenance, such as the use of regular controlled burns, will also be necessary to sustain healthy, resilient forests.

controlled burn
Controlled burn in a warm season grassland

To be effective, restoration efforts must be regional in scale and collaborative across governments, agencies and land owners.

The study builds on earlier, separate work by each organization and brings together analysis of federal, state, tribal and privately owned fire-adapted forest lands in the two states.

“Healthy forests provide clean air and water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, timber and jobs,” said Ryan Haugo, a Nature Conservancy forest ecologist and the lead author. “This study provides a broad, landscape perspective on extensive forest restoration needs.”

“This study demonstrates the urgent need for forest restoration and supports the current emphasis by the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and other partners to significantly increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in the dry forests of Oregon and Washington through ongoing and enhanced coordination across governments, agencies and landowners,” said Mark Stern, forest program director for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon and one of the study’s co-authors.

“With this effort, we are pleased to be moving forward with a better understanding of landscape ecology through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and other partners, “ said Tom DeMeo, a regional ecologist for the Forest Service and one of the co-authors. “Such cooperation will be essential to address the restoration needs and challenges of our common landscapes.”

The full study is available here.