Catastrophic fires that destroy everything in their path are an escalating threat in the forests of North Idaho, according to a new scientific assessment.
Changes in tree species in North Idaho and Montana forests have led to vastly greater risk of so-called “stand-replacing” fires - fires that burn so hot that they kill all the trees.
“When Mother Nature flicks a match in there, you get fires like you never saw before,” Steve Mealey, project manager for the Upper Columbia River Basin EIS Project, told the Idaho Land Board Tuesday.
Mealey heads a team that’s working to develop an environmental impact statement for a huge swath of the Columbia River Basin, from Idaho to the Continental Divide.
Mealey said the data don’t suggest that more acres of forests will burn, but that the type of fire will be much more destructive.
Historically, Inland Northwest forests were dominated by the western white pine, a species of tree whose growth patterns made it highly fire-resistant. The white pine also didn’t care for shade.
As a result, small fires that moved through forests cleared out undergrowth but didn’t affect the tall, stately pines, which grew in open, parklike stands.
Around the turn of the century, settlers in the area imported ornamental shrubs from France that carried a disease: white pine blister rust. Despite attempts to eradicate the rust, it instead all but eradicated the white pines. Heavy logging of the valuable trees didn’t help.
The pines were replaced by fir trees, which are unaffected by the blister rust. But they also grow thickly in shade, and are vulnerable to fire, insects and their own disease, root rot.
The combination of those changes with suppression of small fires over the years has left the region with forests that are choked with fir trees, many of them dead or dying of root rot and prime candidates for fire.
“That has huge implications,” Mealey told the Land Board. “We’ve essentially converted the forest.”
Catastrophic forest fires mean the loss of valuable trees and wildlife habitat, plus threats to people who live in or near forests.
The study will identify ways to fix the problems, from cutting fir trees and planting pines - scientists have now developed white pines that are resistant to blister rust - to controlled fires in the woods. A draft of the huge study will be released, possibly in August, for 90 days of public comment.
Joe Hinson of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association said the timber industry is nervous about the study, but agrees with the findings about the changes in North Idaho’s forests.
“You can see it out on the ground,” he said.
Although the study could end up sanctioning more logging, Hinson said his group is reserving judgment. “There’s an awful lot that we just don’t know about that project and how it’s going to play out.”
They’re not alone.
“We don’t get any fan mail,” Mealey said.
Partly because the project is so big, it’s generated fears that it will dictate to local forest officials or interfere with private property rights. Its twin goals are to restore and maintain ecosystems, and support people’s economic and social needs. It includes a study in Oregon and Washington that’s similar to Mealey’s.
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt nearly got the funding for the project cut off a year ago. But after Nethercutt gained an assurance that the project wouldn’t affect private property rights, the funding was restored.
That didn’t change the project, Mealey said. It only affects federal lands.
Mealey, a 54-year-old former Boise National Forest chief who wears cowboy boots with his western-style suit, said the project will identify broad aims, like replacing the fir trees with pines, but will leave the details to local forest managers.
“That was one of the fears people had - a bunch of jerks here in Boise would somehow write local standards for folks up in the Kootenai. That’s not the case.”
The Land Board was receptive to Mealey’s presentation, especially when he told them that state lands could serve as a model for how to manage forests right. But Mealey didn’t sugarcoat the study’s findings.
“We’ve got big-time problems in our forests in North Idaho,” he said.