More than 9 million acres of forest in Washington and Oregon should be selectively logged and burned to make the remaining trees more resistant to wildfire, disease and drought, according to a new study by the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.
The study looked at forests in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Southwest Oregon across federal, state, tribal and private ownerships. About 40 percent of those forests are experiencing conditions outside of their historic range, it concluded.
Over the past decade, massive forest fires and tree mortality from insects have drawn attention to crowded and unhealthy forests in the West.
“There’s a huge interest in the health of our forests today,” said Ryan Haugo, The Nature Conservancy’s senior forest ecologist and lead author of the report, recently published in the Forest Ecology and Management journal. “People want to protect those values that we depend on forests for – clean water, fish and wildlife, recreation and timber.”
Haugo said the report offers the first comprehensive look at how much and what types of restoration are needed in Washington’s and Oregon’s dry forest ecosystems.
Overstocked stands of trees emerged as the most common problem. About 9.5 million acres of forest should be thinned, then burned to reintroduce fire to the landscape, the study said.
Other areas, however, don’t have enough large, old trees. Nearly 6 million acres should be set aside after thinning and burning to develop old-growth forest characteristics. Another 2 million acres don’t need treatment, but should simply be given time to grow bigger trees, the report said.
“Large, old trees resist fires and provide extremely important wildlife habitat,” Haugo said. “We need to both burn and thin the forest today, and allow fire- and drought-resistant trees to regrow.”
That’s particularly true in northeast Washington, which was identified as a high-risk area in the study. Severe fires in the early 1900s left the area without much old growth, said Tom DeMeo, regional ecologist for the Forest Service. Dense stands of small trees dominate large areas of the forest.
Information from the study is already being used by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which recently finished a report to the Legislature on the condition of state forestlands east of the Cascades.
Over the past five years, agencies and large landowners have logged and thinned about 145,000 acres annually in Eastern Washington to improve forest health. About 18,000 acres of controlled burns are set each year.
But the restoration efforts aren’t keeping up with the number of acres that need to be treated, the DNR report said. Improving the markets for small-diameter logs could help recover some of the costs, making the work more viable. Money for restoration isn’t addressed in the Forest Service/Nature Conservancy study. For cash-strapped state and federal agencies, funding is a limiting factor in getting the work done, said DeMeo, the Forest Service ecologist. But the report provides a road map of where the region should be heading.
“It’s one tool in making the case for increased restoration funding,” DeMeo said.