13 Nov 2007, 10:48pm
by admin

Covington Testimony July 16, 2002

Testimony of Dr. William Wallace Covington, regarding the Wildland Firefighting and National Fire Plan, before the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Chairman Bingaman, and members of the Committee, thank you for this opportunity to testify on a subject of personal importance to me and of critical importance to the health of our nation’s forests and the people and communities that live within them.

My name is Wallace Covington. I am Regents’ Professor of Forest Ecology at Northern Arizona University and Director of the Ecological Restoration Institute. I have been a professor teaching and researching fire ecology and restoration management at NAU since 1975. I chair Arizona Governor Jane Dee Hull’s Forest Health/Fire Plan Advisory Committee and am a member of the National Commission on Science for Sustainable Forestry.

I have a Ph.D. in forest ecosystem analysis from Yale University and an M.S. in ecology from the University of New Mexico. Over the past 27 years I have taught graduate and undergraduate courses in research methods, ecological restoration, ecosystem management, fire ecology and management, forest management, range management, wildlife management, watershed management, recreation management, park and wildland management, and forest operations research. I have been working in long-term research on fire ecology and management in ponderosa pine and related ecosystems since I moved to Northern Arizona University in 1975. In addition to my publications on forest restoration, I have co-authored scientific papers on a broad variety of topics in forest ecology and resource management including research on fire effects, prescribed burning, thinning, operations research, silviculture, range management, wildlife effects, multiresource management, forest health, and natural resource conservation.

My testimony will focus on the implementation of the National Fire Plan and the urgent need to increase the pace and size of forest restoration treatments to reverse the trend of increasing catastrophic wildfires. I will outline a three-step approach to help achieve this goal…

It is an unfortunate set of circumstances that have led to this hearing. Scientists have predicted the current forest crisis for the last 75 years. In 1994 I was senior author on a review paper in which I stated that we could anticipate exponential increases in the severity and extent of catastrophic fire. It is not a prediction I ever wanted to come true. In that same paper, I also suggested that we have a narrow window of 15-30 years to take preventative actions to restore forest health, minimize the loss of civilian and firefighter lives, and the mounting damage to our nation’s natural resources.

Although scientists have long foreseen the increase in fire size and severity in ponderosa pine ecosystems, the scale of the fires we have seen so far this year is staggering. Years of neglect are coming home to roost. The Rodeo/Chediski fire in Arizona consumed 469,000 acres and is Arizona’s largest wildfire to date. Prior to the 1960s a fifty-acre crown fire was considered a “large fire”. In addition, the fire behavior these fires are exhibiting make suppression efforts exceptionally challenging—demonstrating that there are limits to our ability to fight them. The Heyman Fire in Colorado and the Rodeo/Chediski Fire in Arizona are major wakeup calls to all of us.

Clearly, we have to do something quickly on a larger scale to reverse the trend of exponentially increasing fire suppression costs, increases in fire severity, and destruction of what should be a healthy legacy for future generations. Thus far, the National Fire Plan has not resulted in the implementation of large-scale, comprehensive restoration treatments that are required to prevent catastrophic fire. In addition, implementation must focus on the greater landscape as well as the wildland/urban interface to achieve success.

Why forest restoration treatments work

We have been in open revolt against nature in the dry forests of the West since settlement. It is time to start managing in harmony with natural tendencies. Science-based forest restoration treatments are consistent with natural tendencies. Comprehensive restoration is superior to forest thinning alone for one significant reason—restoration treatments simultaneously improve forest health (the underlying cause of catastrophic fire) while reducing fire risk. Restoration treatments permit the safe reintroduction of fire and present a long-term strategy for fixing forests.

Research across the Intermountain West has shown that restoration treatments substantially reduce fire hazard by thinning trees to decrease tree canopy density, break up interconnected canopy fuels, raise the crown base height (the distance from the ground to the crown), and then reduce accumulated forest floor fuels and debris with prescribed fire. Fire alone in the unnaturally dense forests that dominate so much of the West today is inadequate. Without thinning, prescribed burning is an exceedingly dangerous way to get the amount of thinning done that is needed and it can lead to increased mortality, especially among old growth trees. Furthermore, the probability of a prescribed fire escaping its planned burn area are increasingly likely as fuels continue to accumulate.

There is abundant scientific research that began in the 1890’s and continues today that provides a sound scientific framework for implementing the science and practice of restoration. We have solid information about forest conditions prior to Euro-American settlement, changes in fire regimes over the last century, deterioration of overall ecosystem health, and ecological responses to thinning and prescribed burning—the key elements of any attempt to restore ecosystem health in ponderosa pine and related ecosystems. We know that current overcrowded stands of trees do not sustain the diversity of wildlife and plants that existed a century ago. We know this by examining the data of early naturalists and scientists. We also know this to be true from primary research. Scientists that have compared biological diversity of overstocked stands—stands that have had decades of fire exclusion-with open, park-like stands that have not had severe fire regime disruption, have found greater plant diversity, greater insect diversity, and greater bird diversity. Similar studies have also found greater old-growth tree vigor and resistance to insect attack in open, park-like stands—stands similar to those present before settlement. We also know that stopping ecologically based forest restoration that includes thinning, is not saving the forest as some would like you to believe, but only contributing to its demise and causing severe losses to the wealth of species that depend on it…

I have been advocating forest restoration over the past 20 years, but my sense of urgency has greatly increased. We need to break the logjam that impedes progress. A logjam that is rooted in distrust, personal preferences and a legal process (NEPA) that should contribute to the design of solutions but is sometimes used to obstruct them. I believe that with thoughtful action, adequate resources and public and private leadership we can solve this logjam and emerge victorious from our current crisis. The three key steps are:

1. DESIGN TREATMENTS STARTING WITH SOLID SCIENCE AND SET STANDARDS FOR EFFECTIVENESS. Ideological issues have been impediments to advancing treatments. Research to date indicates that alternative fuel reduction treatments (e.g., diameter caps for thinning) have strikingly different consequences not just for fire behavior but also for biodiversity, wildlife habitat, tree vigor and forest health. Treatment design should be based on what the forest requires to maintain health and reduce catastrophic fire. Science-based guidelines should be developed and become the foundation for treatments. In addition, they should be the criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of treatments. Guidelines will help guide managers and provide a base of certainty to those that are distrustful of land management agencies. The standard should be clear—if a treatment does not permit the safe reintroduction of fire and simultaneously facilitate the restoration of the forest it is not a solution.

2. REDUCE CONFLICT BY USING AN ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORK TO DESIGN AND IMPLEMENT A SERIES OF TREATMENTS. We can wait no longer. Solutions to catastrophic wildfire must be tested and refined in a “learning while doing” mode. Two of the barriers preventing the implementation of landscape scale treatments are the unrealistic desire for scientific certainty and a fear that once an action is selected it becomes a permanent precedent for future management. Scientific certainty will never exist and the past century of forest management demonstrates the need for applied research and active adaptation of management approaches using current knowledge. We should expand our environmental review process to provide approval of a series of iterative treatments, provided they are science based, actively monitored and committed to building from lessons learned and new information.

3. REBUILD PUBLIC TRUST IN LAND MANAGEMENT AGENCIES. SUPPORT A BROAD VARIETY OF PARTNERSHIP APPROACHES FOR PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTING RESTORATION-BASED FUEL TREATMENTS. The lack of trust that exists between some members of the public and land management agencies is the genesis for obstructionist actions. The only way to rebuild trust is to develop meaningful collaborations between the agencies, communities and the public. There are emerging models of various forms of collaborative partnerships working to reduce the threat of fire while restoring the forest for its full suite of values. Their success depends on respectful community collaboration, human and financial resources and adequate scientific support to make well informed management decisions. Congress, federal agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations must support these communities to help them achieve success. STEP ONE: DESIGN TREATMENTS STARTING WITH SOLID SCIENCE AND SET STANDARDS FOR EFFECTIVENESS

If we wanted to destroy our ponderosa pine forest landscapes, we could hardly come up with a more devastating plan than what we have done and continue to do—make a series of management mistakes and then engage in lengthy ideological debates instead of rolling up our sleeves and working to solve the problem. The fires of this year, and the past several decades, have forged a consensus that the problem of catastrophic wildfire is severe. Almost everyone agrees that restoration is the most scientifically rigorous and environmentally and economically reasonable way to proceed. Nonetheless, there is a lot of poorly informed speculation about how it should be applied, by activists, members of the lay public, and even some within the academic community. Some of the arguments are founded on differences of opinion about desirable ecological conditions for western forestlands. Others stem from differences of opinion about whether public lands should be used for consumptive resource use, especially by wood products or grazing interests, or for individual uses and/or non-consumptive uses.

We are now at the point where we must move beyond ideologically based rhetoric to apply restoration fuel treatments in such a way that we can simultaneously work to solve fire problems and restore ecosystem health.

We have a solid body of scientific information to design and test large-scale forest restoration that will protect people, communities and the forest. This knowledge should be synthesized into management guidelines that are scientifically solid and immediately useful to managers and others who want to work to solve the crownfire problems of the West…

We are at a fork in the road. Down one fork lies burned out, depauperate landscapes—landscapes that are a liability for future generations. Down the other fork lies health, diverse, sustaining landscapes—landscapes that will bring multiple benefits for generations to come. Inaction is taking, and will continue to take, us down the path to unhealthy landscapes, costly to manage. Scientifically-based forest restoration treatments, including thinning and prescribed burning, will set us on the path to healthy landscapes, landscapes like the early settlers and explorer saw in the late 1800s.

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