8 Aug 2009, 6:02pm
Saving Forests
by admin

The Benefits of Forest Restoration

Forest restoration is beneficial in numerous ways. The following outline describes these in general.

1. Heritage and history

To restore means to return to a former or original state. In the case of forests, restoration requires knowledge of and respect for forest history as a starting point. Forest restoration looks to pre-Contact forest conditions as a guideline.

Many (if not most) North American forests were at one time (prior to ~120 years ago) open and park-like, with widely spaced, large, old trees. Forests were conditioned to be that way by frequent, non-stand-replacing, anthropogenic fires. Historical human features included village sites; sacred and ceremonial sites; hunting, gathering, agricultural and proto-agricultural fields; extensive trail networks:; prairies and savannas; and other features induced and maintained by ancient human tending through the use of traditional ecological knowledge.

Forest restoration, properly researched, designed, and implemented, restores, protects, and perpetuates many of the heritage features of forested landscapes.

2. Ecological functions including old-growth development

Our old-growth trees arose under much different conditions than today. The forest development pathways of pre-Contact eras were not punctuated by catastrophic stand-replacing fires but instead were the outcomes of frequent, seasonal, light-burning fires in open, park-like forests. Those fires were largely anthropogenic (human-set by the indigenous residents). Because the fires of historic eras were frequent and seasonal, they gently removed fuels without killing all the trees. The widely-spaced trees thus survived repeated burning and grew to very old ages.

As more and more forests have been investigated for actual age distribution, it has been discovered that “old-growth” forests, are not even-aged. Instead, many (if not most) older forests are distinctly multi-cohort. That is, forests often have two or more widely divergent age classes of trees. This fact tends to disprove the “stand replacement fire” theory, at least in regards to older forests. Their development pathways must have been different than that. It is now widely concluded that many (if not most) North American forests were at one time (120 to 500 years ago) open and park-like with widely spaced, large, old trees, and that forests were conditioned to be that way by frequent, anthropogenic fires. That is, the actual historical forest development pathways for many (if not most) of our forests involved frequent, light-burning fires, not stand-replacing fire.

Restoration forestry seeks to restore, maintain, and perpetuate historical forest development pathways that engender old-growth trees.

3. Fire resiliency and the reduction of catastrophic fires

Modern fires in dense thickets, untempered by frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fires, cause total tree mortality. No trees survive the infrequent holocausts, and so no trees attain old-growth status. In fact, modern fires routinely kill old-growth trees that withstood multiple fires in bygone eras. Modern fires, burning in dense, build-up fuel conditions, are severe and often convert heritage forests to more or less permanent brush fields.

By restoring thicket forests to their historical norm of open, park-like conditions, and in addition by restoring historical anthropogenic fire regimes, forests can be saved from catastrophic incineration and conversion to brush.

Forest restoration also seeks to restore, maintain, and perpetuate the historical patterns of prairies (meadows), and savannas (woodlands) that existed prior to Euro-American occupation. Those landscape features aid in control of wildfires and thus reduce the potential for catastrophic megafires.

4. Watershed functions

In the West, water is the most valuable and important commodity produced by our forests. Catastrophic fires can severely impact water production through direct pollution of waterways, soil degradation, and post-fire erosion and sedimentation.

Through the maintenance of continual vegetative cover, and at the same time the near elimination of catastrophic fire, forest restoration protects, maintains, and perpetuates beneficial hydrologic functions including safeguarding soils and providing water of quality and quantity (by reducing flash flooding and extreme winter runoff and increasing minimum flows in late summer).

5. Wildlife habitat

The dense forest thickets that have arisen following the elimination of traditional anthropogenic fire have minimal wildlife diversity. Further, the fuel-laden conditions invite severe fires that eliminate old-growth and impact populations old-growth associated wildlife species, such as Northern Spotted Owls.

It is now recognized by a wide spectrum of forest scientists and wildlife ecologists that uncharacteristic fuel loadings lead to catastrophic disturbance events and those severe disturbances are detrimental to the protection of listed threatened and endangered species.

Restoration forestry is an active management program that is sensitive to and protective of a diversity of wildlife, including listed species and their preferred habitats.

6. Public health and safety

Severe fires produce unhealthy amounts of smoke with particulates and gases that cause respiratory distress in communities far from the actual fires. Severe fires also are difficult to contain and control. They often escape from public forests and burn ranches, farms, homes, and commercial properties, sometimes invading cities dozens of miles away from ignition points.

Forest restoration removes uncharacteristic and a-historical fuel build-up and promotes light-burning ground fires instead of severe canopy fires. Fires in restored forests produce less smoke over shorter durations and are easier to contain and control. Thus forest restoration mitigates public health and safety hazards.

7. Biomass energy

Fuels removed through restoration forestry treatments may be transported to biomass energy facilities. There they can produce clean and renewable energy rather than going to waste (and devastation) in catastrophic wildfires.

8. Carbon sequestration

Carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires amount to more than half of all human-caused emissions in most Western states in most years. Forest restoration reduces catastrophic fire and thereby reduces CO2 emissions, potential and actual. To the extent that biomass removed from forests is converted to wood products, that carbon is sequestered long-term (for the life of the product).

9. Jobs and the economy

Forest restoration is active management that produces jobs in the woods and in various mills and facilities. Forest-dependent and compatible industries such as recreation also benefit. The reduction in cost-plus-loss from catastrophic forest fires also indemnifies local and regional economies. Economic multiplier effects expand the plethora of beneficial economic impacts, including tax revenues. Forest restoration pays for itself many times over.


There are more specific benefits from restoration forestry that are not mentioned above but are covered by the general categories listed. Scenery, for instance, is protected and enhanced by forest restoration. Scenery might be generally included in recreation values mentioned in Jobs and the economy or in Fire resiliency.

We have attempted to list the main benefits of forest restoration in a short and concise manner. Longer explications are available, either online at W.I.S.E. or in our extensive forest restoration database. Requests for that information are appreciated and granted with alacrity.

9 Aug 2009, 12:12am
by Chris L.

In theory, everything you say is correct, but forest restoration has major problems in practice. First of all, forest restoration is somewhat theoretical. Consider the following: forestry in the US is only about 100 years old and for the great majority of that time, forestry was all about maximizing timber harvest. There’s a lot of talk about restoring forests to their pre-supression structure, but it hasn’t been done for very long. Restoration forestry certainly hasn’t been performed long enough for us to know whether it creates forests that are more resilient to fire. And that’s only one aspect of forest restoration — in some ways we will never know if forest restoration really “works.”

But the second problem with forest restoration is much more serious. Forest restoration is damned expensive! Forest restoration isn’t simply logging, it’s completely changing the forest. Ordinary logging involves merely cutting down trees and removing the trunks. Forest restoration requires eliminating the branches of those trees and much of the undergrowth. Sometimes that can be done with prescribed fire, but otherwise heavy equipment must be brought in. (And prescribed fire isn’t cheap either).

In one forest restoration project near a luxury community in southern California, the Forest Service spent $13,000 per acre. That’s the high end. Some projects in Oregon have been completed for only a few hundred, but those projects left the branches and the undergrowth intact. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that you can do a good forest restoration project for $500/acre. Problem is, there are close to 100 MILLION acres of forests in this country that are out of whack. At $500/acre, we’ll need $50 BILLION to restore all of that land.

And that’s just the cost of the restoration. Before you even get to restoration, you’ve gotta pay the agencies to plan it, to conduct NEPA, to write the contracts, and to monitor it after it’s done. Even if you had the money, what about the 35% of forest service land in roadless areas? Are we gonna build a roads to all of those locations that somehow, an organization that was all about building roads, never got around to building?

And what about the wilderness? The Forest Service is putting out over 90% of forest fires in wilderness areas (probably closer to 99%). Are we going to use restoration forestry there?

In the end, restoration forestry is a part of the solution, but it can never be more than a small part. The only real long term solution is to allow fire to work its way back into the nation’s forests and to encourage it as the indigenous people did before us.

Restoration forestry has a place near homes, along scenic highways, and in popular recreational sites. In other places, the only tool which is affordable and effective is fire.

Instead of fighting environmental groups who are afraid of chainsaws, people who care about forests need to fight those who are afraid of smoke and scary flames. They are the ones whose eyes need to be opened, for only through fire — lots and lots of it — will the forests be truly restored.

9 Aug 2009, 1:14am
by Mike

Chris, I agree with you that forest restoration is somewhat theoretical. I would add that it is a new concept (in many respects) that has not been fully researched or applied. Few people are as focused on forest restoration as I am, and I can cite only a handful of experimental applications on very few acres.

Thus we cannot leap to conclusions about the per acre costs and returns. However, while I am not familiar with the SoCal example you cite, I can point to Oregon examples that yielded positive returns of over $1,000 per acre. That is, after all costs are accounted for, the (ecologically sensitive) removal of excess biomass (which was sold to wood products manufacturers) netted positive gains, not losses.

That accounting does not include the opportunistic gains from avoiding the negative cost-plus-losses associated with catastrophic wildfire [here]. If those are factored in, the economic benefits are even greater. (Let It Burn is not free — the cost-plus-losses can be many thousands of dollars per acre.)

The environmental benefits are also significant. Catastrophic wildfire alters the forest development pathways that lead to old-growth. I have explored that issue in numerous other posts. No Touch, Let It Burn, Watch It Rot does NOT yield environmental benefits. The assumption that any and all fire is “good” for forests is unsupported; counter examples abound.

The manner in which indigenous people burned landscapes was quite different from allowing mid-summer fires to burn unchecked in unrestored, unprepared forests. Anthropogenic fire was frequent, seasonal, and located with traditional ecological knowledge. Historically, lightning fires thus occurred in landscapes pre-burned by human beings, and so they had a very different environmental effects than lightning fires of today.

These are technical issues of forest science and historical landscape geography. Forest restoration is not a political movement. It is not a “compromise” nor a “balance” between competing political factions. It is something apart from all that. Therefore, fear of “chainsaws” and/or fear of “smoke and scary flames” are not particularly germane or applicable to the discussion. Nor is “lots and lots of fire” a viable means of restoring forests.

Reread the post. Note all the categories and types of benefits that are gained from properly applied forest restoration. Unchecked fire in unprepared forests does not provide that suite of benefits. Ergo, unchecked fire is NOT the best solution and is NOT good stewardship of our priceless, heritage forests.

9 Aug 2009, 6:57am
by bear bait

There exist a couple of hundred type two fire fighting teams, private, that have annual contracts with state and federal agencies to be trained and equipped to deal with fire. That is a human resource beyond the employees of the agencies. The Feds, and the states somewhat, used to require physical fitness as a condition of employment. It takes a fit person to do hard work, physically demanding work. That is no longer the case, so the land management agencies have many, but not enough employees to put in the field to burn. There is the possibility of some sort of youth oriented conservation corps that keeps popping up from time to time as the memory of the good accomplished by the CCC is stirred. And if we quit fighting wars on several fronts, there is the National Guard. All that is the human element, not unlike the community involvement that was the basis for survival for the pre-European occupants.

To gauge weather, to assemble the burners, to supply the logistics, to have a fall burn across the largest of landscapes, the Federal West, would be huge. But that is how it once was done. When the time came, everyone dropped their other pursuits and burned. Some of the burning was NOT for forest health and management, but to burn fines to drive game for fall harvest. Copses and refuges were where men in deer heads and skins stood behind trees to kill the deer escaping to hide in the cover. Other fire was to reduce litter to make seed and acorn gathering more productive, and the ancillary result was clearing of fuels on an annual basis to some degree.

Even the early settlers used fire to keep the country in grass for livestock and game. Burning fern flats in spring and fall in the Coast Range assured that ample grass, strawberries, and other useful plants were kept on the land and the land free of trees. I actually knew a man who as a lad followed the CCC tree planters in what is now the Siuslaw National Forest, pulling out the trees they planted where his family grazed livestock. WWII made that exercise moot, as the men all went to war, and when they came back, natural seeding had turned pastures to woodlots in progress.

It is very possible to have a designated time to set fires in the late fall, and have them burn until fall rains and snowfall, when the nights are cold, frosty, and long. It is not an impossible job, and not a job that cannot be done with a lot less money than is now spent chasing mega fires that result from “fire for resource benefit” that seem to go ballistic each summer. We have a couple of Oregon beach cleaning days each year. It involves a lot of people for one day picking up trash and hauling to gathering locations, from where it is hauled to garbage dumps and recycling centers. The Feds can do the same. It just takes planning and logistical organization.

I realize all that takes money. If the true costs of fire damage were reported, which WISE has made an effort to begin to account for with their “one pager” fire cost accounting project, it will become soon apparent that the damage is far greater than the suppression costs. In light of that, a concentrated effort using contract labor and Federal planning and oversight to set fires in the fall and early spring, depending on site and fire/weather histories, would result in a vast reduction in the destruction of fire, the interruption of lives, and the societal costs of the status quo.

So I would hope the the accounting process will produce fruits, and from that will come a realization that doing things the way they are currently being done is not the enlightened way, that it takes a more studied, academic appreciation of landscape management as worked by aboriginals “to get there from here.” Throwing our collective hands in the air and saying “we can’t do it” and “it costs too much” is not how you build a better mousetrap. And are we ever in need of a better mouse trap!

The charred remains of a forest are NOT what the public wants from Wilderness. The charred remains of a forest are not in the interest of clean air, water, and environmental stability. If we can put people into outer space, we sure as hell ought to be able to plan for and accomplish a better landscape management option for those 40% of lands across this country now owned by government, which is supposed to be “us”. And it ain’t “us” who is making the decisions, many of which are dubious in intent, lack academic rigor in their defense, and are not in the long term national interest. How must our creditors feel as we incinerate our national forests because we just can’t think of a better way to manage them? How does that build confidence in socialism? How is that the way to better governance? We are the government, in theory, and we had better get off our collective ass and do a better job. And that is what Mike is harping at. We are not being responsible, working smart, or doing the job. A democracy should have better solutions than those now offered from government.

9 Aug 2009, 8:18am
by Larry H.

Speaking of cost per acre, here’s a list of fires acreages and suppression costs that blow the roof off in monetary impacts. I purposely left out all Alaska fires, as their costs are inflated due to transportation costs of fire crews.

145 ACRES $1,400,000
60 ACRES $1,630,000
6,583 ACRES $7,537,750
70 ACRES $1,500,000
3,664 ACRES $3,200,000
955 ACRES $1,900,000
170 ACRES $1,500,000
130 ACRES $1,000,000
6,324 ACRES $16,967,631
3,225 ACRES $3,950,000
643 ACRES $1,071,421
129 ACRES $1,000,000
14,454 ACRES $6,402,568
10,125 ACRES $4,400,000
1,661 ACRES $880,000
3,047 ACRES $2,968,000
3,268 ACRES $3,173,090
458 ACRES $2,900,000
6,130 ACRES $11,100,000
3,766 ACRES $1,630,000
10,549 ACRES $2,447,406
146 ACRES $1,475,000
4,025 ACRES $1,730,976
1,400 ACRES $2,600,000
23,440 ACRES $1,070,000
7,718 ACRES $1,200,000
19,400 ACRES $1,400,000
8,750 ACRES $1,109,898
801 ACRES $1,000,000
10,022 ACRES $1,404,000
9,543 ACRES $1,450,000
30,005 ACRES $2,300,000
7,794 ACRES $6,198,851

Also, those extreme costs in Southern California projects have a lot of unseen costs. Non-commercial brush treatments balloon the costs up, along with a lack of substantial merchantable timber to offset those tasks. Another big factor is the reality that those National Forests don’t have timber programs and have to “import” qualified people to come in and do the work. When I worked down there, my employer charged those Forests $66 per hour, which included motel accommodations, my truck, transportation costs and all the other costs associated with every Forest Service employee. Additionally, since those Forests have been “out of the loop” for so long and are quite unorganized, they changed their minds on many issues frequently (and paid dearly for it!) Also impacting any project that includes sawlogs is the fact that the nearest lumber mill is at least six hours away, one way!

9 Aug 2009, 4:59pm
by Larry H.

Also, Chris, National Forests here in California have been doing “whole-tree removal” in their thinning projects for many years now. You end up with HUGE mountains of slash at the landings that, sadly, are burned in place instead of being used to generate power. The biomass market here is terrible, due to ultra-cheap local agricultural biomass. Some power plants will pay for transportation costs but not much more. Without a subsidy, forest biomass just doesn’t “pay its way” out of the woods.

One solution could be to require the purchaser of the thinning project to remove all that biomass from the National Forest to generate power, while appraising costs for that and letting the sawlogs pay for that practice. Another solution could be to establish portable biomass burner sites throughout our forests, connected to the grid to supply electricity. Fuels reduction projects that restore forests to more “natural” densities is the only type of project done in California National Forests, these days.

9 Aug 2009, 5:51pm
by Mike

Or just pile and burn the slash. It is not necessary to commoditize every twig in order to make forest restoration a net benefit. Again, the avoidance of catastrophic fire that harms every forest-related resource out there is profit enough to justify restoration practices, even in chaparral-plagued, timber-scarce SoCal landscapes.

9 Aug 2009, 9:21pm
by Bob Z.

Two points:

Landscape-scale burning was typically performed by American Indian people in the Pacific Northwest at a subbasin (at least) scale. That is: regular broadcast burns were thousands of acres in size. Removing sufficient biomass to reintroduce prescribed fire at that scale should definitely be a profitable undertaking, for lots of good reasons (ask a logger or a forester for details). Restoration forestry only costs the USFS a lot of money because: a) they don’t know what they’re doing, or b) they are trying to do it at an inappropriate scale.

Second, the relationship of wildfire to restored forests is not theoretical. Sufficient relic prairies, berry patches, widely-spaced yellow pine, and oak savanna patches still remain from past centuries to see how wildfire responds when encountered. Depending on local fuel-loading, the general result is enhanced fire control, improved habitat and aesthetics, and human safety. During the famous Tillamook Fire of 1933, for example, dozens of firefighters found safety in the middle of old prairies as the fire passed through. My own ancestors survived the 1902 Yacolt Fire by going to Speelyai (”coyote”) Prairie on the Lewis River, as another example, while dozens of their neighbors were killed.

Huckleberry fields, bracken fern prairies, beargrass meadows, etc., are all typically rejuvenated by fire (even if “wild”), and all make fine fuelbreaks during wildfire events.

In sum, restoration forestry, if done correctly, should produce thousands of jobs and millions of dollars and save billions of dollars more in wildfire losses. Numerous benefits of such restoration are documented, not theoretical.

9 Aug 2009, 10:01pm
by Mike

Conversely, when ancient prairies, savannas, and open forests that have become overgrown over the last 150 years are burned in wildfires, the fires are severe and extremely damaging.

Restoring heritage landscape conditions saves lives as well as resources.

Restoration requires controlled burning in forests prepared to receive the fires. Thus, many of the jobs created by restoration are firefighter and fire management jobs. The fire community should not feel threatened because catastrophic megafires will be largely eliminated. You guys (Chris) will still have employment; in fact, more work than you have now. Hence it would behoove you to get with the restoration program sooner rather than later.

10 Aug 2009, 7:34am
by Larry H.

I posted this great summary at a Democratic website but didn’t post the link or the fact that it came from WISE (although I did keep Mike’s name attached to it), just to see how those folks would react to the message. Previously, people would “kill the messenger” instead of addressing the message, just because of the WISE acronym. This time, people embraced the message and responded well to the idea of “forest restoration”. I still don’t think that some people understand that too many trees in a forest is a bad thing.

I guess progress is progress, eh? Here’s the link:


10 Aug 2009, 2:26pm
by bear bait

If anyone thinks the Indian-burned meadows, fens, savannas, and wet prairies were accidental refuge from fire, they might think again. The Indians were skilled at landscape management by fire, thought the process out, and had those landscape features in place at all times. They were a part of the planning.

My most disgruntled thoughts about “old growth” forest preservation and landscapes is the lack, the now almost total lack of the meadow and prairie systems that ran down significant ridge lines, providing refuge and trails for travel. Anyone who has spent any time in the brush has figured out the ridge tops were the travel routes. Creek bottoms are too damned hard to get around in. You might go off the end of one ridge, cross a creek, and then up another to continue travel. On foot or horseback. The wheel deal is not up for consideration as it is an exotic, imported transportation system.

So the most important aboriginal sites, the ridge top meadows and prairies, maintained for thousands of years, have been lost to conifer weeds over running them. And now those young, tightly packed, brand new “old growth” forests (using the urban 22″ dbh criteria) are the fuel that takes forest fires on long, long runs in the heat of the year. And we are too damned tied, hobbled, cut, and haltered to understand and give a damn.

10 Aug 2009, 4:02pm
by Mike

The ridge trail systems were not built to 12 percent grade, either. The trail designers did not have horses; they did not require gentle grades. Humans can climb steep stairs; horses cannot.

And the ridge trail systems had spurs that went down to the creeks where “pocket” wet meadows, prairies, and savannas were also maintained by anthropogenic fire. The aboriginal residents spent most of their daily lives near the water, and used the trails to travel from one waterside habitation to another.

A useless study, that I rejected for posting at WISE last year, made the claim that meadows are shifting features of the landscape. No, they aren’t and weren’t. They were permanent features, in the same locations for millennia. They were the front yards of the residents. They were created and maintained by and for the residents. They are not “natural” landscape features.

In the absence of human tending, forest meadows are disappearing. Whole landscapes, such as Grass Mountain on the southern Oregon Coast, were grassy when named by the pioneers (due to anthropogenic fire) but are now covered in dense thickets of 100-year-old trees. And thanks to the infinite ignorance of Congress, Grass Mountain was designated as wilderness last March, in an a-historical and anti-environmental move that will further degrade the heritage features of that landscape. Where restoration was potentially possible before, now Grass Mountain has been dedicated to catastrophic fire and degradation of all the resources, including heritage.

10 Aug 2009, 10:17pm
by bear bait

Mike: that is the Benton County, Oregon, joke for the day. There is only a tiny remnant of prairie on Prairie Mountain, Bald Peak is tree covered, there isn’t ten acres of grass left on Grass Mountain, or Little Grass Mountain. Mary’s Peak used to have this vast grass prairie, much of which is now covered with Hudsonian zone noble fir second growth. And the south slope grass balds that were everywhere are gone, as are the “fern flats”. I have a conservation sign of from the Thirties, “Don’t Burn the Fern.” I mean, like, why not? It was burned for several thousand years. Why stop now?

“Hunter”, the original resident of the Siletz Reservation, being forced to be there by relocation, could find the meadow on Euchre Mountain, and the elk, the elk that he killed in hidden pits in the ground he dug on major elk trails that led to the pocket meadows where they fed. The meadows were maintained to feed the elk that the Indians trapped to eat. A different form of livestock tending, but by tending the grass, they got their protein and hides, along with antler and bone, hoof and teeth.

You can get there from here, but it takes lots of hard work and time, which we cannot seem to find between lawsuits.

I saw in the paper that some people lost a dog on the coast, and it was found a month later, not able to rise and walk. Covered with ticks, bleeding him dry. An hour after the ticks were removed, he regained the ability to stand, and in a day or so, was back to his old self. And that is what Oregon’s economy might be if there was, instead of tick spray, attorney and lawyer spray. Squirt-squirt… there there, it will be fine in a just a little bit… just as soon as the parasites fall off.



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