One Member's View of the QLG Bill

by George Terhune August 1997



    I'm a grandfather. People as recent as my grandfather's generation had found western inland forests in natural good health. Forest vegetation and populations of animals, insects, and other organisms were in a livable balance, within their "natural range of variability."

    Only a few generations from my grandfather, we have large areas of forest with vegetation and populations not in sustainable balance. Some key forest components and relationships are well outside their natural range of variability (NRV). I decided to concentrate my QLG work on the most obvious of these divergences from NRV, the unnatural accumulation of fuel in the forests, and the fire hazard resulting from that fuel.

    Excess fuel is on the ground and in live "fire ladder" trees. In some areas there are also unusual numbers of dead and dying trees in stands that are overcrowded with species not adapted to their location or current conditions. This fuel load threatens all other forest components and relationships, because it has changed the way fires act on our forests. Instead of the frequent, slow-moving, low-intensity, cleansing fires our grandfathers found, we now have fewer large fires, but each one tends to be fast-moving, high-intensity, and all-consuming. One pass of high intensity fire can not only kill whole stands of trees that would easily have survived repeated "old style" fires, it can bake the soil deep enough to kill organisms essential to normal regrowth, and cause the baked soil to shed rainwater instead of absorbing it. Many fire-killed trees will fall, so in case the first pass doesn't cause deep soil damage, any new fire in that area will finish off the job by burning hot and longer near the ground.

    Some people want to blame our fuel and fire problems on drought (i.e. nature caused it), and others deny that there really is a problem (i.e. nature will fix it). QLG is founded on the proposition that there is a problem, it was largely created by people, it can be corrected by people, and therefore we have an obligation to correct it.

    The current fuel load in these national forests is largely the result of one fact: for about 70 years fires have been suppressed with increasing efficiency. Other factors were involved, such as logging that in many places removed the cover of large trees and in some places left untreated slash, but there is no doubt that fire suppression is the main reason for our excessive and rising fuel load. Before we started suppression, forest fires went through these forests about as often as enough fuel had accumulated to keep a fire going. In some places the natural fire frequency was about 10 years, and in some places 30 years or longer. In some places Native Americans would purposely ignite fires more often. Without these periodic fires, fuel started to build, and continues building to this day.

    This fuel is ever more threatening for another reason, too. In recent years the cost of fire suppression has been rising, but its effectiveness has actually been decreasing. The vast majority of fires are still suppressed, but nowadays when one does escape it tends to grow large, move fast, and get very hot. In those cases, huge costs can be run up very quickly, and "suppression" usually boils down to "wait for the weather to change." Meanwhile fire fighters desperately try to save individual houses and small communities on the edges of the fire. Anything directly in the fire's path has little chance. Suppression capability will always be needed, but it gets more expensive and less effective, so it cannot be the long-term answer. It took people at least two full generations to create the excess fuel load, so we can't remove it overnight. On the other hand, we can't take 70 years to reduce fuel at the same rate it built up, because adverse effects are not just rising, they are accelerating and compounding. To meet this threat, QLG has proposed a five-year program that would change direction from "getting worse fast" to "getting better fast," and if continued would restore the fundamental processes of forest health within a further 15 to 20 years.

    The QLG Community Stability Proposal of 1993 suggested a 5-year program of specific actions intended to change the direction of forest management by the US Forest Service in the QLG area. The four years since then have produced some progress, but general frustration, and this led to the QLG Bill (HR-858, S-1028), which would implement key elements of the QLG Proposal in a five-year pilot project. It is important to understand that the QLG Bill does not tell the Forest Service to "do what QLG says." Instead, the QLG Bill tells the Forest Service "do these specific things that Congress says." What are those specific things? Three resource management activities are prominent:

  1. Fuelbreak Construction. A strategic system of defensible fuel profile zones (DFPZs) on 40,000 to 60,000 acres per year.
  2. Group Selection and Individual Tree Selection. Uneven-aged forest management prescriptions to achieve all-age, multistory, fire resilient forests. Group selection on 0.57 percent of the pilot project area each year. Individual tree selection may also be used.
  3. Riparian Management. A program of riparian management, including wide protection zones and riparian restoration projects, consistent with Scientific Advisory Team (SAT) guidelines.

   In addition, the QLG Bill provides several protections that would not otherwise apply or be so strong, such as: requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project; prohibits road building or timber harvest on large "off base" and "deferred" areas for the 5-year duration of the project; protects Spotted Owl areas (SOHAs and PACs); enlarges the areas subject to riparian protection; and requires yearly progress reports and a final science-based report to Congress.

   My particular interest is strategic defense against the spread of high-intensity wildfire. The QLG Bill is more than just fuelbreaks, but I see its other provisions as fully supportive of and consistent with the fuelbreak strategy. To make this connection clear, I want to explain the resource management activities of the QLG Bill in more detail.

1. Fuelbreak construction.

   In the forests of my grandfather's generation, periodic fire had been a dominant force in creating and maintaining natural forest health. Fire moderated the direct competition among trees for the light, water, and nutrients that would let them grow and reproduce. It also moderated the more general competition among vegetation, insects, and disease, keeping the balance by frying some populations now and then, and also making post-fire conditions more favorable or less favorable to the various future populations. The result was a fire-adapted ecosystem. Fire had largely determined the forest's components and structure, and periodic fire, mostly of low-intensity, had kept natural balances from swinging too far one way or the other.

   Starting early in this century, increasingly vigorous and effective fire suppression by the Forest Service and other agencies has practically eliminated low-intensity fire from our forests. In the QLG area, this has disrupted the natural balance of competition among tree species, mainly in two ways: (1) the absence of fire now favors the survival of white fir and cedar saplings over pine, whereas low intensity fire previously favored survival of the slightly more fire-tolerant young pines; and (2) the absence of fire has permitted a thicker layer of decomposing biomass (duff) to accumulate on the forest floor, which affects the numbers of seedlings produced, again to the detriment of pines, because they require mineral soil to sprout in, and because a damping-off fungus, that lives in duff, kills pine seedlings.

   Thus young white firs and cedars have been given an unnatural advantage over young pines in large areas of historically fire-adapted pine country. Unfortunately, on average this pine country doesn't get enough water for healthy firs and cedars, particularly at the density these shade-tolerant species will grow if periodic fire doesn't keep them in check. Furthermore, when water is in short supply, the response of white firs is to keep transpiring the limited soil moisture, whereas pines shut down when moisture isn't adequate, which is one way they survive in pine country. Thus even mild drought can weaken and eventually kill the non-adapted white firs that have invaded pine country, and the unnatural competition for water and nutrients can weaken and kill pines that would otherwise easily survive a moderate drought.

   Absence of fire has not only given us overly-dense understories in both pine and mixed-conifer areas across the forests, it has also permitted large accumulations of dead wood fuel on the ground that would otherwise have been burned off in repeated low intensity fires. As noted above, this extraordinarily large and growing fuel load, on the ground and in thickets of "fire ladder" trees, has given us large high-intensity fires that are devastating to forest health on those occasions when they escape early control. Fire-fighters themselves now recognize that suppression alone is a losing strategy. It's like tying down the safety valve. Pressure builds and the vessel will burst. The only questions are: When? and How big will the catastrophe be?

   To meet that threat, QLG has proposed a strategy. First it is necessary to remove fuel from our forests at a rate sufficient to bring the threat down to a tolerable level within a reasonable time. Without protection from catastrophic wildfire, no other forest health improvement has any chance of long-term success. Second, no feasible rate of fuel reduction in itself is likely to prevent large losses due to catastrophic fire in the immediate future, unless it is done in a pattern that interrupts the spread of high intensity wildfire.

   QLG proposes that a "reasonable rate" would accomplish fuel reduction across the forest in about 30 years. The QLG Bill specifies treatment of 40 to 60 thousand acres per year on about 1.5 million acres of forest. (An average of 50,000 per year for 30 years equals 1.5 million acres.)

   QLG also proposes that the first five years of fuel reduction should be done in a network of "defensible fuelbreaks." If they averaged 1/4 mile wide, in five years these fuelbreaks could establish defense perimeters around communities and forested areas of less than 10,000 acres each. After the network is in place, fuel reduction should continue within the contained areas. It is not intended that the fuelbreaks should be much different from the rest of the forest in the long run, except as necessary to provide fire-fighter safety. The purpose of the fuelbreak network is to buy time for other forest health work. In recent years, fires in the 50,000-acre range have occurred in the QLG area, and larger fires are easily possible with current fuel loads. Limiting such losses to one or two areas of 10,000 acres would be a large improvement, which is feasible to achieve within five years if both the pace and the pattern of fuel reduction reflect the QLG strategy.

2. Group selection and individual tree selection.    

   The title of the QLG Proposal is "Community Stability." Communities in the QLG area depend on the forest and forest products, and the forest surrounding us depends on having stable communities to provide forest health workers and the infrastructure of large scale forest management. An essential element of the QLG proposal is to assure sound forest management practices that yield, among other goals, a continuous sustainable flow of forest products.

   The most viable long term silvicultural systems known to QLG are the "single tree selection" practiced by the Collins Pine Company on its land in the QLG area, and "group selection" implemented by the University of California at its Blodgett Experimental Forest.

   The Collins Pine system is based on "save the best trees" not "cut the best trees."

   Group selection is based on small patch regeneration over long time periods, "long rotations." This seems the surest and most acceptable way to achieve the "all-age, multi-story, fire-resilient" future condition described in the QLG Bill. As noted above, in pine country (generally the east side of our forests), pine stands have been invaded by white firs and cedars, and in many places pines aren't regenerating. On the mixed conifer areas of these forests (generally the west side), fire exclusion and previous timber harvests have left large areas of forest without its natural component of pines, dominated by white firs in the 16 to 20-inch diameter class, and over-crowded with smaller fir and cedar trees. The long term effect of group selection would be to re-establish a forest with the historic mix of species in large-tree and small-tree patches.

   In pine country, the harvest of groups averaging about 1-1/4 acres, not more than 2-1/2 acres, on a 200-year rotation, would enable successful pine regeneration through natural seeding and planting, because these openings would get the sunlight that shade-intolerant pine trees require, and permit safe burning of duff where that is necessary to expose mineral soil and control damping-off fungus. In conjunction with thinning and safe re-introduction of low-intensity fire, group selection seems the only feasible way to re-establish healthy pine stands in natural pine country.

   In mixed conifer stands, generally on the more productive west side of these forests, harvesting the same size groups on a 150-year rotation would permit re-establishing pines in their natural percentage of these stands, develop the all-age structure desired, and provide safe locations where small material thinned from surrounding acres could be accumulated and burned on-site if removal was not feasible.

   These small group harvests on about 1/290th (0.34%) per year of the total land in these forests [based on 175 yr rotation (average of 150 and 200 yr) on the area available for group selection under the QLG Bill, which is 60% of the total area in these National Forests] would also support a vital sector of economic activity in our communities, and assure the continued availability of the infrastructure needed for other forest health work.

   There is also likely to be a more direct economic connection between group selection and fuelbreak construction. If group selection is also done within fuelbreaks, the net cost per acre of fuelbreak construction can be reduced, and therefore the fuelbreak network can be completed more surely and more quickly. Inclusion of groups within fuelbreaks is fully consistent with the concept that in the long run fuelbreaks would not be much different from the desired future condition of the surrounding landscape.

3. Riparian Management.

   The QLG concept is "watershed," not just "riparian." This recognizes a fact not familiar to some people: water isn't created at the dams or in the rivers. Water issues must be viewed at large scale on the whole landscape, not just in the narrow riparian zones around streams, rivers, and lakes. All forest health issues, including fire protection and the regeneration of healthy stands of trees, affect riparian area health, water quality, the duration of soil moisture in summer, and the timing of flood-potential runoffs in winter and spring.

   In addition, specific protections and restorations are needed in the watercourses themselves, and on the land immediately adjacent. QLG's intention was to provide "riparian systems protection during timber harvest operations" by implementation of the SAT guidelines, which generally increase the width of protected areas, and apply those protections farther upstream in the watercourse network. Also, in order to begin dealing with damage that already exists, watercourse and riparian area restoration projects are recommended by QLG, and included in the Bill.


   In my view, the three management activities specified in the QLG Bill are not separate. They form an inter-locked, mutually dependent and mutually supportive strategy to initiate the changes most needed. They are not the only activities required to restore and maintain forest health, and they are not the only provisions of the Bill, but they are the most essential first steps in the QLG area. These three activities are not a complete long-term strategy, but they provide a necessary strategic focus for the first five years of any viable long-term strategy.

   And finally it is necessary to keep in mind that the QLG Bill establishes a 5-year "pilot project," which requires yearly progress reports to Congress and a final science-based report on the implementation and results of the project. In effect these reports will assure the monitoring that is an essential but often neglected element of "adaptive management." Under the adaptive management concept, you guide and correct outcomes by measuring effects as you go and adjusting the plan as needed. Thus the pilot project would not necessarily continue unchanged for even five years if significant faults were identified.

  This is a viable strategy and a sound five year program. It is time to get to work on it.

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