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The Boise quickstep.

A bold plan to restore the health of this Idaho national forest is being watched closely throughout the tinderbox West.

Idaho's heart-thumping Foothills wildfire last August, which gobbled more than 257,000 acres of range and forest lands and potentially threatened Boise (pop. 102,000) in a 31-mile romp, came as no surprise.

Historic fuel loads (dead, dry standing and down timber), steep slopes, and low humidity in these tinderlands needed only a fire start. Twelve dry-lightning strikes took care of that on August 19. And for the next 12 suspenseful days, locals prayed that a wind shift wouldn't turn the fire toward the state capital.

While racking up a $16-million suppression cost, the firestorm also left a curious footprint, one that sent a compelling message about fuels, fire, and forest health:

In Tiger Creek a remote canyon just north of tiny Prairie, near the southern end of the Boise National Forest, the crowning blaze stopped in its tracks, then skirted a particular 2,500-acre stand of ponderosa pines. They were left unscathed--the only such living survivors within miles.

The Tiger Creek stand, it turns out, had been commercially thinned, then "defueled" by the use of prescribed fire that had been allowed to burn through the understory without "crowning" into the tops of the trees. The process replicates an age-old fire-ecology dynamic that had been suppressed for years in these forests.

Without that added fuel as a "come-on," the fire simply moved elsewhere.

Tiger Creek has special significance because it points directly to some core forest-management issues on the Boise and on other western national forests: whether or not to thin commercial timber, whether or not to conduct prescribed burns. Of more urgent interest there, it sheds important light on the question of defueling forests by "express-salvaging" burned and bug-killed trees.

A Forest-Health Strategy

There's little question about where Boise National Forest stands on all three issues.

In a bold "Forest Health Strategy" published last May, Forest Supervisor Steve Mealey cites the loss of 400,000 commercially valuable trees (about one-fifth of the available timber on the forest) that have died since 1988 from catastrophic insect epidemics, caused indirectly by a six-year drought.

Three significant steps are spotlighted in the Boise National Forest's action plan:

* Quickly salvage dead and dying timber suitable for commercial timber harvest, in order to remove potential fire-feeding fuel from the forest and to recover that timber's economic value.

* Restore and improve forest health by reducing the number of trees competing for water, accomplishing this through thinning and "fire-management techniques" (meaning prescribed burning of the understory).

* Participate in a broad-based partnership study led by AMERICAN FORESTS, and share forest-health information, with special emphasis on forest-ecosystem resilience.

Running Up the Salvage Flag

In what Mealey calls "a very precise proposed action," Boise National Forest ran up the dead-tree salvage flag last spring, announcing plans to sell 67 million board-feet of bug-killed trees. After that level was reached, the forest kept right on salvaging the growing mass of dead timber, hitting more than 80 million board-feet by year's end.

The effort may be unprecedented for any national forest. Indeed, under the new strategy, 95 percent of all trees sold on the national forest for both 1992 and 1993 will be either dead or dying trees. That, too, may be a record.

Heavy-lift helicopters were used extensively in roadless areas, removing as much as 80 percent of the salvage timber there. The accent has been on "soft-touch" logging in this erosion-prone land.

Making the "express salvage" action possible are forest-management provisions |36 CFR 217.4 (a)(11)~ that, for purposes of "recovery and resources rehabilitation," allow the Chief of the Forest Service to exempt certain salvage sales from the appeals process--a drawn-out affair that can consume years. The Boise has used the process aggressively: All of its 1992 salvage-sale decisions were exempted from appeal.

With only a year or two available to harvest fire- and bug-killed trees before they deteriorate, the exemptions make good sense economically in the name of fuel reduction. But a string of local environmental organizations is protesting the salvage effort.

"We don't want the Forest Service to hastily conclude that a natural process |bugs in an ecosystem~ is a 'disaster' in efforts to expeditiously salvage wood fiber," states a January 1992 letter to Supervisor Mealey from seven Idaho environmental groups.

"It is in everyone's best interest to see the |Boise~ forest managed from an ecosystem perspective. We don't want the Forest Service to become too obsessed with salvaging wood fiber at the expense of other forest resources," the letter emphasizes.

Despite those statements, the emphasis is on dialogue between the Forest Service and the environmentalists, and from that, it is hoped, may come solid solutions to shared concerns.

A Thinner Forest

The lesson of Tiger Creek, from a forest-survival viewpoint, appears simple: More widely spaced trees are healthier trees because they receive more sun, water, and nutrients. Such trees appear to survive wildfire dramatically better than fuel-heavy forests.

Step Two in the Boise strategy translates into thinning large acreages of commercial timberland, which accounts for about 25 percent of the forest's 2.6 million acres.

As Mealey explains, "With the current drought, closely spaced trees have become stressed from lack of water and are vulnerable to insect attacks and death. And from that condition comes a loss of tree resilience."

(Under the plan, nearly two million acres of multiple-use and wilderness areas will be left unthinned.)

The thinned timber, mostly in the form of small-dimension logs, will become chipboard, wood pellets for stoves, firewood, and a host of other revenue producers for the local forest-products industry. Such thinning will reduce pressure to cut larger trees to achieve production goals, say forest officers.

Adds Dave Van De Graaff, manager of Boise Cascade's private timberlands for Idaho, "The high-intensity fires are bad for everybody; that's why we have thinned our timber for years."

Step Two will go beyond thinning, introducing prescribed understory burning as a means of reducing ground fuels.

While thinning efforts obviously will stimulate the local forest-products economy by providing "product," the Forest Service and major timber operators like Boise Cascade feel that forest fires should burn at low levels in the understory only, thus sparing the tall, valuable timber--as they did in Tiger Creek.

This technique, which has been tried only conservatively in western forests because of the risk of fires getting out of hand, could become a major fuel-reduction measure on the Boise. But it will also challenge the highest skills of fire managers at a time of unprecedented wildfire sensitivity in the West: A getaway prescribed burn could be a major roadblock to public acceptance--an ecological and public-relations disaster.

Partners in Learning

In a Step Three study led by AMERICAN FORESTS, Boise National Forest will join with the University of Idaho, the Idaho Department of Lands, the Forest Service's Intermountain Research Station, Boise Cascade, and other partners to share information on local forest-health and recovery strategies. The emphasis will be on improving the resilience of the forest ecosystems on both a short- and a long-term basis, with information and education programs, public meetings, and field trips to share the latest learning.

Will It Work?

That question weighs heavily on Boise National Forest officers, who find themselves with a dry, dead, and dying forest, with the ongoing probability of explosive fires.

But at press time, a mood of high expectation prevailed at forest headquarters, with Mealey telling his people, "We are setting a high standard for how to do the salvage job." But then he adds, "Some environmentalists are angry...they told me our train is running down the tracks too fast."

Despite those ominous words, the supervisor is working hard to gain their support, and is counting on general public support (reportedly high at present) for the express-salvage program.

Can Mealey pull off his bold salvage strategy?

Can he thin that timber and reduce that excessive fuel in his commercial timberlands and thus build forest resilience?

Can he convince the environmentalists that the short-term actions needed now for forest health and fire control are not inconsistent with their longer-term ecosystem concerns?

These are the questions that Mealey and his staff are mulling these days. But some of the immediate, obvious answers seem to be right on the ground at Tiger Creek. Those lonely, surviving ponderosas in the midst of a charred wasteland seem to be sending an urgent message about forest survival.

Stay tuned.

Frequent contributor Herb McLean interviewed dozens of principals in preparation for this story.

The Outlook from Higher Ground

Vacationers traveling one of Idaho's most popular scenic routes have the opportunity to see the entire spectrum of the western forest-health issue. Along Highway 21, between the high country of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Boise, they pass high-density forests heavily impacted by drought and disease.

Part of the drive is through the area of the 46,000-acre Lowman fire of 1989, and reveals the corrective course nature has taken. A few miles later, you'll top Moores Creek Summit and drop into the Boise River watershed, driving through a logging operation in which helicopters and existing roads are being used. Most people, unless they happen by when the choppers are flying, or notice the slash piles at three locations near the highway, would not know that the green, healthy, uneven-aged mountainsides that form their scenic surroundings are the result of timber harvesting.

A short side trip east to Sunset Lookout offers a more dramatic before/after perspective. From an elevation of 7,867 feet, you can look north to see mistakes of the past--unregenerated clearcuts from the 1960s and '70s. Looking south, a clear line is visible between the gray/brown unhealthy forests and the green stands thinned by selective logging. Occasional snags have been left for wildlife habitat. Fewer trees now compete for scarce water, leaving a healthier, more insect-resistant forest.

The challenges facing Idaho's forests, their owners, and their managers are great. Drought indexes are off the chart. Regular wakeup calls are being delivered by Mother Nature. Last year's 250,000-acre Foothills fire east of Boise is only the latest; more are to come, unless we act.

One encouraging element in all of this is the positive, pro-active role that AMERICAN FORESTS is playing, working with the progressive management team of the Boise National Forest, the wood-products industry, conservation groups, concerned citizens, and Congress to get out in front on the forest-health issue. The complex issue is made more difficult by the lack of trust between the environmental community and forest managers, but we must move. AMERICAN FORESTS is serving as a catalyst for positive action, pursuing its mission of securing for society the countless benefits of trees and forests.

Finding Fixes on the Boise

The Forest Policy Center Of AMERICAN FORESTS has organized a research cooperative in Idaho to study the health of the Boise National Forest and surrounding lands. The study seeks to explore the causes of poor forest health in the area, to determine how past management activities and natural processes combined to create the forest we see today, and to provide options and methods to maximize the resilience--the ability to tolerate and recover--of forest ecosystems.

The study is operating on an initial hypothesis that land managers, by more closely understanding and imitating nature, can return the forest to the species mix and density that can withstand wildfire and drought. In a nutshell, the study will try to determine the effects of practices such as suppression of wildfire, timber management, and grazing. Among the results of those practices seen today are forests grown too dense for the water available during periodic droughts, and certain tree species that have proliferated in the absence of periodic wildfires. The resulting drought stress sets into motion a chain of ecosystem-threatening conditions: Tree vigor decreases. Unnaturally high insect and disease infestations attack the forest, causing high tree mortality. There is a significant risk or occurrence of catastrophic wildfires. Early indications imply that reducing tree density and establishing a more natural species mix will make for a healthier forest.

The first part of the study focuses on developing a better scientific understanding of forest-ecosystem function in the Boise National Forest. The second goal will be to interpret the data collected in order to address forest-policy questions relevant to future management of the forest.

The study's most critical aspect is to concentrate on the long-term connections between forest health and management. To accomplish that goal, barriers to management need to be examined, whether they be a lack of scientific information, internal barriers within federal agencies, or pressure from various interest groups. The final product will be recommendations regarding silvicultural practices, wildfire policy, fish and wildlife management, and long-term forest-health monitoring. These recommendations will be designed to help managers to adaptively manage a healthy, resilient, sustainable forest ecosystem on a landscape scale.

Members of the AMERICAN FORESTS board of directors recently visited the Boise National Forest, and had this to say about the condition of the forest and the study underway:

"The Boise is a forest on the edge of a desert," said Executive Vice President Neil Sampson. "The drought stresses that have been affecting it for over a decade are similar to the stresses that some of the climate-change models predict for major forest regions in the future. It is important to study these stresses, and the effect that management can have to reduce them, in case the climate models turn out to be right."

"We need to show there clearly is a problem," added Don Willeke, newly named president of AMERICAN FORESTS. "Unless you can see it out your window, sometimes it takes a well-trained forester to recognize a problem. In the Midwest, Dutch elm disease wasn't obvious until it reached pandemic proportions."

"From a silvicultural standpoint, it's fairly obvious that the land does not have the capacity to support high timber production," said Past President Charley Tarver, "and the land has been managed as if it had that capacity. There is far too much fuel from a fire-risk management perspective. We're also not taking into account the positive effect of fire on biological diversity."
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Title Annotation:forest management in Boise, Idaho
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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