The Organic Act of 1897 provided the main statutory basis for establishing and administering what was then called the nation’s forest reserves. On March 4, 1907, the term “national forests” was substituted for the earlier term “forest reservations”. The Organic Act is codified in 16 USC, chapter 2, and the purposes for which national forests may be established and administered is found at Section 475 of the chapter. Within that section, one of the few purposes is:
“. . . for the purposes of securing favorable conditions of water flows.”
Throughout the years, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has largely failed to comply with this key statutory mandate. This failure significantly contributes to the abysmal health of many national forests across the country. If these forests were administered and managed for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, we would not have the stand densities that are making our forests so vulnerable to the disease and insect infestation leading to intense fuel loads that result in catastrophic wildfires every summer across the western states.
Consider the impacts of just one of today’s catastrophic wildfires:
- Thousands of acres of destroyed forest, with many areas where the heat intensity results in full-depth soil sterilization.
- Destruction of large areas of habitat essential to the survival of multiple threatened and endangered species (avian, terrestrial animals, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic, plant, fungi).
- Massive amounts of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and health-damaging particulates in the smoke that spreads for miles.
- Uncontrolled water runoff during rainstorms and springtime snow melt, causing severe erosion and ongoing aquatic habitat damage, further impacting threatened and endangered species.
- Loss of homes and other built environment infrastructure.
- Severe impacts to local and regional economies.
So, what does managing forests for favorable conditions of water flows have to do with the challenges posed by wildfires?
In a word, prevention. If we build our forest administration systems around obtaining improved water flows, the management tools we use will result in fewer catastrophic wildfires, and make it easier to tame those that still manage to break out.
Trees take water out of the ground, use some to support their life processes, and send much of the rest into the atmosphere as water vapor. Every species of tree has an optimal number of stems per acre per age class. Many, if not most national forests feature stand densities across the range of age classes much higher than would ever occur naturally. Most national forest stands are not adequately managed with pre-commercial and commercial thinnings at appropriate intervals because of litigation against planned thinning and lack of resources to perform the necessary work. The result is overcrowding in the stands, stressed trees competing for nutrients and water, increased vulnerability to disease and insect infestation, and adverse impacts to instream flows throughout the watershed they are located in. Overcrowded stands are far more vulnerable to fire than those with optimal stem spacing.
The resulting depressed stream flows represent adverse impacts to threatened and endangered aquatic species’ habitat. Overcrowded stands do not feature the plant biodiversity necessary to provide the full range of habitat for the natural range of wildlife biodiversity potentially present in a forest where stem spacing is at or near optimum. If the Forest Service were to comply with their mandate to manage their holdings to secure favorable conditions of water flows, much, if not nearly all of this ecological damage could be avoided.
Managing for water flow requires a well-planned sequence of pre-commercial and commercial thinnings that result in optimal stem spacing for the tree species being managed. The timing and selection process for the thinnings should be designed to mimic natural forest growth as much as possible. With the increasing emphasis on using biomass as a fuel instead of burning it in slash piles or leaving it on the ground, even pre-commercial thinnings now have the potential for generating income. At stand maturity, the trees available for harvest will be larger and much healthier than we see today, and will generate more revenue than they do under current conditions.
The result of managing for water flow will be healthier forests with optimal stem spacing that are much less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire and much more resistant to disease and resilient in the face of insect infestations. Instream flows throughout the watershed will be significantly improved. The forests will feature greater biodiversity and will provide significantly improved habitat for the full range of wildlife when managed for water flows.
This will be a major shift in emphasis for the Forest Service. In today’s climate of budgetary constraints for some agencies, it’s unlikely that the Service will be able to handle the work on its own, even though it is statutorily responsible for doing so. One of the most viable approaches to making this work is for the Service to enter into co-management agreements with those state natural resource agencies responsible for state-owned forest management, and with those counties that have county forest systems. Co-management with counties that do not presently have their own county forest systems is also an option, and a particularly viable one if they model their operations on those of pre-existing county forest systems. For instance, Wisconsin has some of the best county forestry operations in the nation, many of which would be well-suited as examples to follow.
Forest management for water flows is a statutory responsibility for the United States Forest Service . . . a responsibility that has been neglected for far too long. It’s time for the Service to comply wholeheartedly with the entirety of the statute. If the Service fails to step up to the plate, there are several states and counties looking very closely at how federal agencies are managing their land holdings that may very well be prepared to ask their respective attorneys general to take up the question in court.
How about we get the ball rolling?