CORVALLIS - Experts say that massive forest and wildland fires will be a permanent fixture of the American West unless the public and policy leaders work past extremist positions and social paralysis, move towards enlightened land management policies, and more than triple funding for applied, problem-solving research that could give managers better tools to work with and more proof of their effectiveness.
These and other conclusions emerged from a recent meeting at Oregon State University of about 100 agency managers, fire experts and other leaders, who were trying to bring together academic researchers and field managers to learn from recent experiences and make plans for the next five years.
The conference was the first of three of its type in the nation being held this year, under the auspices of the National Fire Plan and Joint Fire Science Program.
It followed the 2002 fire season, one of the worst in U.S. history. The season included the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire in southwestern Oregon, and debates are still raging over fuel reduction strategies, salvage logging, forest health and ecology issues, wildlife concerns, use of controlled fire and many other topics.
Hal Salwasser, dean of the OSU College of Forestry and leadoff speaker, said that the National Fire Plan, with endorsement by the Western Governor's Association, provides a solid blueprint for dealing with many problems. But it is being hindered by social discord and conflicts between extremists on both sides - those who would take immediate swift actions and those who argue for doing little or nothing.
"We've seen aggressive proposals for bold actions, and we've seen active political and legal resistance by agents of inaction who pretend the problems don't exist," Salwasser said. "And we're relegating to the sidelines the visionaries who advocate integrated, adaptive approaches to problem solving."
This conflict is further hindered by an inadequate knowledge base to guide enlightened land management policies and provide conclusive evidence they would work, Salwasser said. He called for more than tripling the current federal appropriation for forest and rangeland health and wildland fire research, which is now only 1.6 percent of the management budget for these issues. That could provide about $88 million more for research across the nation.
"A 1.6 percent investment in building the intelligence needed to improve performance is pathetic," Salwasser said. "The price we pay for under-funding research and development is inefficient and ineffective use of management resources, and vulnerability to agents of inaction who will stymie projects due to lack of science."
Bruce Shindler, an associate professor of forest resources at OSU and one of the coordinators of the conference, says fire management "has to become everyone's responsibility...fire scientists, managers and citizens." Effective fire prevention and fuel reduction programs can be implemented only if all the partners understand the issues involved and reach agreement on how to proceed.
"We're not starting at square one on these issues, there's much that researchers and fire managers already know," Shindler said. "But the issue is so large, the fire potential so vast that we have to carefully evaluate what we've done in the past, what works, what doesn't work, and then work closely with the public to help them understand the costs and benefits of the alternatives."
Shindler said that forest and wildland fire is such a critical issue that people may be responsive to well-reasoned changes and new land management concepts. And there are a few success stories right in Oregon that point to this, he said, including innovative and collaborative programs in the Metolius Basin of central Oregon and the Applegate Community Fire Plan in southern Oregon.
Among the other conclusions and key research needs identified at the conference:
- More information is needed about fuel reduction programs and better methods to implement them.
- Research results need to be moved more quickly to field application, possibly using the "Extension" concept developed at land-grant universities.
- Studies should determine the effectiveness of different restoration treatments after fire has moved through an area, and which approaches yield the desired ecological, economic and social values.
- On a landscape scale, identifying what approaches most effectively reduce the potential for severe wildfire.
- More studies are needed on such topics as the effects of smoke exposure on human health, the consequences of continued fire suppression policies, the potential for catastrophic events, and other topics.
- Adaptive management needs to be encouraged, so that work can be done while research is still under way.
- The public must be engaged at many points in the development of policies, to build trust and understanding despite the inevitable elements of risk and uncertainty.