Restoration forestry is the process of restoring forests to a more natural condition. After a century of suppressing natural fires and past timber harvest practices most of the forests in the western United States and many other parts of the world have been altered to an unnatural condition. These conditions leaves them vulnerable to disease and catastrophic fires.
Many people believe that we need to protect the forests from human activity by locking them up and leaving them to natural processes. The problem with that idea is that this does not allow us to fix the problems that we have created and it leaves them vulnerable to unnatural catastrophic wildfire and disease. Even though past forest harvest practices have contributed to the problem, responsibly harvesting forest products is one of the only viable tools we currently have to restore our forests.
Forest fires have been a natural part of the forest ecosystem for millions of years. Fires are naturally started by lightning and Native Americans would also start fires to improve hunting. Forests in fire prone climates like the western united states are naturally adapted to wildfire. Many of the trees, especially conifers, have thick bark that insulates the trees and protects them from fire.
In the past fires would periodically burn through the forests and creep along the forest floor. These periodic fires benefit the forest by cleaning up the forest floor and burning much of the underbrush and small trees that would compete with the larger trees for water and nutrients. After a fire the large trees with their foliage held high above and out of reach of the flames were left widely spaced where they had plenty of room to grow in the nutrient rich layer of ash left by the fire. Out of this ash will sprout grasses and forbs that provide food for wildlife.
Around a century ago people started putting out wildfires. Without regular fires brush and small trees were left to grow. Now the forests have grown up so thick with brush and trees that it has created an unhealthy and unnatural condition. Early explorers were able to easily ride their horses through our forests but after a century of fire suppression forests have grown so thick that it can now be difficult to even walk through them. With so many trees competing for limited nutrients and water they are not as healthy and don’t grow as fast or as large. The competition makes the larger trees less disease resistant less able to tolerate drought causing millions of trees to die every year from bark beetle infestations.
Now when a forest fire is started the fuel load in the forests has become so high with all the thick trees and brush that now they often burn so hot that they incinerate the whole forest instead of just the big trees. Instead of light fires that clean up the forest the thick trees and brush now act like a ladder and carry the flames high into the forest canopy where it kills everything. These intense fires bake the forest soil which leaves them impervious to water so precipitation just runs off causing erosion landslides and flooding. These baked soils can make it more difficult for a new forest regenerate.
Many environmental groups say we should leave the forests alone to let them burn because fire is a natural part of the forests. The problem with letting them burn now is the forests are out of equilibrium and now fires are more destructive to the forests than they used to be. Before we can allow fires to burn in a natural way we need to bring the forests back to equilibrium. In order to do that we must remove the excess fuel load. The most economically viable way of doing this on much of our forests is through commercial thinning. In a thinning the excess trees are removed and utilized for wood products and the sale of the wood products can help cover the enormous cost of restoring the forests. The excess conifers can be utilized to make products like lumber and poles and the hardwoods can be used to make excellent firewood. There is also the possibility of using western hardwoods for making lumber and other products.
Environmentalists and the forest products industry can work together to restore our forests while supplying our communities with jobs and forest products.