by Michael Howell
Steve Schmidt and Wayne Rusk, co-chairs of the Ravalli County Collaborative, stopped by the Bitterroot Star on Monday to talk about the collaborative’s recently released position paper on wildfire suppression.
The Collaborative is a diverse group of volunteers appointed by the Ravalli County Commissioners to promote the wise use and management of public natural resources by local, state and federal agencies within Ravalli County. The group, struggling for some time now over complex and often controversial issues, has commented regularly on Forest Service activities over the last few years. On December 12, the advisory group issued a “Fire Position Statement” beginning with a quote attributed to Fire Adapted Bitterroot Joint Chief’s project FY22:
“The Bitterroot Valley has 300,920 priority area acres identified by the Montana Forest Action Plan and 5 of the top 10 fire sheds facing the most wildfire risk in Montana… This threat, combined with unprecedented growth and new home construction that extends to the boundary of the Bitterroot National Forest, highlights why we need action across all ownerships.”
In its statement, the Collaborative acknowledges that “naturally occurring wildfires, as well as prescribed burns, are an important part of renewing degraded forest ecosystems” and supports “the wise, adaptive management practices associated with returning our forests to fire-dependent and fire-adapted landscapes.”
The key to diverse and abundant forest wildlife, “is a complex of plants of varying ages, heights, and species,” according to the position paper. “Wildfire historically contributed to such forest complexity. As forest stands regenerate, so do wildlife habitats.”
What changed things, according to the group’s statement, was “decades of fire suppression” that left thousands of acres of over-stocked forest heavy with
fuels to the point that fire behavior changed, leading to “unnaturally large and intense wildfires.”
Getting back to a historic fire regime can be achieved through proper management, according to the Collaborative. They advocate the use of mechanical thinning, fuel reduction, and prescribed burning to reduce the extent of damages caused to natural resources by catastrophic wildfire; increase the effectiveness of suppression actions; improve forest health, wildlife habitat, and ecosystem function; and reduce the risk to fire fighters and private landowners in the Wildland Urban Interface “through integrated cross boundary project planning and implementation.”
The management recommendations in the Collaborative’s statement are heavy on planning and wildfire preparedness and the need to integrate actions between private landowners, fire districts, county, state, and federal governments.
“A current updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) is vital to identify priority management and funding needs,” according to the position paper. “Careful consideration, planning, and prioritizing is required to strategically implement forest fuel treatments given the enormity of the current condition of our forests, potential effects of a changing climate and very limited funding.”
The Collaborative considers transportation management in the WUI to enhance wildfire suppression, access and landowner safety important and advocates for the use of the Montana Forest Action Plan as “a valuable tool to identify priority areas for forest management.”
They believe all available management tools should be used to help minimize the risks to human life and property and enhance fire fighter safety within the WUI and that the forest should be managed “to limit high severity wildfires outside the range of natural variability to protect rare habitats and existing old growth stands, and restore the role of frequent low- to moderate- intensity fires in fire-dependent ecosystems.”
“Changing climate conditions will inevitably change our western forests in ways yet discovered. Therefore, managing our forests will require a considerable adaptive management approach intended to increase forest resilience and allow room for forest ecosystems to evolve with changing conditions. All treatments will require thorough and well-funded monitoring plans,” it states.
The group considers mechanical thinning and periodic prescribed burning the principle tools available to reduce forest fuels to restore historic fire regimes and stimulate healthy ecosystems, and advocates use of prescribed fire and mechanical thinning to reduce fuel loads in and adjacent to old growth stands where appropriate.
The advisory group promotes a diverse mosaic within the ecosystem. They recommend that “overstocked forested communities within and adjacent to the WUI use mechanical thinning followed by prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads,” stating these treatments will be needed regularly to maintain fire resilience.
“In some wildlands, well beyond the WUI, allowing wildfires to burn naturally may be an appropriate response. Considerations may include tree species/forest types, old growth, fuel density, and protection of backcountry infrastructure,” it states.
While forest thinning and prescribed burning may help restore forest ecosystems and aid in wildfire suppression, it states, forest management projects in the WUI alone may not be sufficient to reduce high intensity, high severity wildfires and prevent damage to private property.
“Private landowners should consider fuels mitigation and maintain defensible spaces within their home ignition zones,” it states. “Managers should carefully consider the burned site potential to regenerate naturally. The loss of some forest stands is not always harmful as open areas and meadows may follow. Wildlife species and abundance naturally changes as their habitats change. A diverse and mosaic landscape of forest types and associated ecosystems can strengthen wildlife populations and improve ecosystem function and diversity.”
Schmidt and Rusk emphasized that the collaborative was made up of a lot of people with diverse interests including a retired wildlife biologist, a retired realtor, a retired justice department official from the Forest Service, a retired Forest Service District Ranger, a retired Forest Service recreation specialist, a logger, a county commissioner and a county planner.
Schmidt said that the commissioners’ intent and design in setting up the advisory board was to get representatives from different perspectives.
“We are not all of like mind, sometimes quite divergent,” said Schmidt.
Rusk said, “When you do that it requires more give and less take than a simple majority. In some cases a lot has been given but something big has also been gained. Consensus. We are willing to give enough to get some consensus.” He said that give and take is especially important in Ravalli County due to the wildlife threat and the need to do something rather than stop things from being done.
“We are trying to address this pivotal and timely issue by sparking a community discussion,” said Rusk. “Our orientation is to encourage more community dialogue about how we might use fire as a management tool.”