As the 2012 wildfire season smolders around us, here are some scary numbers.
In Idaho, 20.4 million acres fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Forest Service.
Of that figure, 15 million acres are overgrown, susceptible to wildfire — and in need of what the Forest Service calls “restoration.” In other words, these dense forests need to be thinned, either through logging or prescribed burns, to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
Idaho is in the midst of a national effort to speed up forest restoration — a campaign that could transform our forests, and the Forest Service’s management of them. Nationally, the numbers are daunting as well: The Forest Service manages 193 million acres nationwide, and says 65 million to 82 million acres need restoration.
So Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell wants his local and regional foresters to step up the pace. The agency has been treating some 3.5 million acres a year; Tidwell would like to get that figure up to 4 million acres — within the current budget.
As Tidwell walked through the issue with the Statesman editorial board recently, I was struck by the transformative element of this effort. Forest restoration requires a lot of work on the ground, obviously, but a new approach to the administrative work.
Tidwell, a Boise native, is candid about the agency’s institutional strengths and weaknesses. He touts the agency’s expertise in the natural sciences — and I think that grounding will be crucial as the Forest Service tries to restore the health of its public lands.
But he also says the Forest Service has struggled with the social sciences, working on the front end with those most affected by its decisions.
The agency is working harder at collaboration — seeking consensus with local elected officials, environmentalists and a forest products industry that he considers “essential” to the restoration effort. Collaboration is the right approach, but the clock is running. “Collaboration takes time,” Tidwell said. “It’s not a shortcut.”
The other institutional challenge: ramping up restoration efforts while juggling the Forest Service’s time-honored multiple-use mission. Tidwell says he’d never ask his employees to do more with less — but he is asking them to do more with the same resources. Restoration work has to compete with requests for everything from mining permits to recreation projects to power transmission lines.
Little surprise, then, that Tidwell says that the reaction within the agency has been “somewhat mixed.” He’s pushing for change in a turbulent time, a tough sell in any institution. As Tidwell talked about his agency’s challenges, I couldn’t help think about my own industry, as traditional newspapers look to remake themselves in a digital age. The parallels are apparent.
For the Forest Service, the need to change quickly is also readily apparent. Fire seasons like this one, marked by the deadly and devastating fires in Colorado, should provide ample impetus.