Science

A huge forest experiment aims to reduce wildfires. Can it unite loggers and environmentalists?

A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 373, Issue 6561.

Malheur National Forest in Oregon—In a Sun-dappled glade here, James Johnston could see two possible futures for the forests that blanket the Blue Mountains. During a recent visit, the ecologist stood among orange-hued ponderosa pine trees with trunks so broad it would take two people to encircle one with their arms. Grasses carpeted the wide gaps between the pines, creating the feel of an alpine park.

Just 200 meters away, however, swaths of dead trees, their trunks weathered to a polished silver, rose from powdery dirt. “That’s old-growth ponderosa pine killed by the southern edge of the Canyon Creek Fire,” which struck in 2015, explained Johnston, who works at Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis.

A key difference? The living trees sat within a forest tract that had been carefully logged—“treated” in the parlance of researchers—as part of an ambitious experiment, launched in 2006, that aims to prevent the kinds of intense wildfires now destroying forests across western North America. The effort seeks to demonstrate ways of reversing more than 100 years of mismanagement that have transformed many forests into tinderboxes. It is also a study in how to overcome decades of disagreements among scientists, environmentalists, and forest workers on how to best protect both ecosystems and local economies. Here, environmentalists are welcoming chainsaws, and loggers are collaborating with scientists once reviled by the timber industry.

The massive experiment involves intensively monitoring some 550 plots, each 1000 square meters, scattered across nearly 700,000 hectares, to learn how best to deploy two standard techniques for making a forest more fire resistant: prescribed burning and limited logging. It has made the Malheur National Forest “one of the best studied national forests” in the United States, Johnston says. Funded chiefly by state and federal land management agencies, the research has become increasingly relevant as a warming climate increases the risks of wildfires so intense that they sterilize soils and kill massive old trees. Helping forests become more resilient is critical, Johnston says, because “we’re going to have a hard time growing trees under hotter, drier conditions.”

Burned and fallen trees.
Researchers fear intense blazes, such as the Bootleg Fire in Oregon this year, will kill old-growth trees and damage soil, making it more difficult for forests to regenerate.MARANIE STAAB/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

The lessons being learned here are as much about social science as about forestry. They point to the potential for grassroots collaborations to make a noticeable dent in an ecological problem that spans vast stretches of a continent, and make progress on solutions often stymied by fierce social conflicts.

As if to drive home the stakes, the air was tinged with the scent of fire during Johnston’s visit to the Blue Mountains in late July—smoke from the Bootleg Fire burning 230 kilometers to the southwest. That blaze would eventually grow to more than 160,000 hectares. It was just one of more than 80 large wildfires that have broken out this summer in the United States and Canada, destroying communities and enveloping the continent in a persistent brown haze.

The start of the Malheur forest project was not auspicious. An environmental lawyer brought a bodyguard to the first meeting.

In 2003, Susan Jane Brown, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, had just won the latest in a string of lawsuits challenging logging projects in the national forest, home to old-growth woodlands and such notable features as the world’s largest living organism—a fungus dubbed the “humongous fungus.” It is also a source of jobs. Boyd Britton, a county commissioner in Grant county, which spans much of the forest, had approached Brown and asked whether they could take a trip into the woods together, hoping it might help break the impasse over logging.

Brown and Britton lived just 320 kilometers apart, but in very different worlds. Brown was an environmental activist from Portland, a city synonymous with a liberal ethos. Britton was a welder from a county that’s home to fewer than 8000 people and is shaped by a tradition of logging, mining, and ranching. Politically, it has a conservative streak so deep that former President Donald Trump won 77% of the vote in 2020. “Grant county is not always a safe place for people like me,” Brown says. She agreed to the meeting but brought along a large male colleague.

Yet Britton and Brown found a sliver of common ground over 3 days touring the woods, looking at both logged and untouched patches. They each had a deep affection for the forests. And both had something to lose from the never-ending conflicts over how they were managed. Lumber mills in Grant county were dwindling as lawsuits and a changing political climate slowed logging. But some environmentalists, including Brown, had concluded that stopping logging wasn’t enough. “The science was really starting to come out and point to the fact that active management was necessary to restore many forests,” Brown says.

Before Europeans arrived en masse, forests in this region were a patchwork of meadows and unevenly aged stands with a preponderance of big trees. Fires were frequent, but smaller and less intense than today. Before 1890, Johnston’s research has shown, chunks of forest typically burned every 11 to 21 years, the scorch marks visible in a tree’s annual growth rings.

By the time of Brown’s and Britton’s visit, more than 100 years of logging and cattle grazing, as well as a national policy of snuffing out all wildfires, had left the landscape overcrowded with trees. Most sites haven’t burned in recent decades. “It’s like a faucet got shut off,” Johnston says.

Thinning, prescribed burns, and wildfires combined amounted to just 45% of historic natural fire levels between 2008 and 2012.
(Graphic) K. Franklin/Science; (Data) N. Vaillant and E. Reinhardt, Journal of Forestry 115(4):300 DOI: 10.5849/jof.16-067

Drought- and fire-tolerant species—particularly ponderosa pines with their spare tufts of long needles and thick, heat-resistant bark—now compete with other species, including grand firs. The firs’ thin bark, prolific needles, and close-to-the-ground branches provide less protection against fire, but the species thrives in the shade of other trees and grows quickly. Using pencil-thin cores taken from trees to reconstruct how the forest looked at different times, Johnston found that, over the past 150 years, many forests had come to hold 1.5 to eight times more wood than before, creating a huge reservoir of fuel.

This process, repeated across much of the West, has increased the risk of bigger, hotter, and more frequent fires. In California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, for example, researchers found evidence that the proportion of fires that burned with “high severity” has more than quadrupled since the early 20th century.

Researchers and forest managers long ago identified ways to reduce fire risks, a combination of “thinning” forests with selective logging to make them more open and intentionally setting “prescribed” burns that mimic gentler wildfires. But in many places, these practices have made slow progress, for a constellation of reasons. Fears of air pollution from smoke, as well as a shortage of trained workers and funding, have hampered the use of prescribed fires. As a result, the area intentionally burned each year in the western United States remained virtually unchanged between 1998 and 2018.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, sometimes oppose thinning projects, seeing them as a backdoor effort to increase logging. The decline of local timber industries has, paradoxically, made it difficult to thin some forests. In northern Arizona, an ambitious U.S. Forest Service (USFS) program to log nearly 1 million hectares was slowed as private contractors struggled to find a market for the wood.

In many regions, forest managers would need to double burns or thinning projects to equal the area of forest historically “cleaned up” by natural wildfires, according to a 2017 study by researchers with USFS. Restoration efforts “need to be done on a very large scale and very quickly, or [forests] are going to get caught in one of these firestorms,” says forest ecologist Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, Seattle.

In the Blue Mountains, people cite two reasons why traditional adversaries have been able to break the gridlock: science and beer.

After their initial meeting, Brown, Britton, and others embarked on an uneasy courtship. They recruited a handful of people from different sides whom they thought could work together, and a facilitator to help avoid breakdowns. In 2006, they launched the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, a nonprofit whose members included environmentalists, timber interests, and others with a stake in how the Malheur forest is managed. Their goal was to find common ground on restoration projects and press USFS to implement them. Early on, they agreed to lean on science to give a factual foundation to their deliberations.

Wildfires turn up the heat

In the northwestern United States, mismanagement and climate change have increased the risk of more severe wildfires. Blazes that kill 70% of trees became more likely, modeling studies show.

Wildfires in the Blue Mountains in the late 20th century were more severe than in the early 20th century.
(Graphic) K. Franklin/Science; (Data) Intermountain Fire Science Lab

Brown suggested consulting two of the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent forest scientists, Franklin and Norm Johnson of OSU. The pair is known for pioneering work on wetter old-growth forests closer to the Pacific coast, research that in the 1990s led to the end of most logging on federally owned old-growth forests in the northwestern United States. To Brown’s surprise, Britton and others in Grant county agreed.

The two scientists offered diagnoses that included something attractive for each side. The forest needed more logging and fire, Franklin and Johnson said. But don’t touch the old-growth ponderosas, they added. “In the beginning, both sides were somewhat ruled by their emotions, and science helped bring everybody to the middle,” says Dave Hannibal, a manager for the forest restoration company Grayback Forestry, who joined the partnership in 2006.

The collaboration started small, endorsing a 2009 project to remove young, skinny trees from 200 hectares. Within 4 years, its ambitions had grown. The partnership helped craft a plan to treat 100,000 hectares and a 10-year contract between USFS and a local company, Iron Triangle, to do much of the work. Although the partnership doesn’t have regulatory authority or money to fund work in the forest, USFS officials look to it to help navigate the rocky politics of forest management so that the service can expand its efforts.

“We were trying to do restoration, but it was at a very small scale. We just didn’t want to offend anybody,” says Roy Walker, a longtime officer at the Malheur forest who is a liaison to the partnership. “What the collaboration allowed us to do was think bigger.”

Today, Johnston, a former Ph.D. student of Johnson’s, oversees teams monitoring the plots set up to study the forest’s response to different treatments, including thinning of varying intensities, logging of burned forest, and prescribed fires. Each summer, technicians laboriously walk many of the sites, noting every plant and measuring every tree, even fallen branches.

The work has illuminated the forest’s history and evolution, and has helped answer some thorny questions, such as whether some big trees that are protected should be removed. Since the mid-1990s, federal guidelines meant to protect old-growth forests in eastern Oregon and Washington have barred cutting any tree bigger than 53 centimeters in diameter. In the Blue Mountains, loggers chafed against this one-size-fits-all restriction. But environmentalists feared loosening the limit would lead to the loss of vital trees. The partnership turned to Johnston for answers.

Using the research plots, Johnston found that the size limit made it difficult to cut down enough trees in some areas to recreate the more spacious landscape of the past. For example, if loggers left big grand firs untouched, they would constitute nearly 30% of the forest after a thinning project—double their historical share, researchers reported this year in Ecosphere.

Such findings helped persuade Brown that bigger grand firs needed to come down, and helped lead to an easing of the federal restrictions. “You’ve got to get over your worship of large trees,” she says. “That’s still hard for me, because I like big trees. But I want the right big trees.”

Six years ago, after the Canyon Creek Fire burned more than 45,000 hectares of forest, the partnership again turned to scientists to help resolve their differences. Timber workers wanted to cut many of the standing burned trees before they rotted. Environmentalists feared such “salvage” logging could harm forest dwellers such as woodpeckers, which rely on dead trees for nests and insects to eat.

The two sides agreed to ask USFS to use the postfire logging as an experiment, to see how different kinds of logging affected three species of woodpeckers. They also wanted to evaluate a USFS computer model designed to pinpoint areas that could be logged with minimal harm, based on the habitat needed by different woodpeckers.

Preliminary results suggest the modeling and certain kinds of salvage logging are useful, says Vicki Saab, a USFS wildlife biologist who led the study. “The salvage did provide economic benefits locally,” Saab says. “At the same time we were maintaining habitat.”

The rings on a tree stump, with burn marks several rings in.
The stump of a ponderosa pine, a fire-resistant species, shows scars from past wildfires.W. Cornwall/Science

Researchers, meanwhile, were also seeing signs that the treated forest plots were better at withstanding fire. Trees in one area thinned in 2014 grew at more than twice the rate of nearby forests that weren’t logged, according to monitoring by Johnston’s team, probably because fewer trees were competing for scarce water. That was good news, because bigger trees usually withstand fire better. And the intensity and speed of fires had decreased several years after the thinning, computer simulations suggested.

Last month, some of the treated areas were put to a real test. A lightning strike ignited a blaze that eventually grew to more than 8000 hectares. When it reached areas that had been treated starting in 2016, wildfire fighters reported that flames that were burning through the treetops eased and moved to the ground, enabling firefighters to control the blaze, says Sarah Bush, a wildfire analyst and fire manager in the national forest. “Their words were: ‘Those fuel treatments saved the Prairie City Ranger District,’” Bush says.

It took more than data to span the economic, political, and cultural chasms that separated members of the partnership. Several participants point to another factor: a backroom bar at The Outpost, a restaurant on the main street of John Day, a small town that’s the business center of Grant county. After long meetings in the woods, the diverse crew would gather there. Conversations turned to more personal matters: whose kid played soccer, who had brought an elk home from a hunting trip. “You start to humanize the others,” Brown recalls. “Then it turns out that enemies become friends. I think that honestly that is our secret sauce.”

Britton, who moved to Arizona in 2018 but continues to follow the work, concurs. “It’s hard to hate the other guy at the table when you’re drinking with him,” he says.

Personal chemistry, however, isn’t all it takes for such initiatives to succeed, says Emily Jane Davis, an OSU social scientist who studies collaborative land management. Officials overseeing the forest were open to outside input, she notes. And a federal program to encourage collaborative forest management, created by Congress in 2009, provided an infusion of dollars. The 10-year contract, unusual in its scale and duration, helped provide stability and a long-term vision. “It’s more socially complex than, ‘Industry and environmentalists are friends now,’” Davis says.

Indeed, those involved in the project have faced criticism even from their own allies. In 2015, some environmental groups issued a letter blasting collaborative initiatives as “rubber stamping” federal agency proposals. In August, one of those groups sued to block a planned 16,000-hectare logging project in the Malheur forest that was endorsed by the partnership. On the other side, the Canyon Creek Fire intensified complaints about a lack of logging. “There’s still local people that think if we’re not cutting those big old pines before they get burned up, we’re failing,” says Zach Williams, a fifth-generation Grant county resident who helps run Iron Triangle and serves on the partnership board.

In the wake of wildfires elsewhere, recent studies have found that pairing prescribed burns with thinning reduces fire damage to trees better than just thinning. In the Malheur forest, however, Johnston estimates that, for a variety of reasons, workers have been able to set prescribed burns in just 20% of tracts thinned in recent years. Officials are now hoping to make up some ground by winning federal funds to continue the partnership’s work for 10 more years and treat an additional 85,000 hectares.

For the moment, however, “we’re behind,” said Hannibal as he and Johnston toured one of the thinned tracts earlier this year. Hannibal gestured to a grand fir sapling that had begun to reach for the sky. “Prescribed fire’s going to be necessary to kill this guy,” he said. But then he reached down and yanked the little tree from the ground. One less piece of fuel to stoke a future blaze.

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