No sooner had rains cleared the sickening pall of smoke and ash from wildfires that a local political battle which had been brewing for months flared up. Sensational headlines based upon false information provided the opportunity for eager social media participants to add their own assumptions and conclusions of wrongdoing. Communities for Health Forests became a convenient target that requires submission of the facts.
This summer was reminiscent of the summer of 2002 when wildfires burned nearly 1 million acres of Southern Oregon over several months. Months later and after many conversations with federal land managers, the lack of any credible action plan to rehabilitate most of these lands became evident. We talked with people in distant communities impacted by federal land wildfires and heard stories remarkably like ours. The lack of attention given to restoration after catastrophic events, what renowned forest ecologist Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen calls “management by neglect” was not an Umpqua problem; it was a nationwide federal forest problem.
A year later a busload of civic, business, education, government and tribal leaders saw firsthand the devastation of just one 2002 wildfire. The next stop was a 1996 wildfire that had seen no restoration. Out of the stark reality of what was happening to our federal lands, CHF was established.
The founders’ strategy was to develop materials that would inform and educate the public, educators and youth about what follows catastrophic events, the risks of doing nothing and the promise of future forests if action is taken. Our information is backed by science and facts, applicable to forests across the country. Just as those local people believed, polling data told us that people across Oregon thought that these burned over landscapes are reforested with most dead trees and brush removed to reduce future fire risk. We discovered that most are unaware of fire science, management realities and their impact on public lands. We learned that they were totally unaware of the environmental, social and ecological impacts during and after the fire is out, of the carbon emitted by the decay of dead biomass and the damage extreme heat does to the soil. Short of personally taking folks into these burns, videos provide the most compelling evidence of reality.
In 2000, Senator Wyden led the effort passing the Secure Rural Schools act, SRS. That law designates Title III funds as “County Funds”, strictly limiting their use to only six areas including “Forest related educational opportunities.” Douglas County commissioners granted funds to CHF under this authority. Other counties around Oregon have also granted Title III funds to CHF. The law further states that Title III funds could be held in reserve and continue to fund forest related education. In 2016 the commissioners awarded us $150,000 from those original, restricted Title III SRS funds to develop, produce and distribute a series of forest related educational videos illustrating the science about more robust and healthier forests.
Much of our work is with educators and their students. Over the years we have guided busloads of students to forests burned by catastrophic wildfire or after a commercial harvest. Their involvement in planting the new forests reinforces their commitment to future generations. We also involve older students in monitoring how burned over forests change over time.
The information offered in our materials, presentations and videos is founded in the countless scientific findings and reports related to wildfire and its effects as well personal contacts with noted ecologists like Steven Pyne, Jim Agee, Tom Bonnicksen, John Gordon and Jack Ward Thomas. We monitor the daily reports of ongoing wildfires from firefighters on the lines, tracking conditions and hazards they face. And we follow agencies’ responses after fires.
We recognize that long before man began to exclude wildfire from our forests that fire, both natural and set by Native Americans, played a key role in maintaining more open ground, less dense canopy, a mosaic patterned forest more resilient to fire and insect infestations. Too often today’s federal forestlands are dense, overgrown and full of dead standing and downed trees. Simply burning them will not bring them back to health. They require careful preparation of the landscape to once again accept benign fire.
Some of what we say and do agrees with industry positions. For that we are called industry advocates. But we will not shy away from the science of forests and fires. We are dedicated to finding and publishing forest facts and scientific truths that otherwise would never be known in spite of the efforts of some groups who would rather hide the realities. Some have labeled our latest video, “After the Fire,” propaganda. I invite you to watch it at bit.ly/2yPPwMC. Please judge for yourselves. Then let’s have an open and civil discussion around wildfire, federal forests and their restoration.