Recently, I had the privilege of being the only representative from the conservation community invited to speak at a week-long U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief’s Review in the Angeles National Forest in southern California. Participating in the conference was inspiring – I had the opportunity to engage directly with a wide variety of Forest Service personnel, including the Chief himself, and was able to participate in discussions about sustainability and forest planning implementation with other key stakeholders.
Forest planning and restoration work is a big part of what we do here in California and throughout the Pacific West, and the policies that we design and promote shape forest management practices not just here, but all across the country. In addition to ensuring that our forests remain healthy and can continue to provide us with much-needed resources, proper forest management is essential for the wildlife species, including many threatened and endangered species, that depend on them. Eight percent of U.S. lands – many of them managed by the Forest Service – supports one in three at-risk species like the great gray owl, pine marten, yellow-legged frog and sage-grouse.
Along with Defenders, many conservation organizations have been involved in Sierra Nevada national forest issues for well over a decade. In anticipation of upcoming forest plan revisions, our coalition sent a series of letters to Regional Forester Randy Moore outlining a number of issues, especially those related to wildlife, that we would like addressed during the planning process. We also worked with a number of partners on the development of a comprehensive conservation strategy for the national forests in the Sierra, which promotes forest planning and implementation that is science-based, conserves ecosystems and species, focuses on key sustainability issues, and provides solutions and a road map for the future management of our national forests.
During the forest planning implementation panel of the Chief’s Review, I spoke about the need to incorporate this conservation strategy into forest planning, and discussed the new directions the USFS is taking. The new planning rule’s emphasis on ecological restoration, for example, is a welcome step in the right direction. Likewise, seeing the USFS embrace a newer concept of “strong sustainability” represents a dramatically different view from the past. From a planning perspective, sustainability was once simply regarded as the intersection of the environment, economy and society. The idea of “strong sustainability,” on the other hand, recognizes that both the economy and society are bound by the environment, not separate from it. We need a healthy environment to have robust economic and societal systems.
In order to truly maximize strong sustainability, we need to plan across wide geographic regions, not just individually from one forest area to the next. There is also no debate about a clear need to ramp up the pace and scale of restoration activities to treat the buildup of fuels from decades of aggressive fire suppression and the unsustainable logging practices of the past. Most importantly, however, we must ensure that we’re also restoring wildlife habitat and key ecological processes, including reintroducing fire to the landscape.
Particularly in southern California, we are all too aware of the sometimes very severe effects that out-of-control wildfires can have on people and wildlife, often because of the lack of controlled burns. I stressed to the audience and my colleagues that we cannot meet our restoration goals without an active burn program, including robust use of controlled burns and using ignitions as managed fire away from communities. We need more controlled fire on the landscape, not only to address the significant buildup of downed trees and forest litter that fuels wildfires, but for a whole range of ecological reasons like plant seed regeneration and nutrient cycling.
I am happy to report that the concerns I voiced at the conference were well-received. A number of Chief’s Review Panel members, including the USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, Regional Forester Randy Moore, Pacific Southwest Research Station Director, and others approached me after the panel to express their appreciation for my participation and comments. All in all, it was a terrific opportunity to provide feedback from the conservation community’s perspective on how the USFS is implementing forest planning with the important emphasis on sustainability and the use of best available science.
Pamela Flick is a California Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Courtney Sexton, Communications Associate, also contributed to this post.