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Originally published Sunday, August 19, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Mega wildfires will become the norm without change

Mega wildfires will become the unfortunate norm unless Congress, state legislatures and agency administrators are convinced of the need for fundamental change in policy direction for forest management.

Special to The Times

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TAYLOR Bridge, Waldo Canyon, Wallow -- these are places fleetingly implanted in the public's consciousness by raging wildfires. Why are wildfires increasing in frequency, intensity and cost?

Climate change is altering temperature regimes, precipitation patterns and winds, but more factors are involved.

A national policy was adopted to put out wildfires wherever they might start after the Big Burn of 1910 consumed more than 3 million acres of forest in the Northwest. Under some circumstances, that policy makes good sense. Depending on the time and conditions, wildfires can be formidable destructive forces, lives and property could be lost, and ecological functions, affecting water, soil, fish and wildlife disrupted for decades or even centuries.

But for dry, fire-adapted, fire-dependent Western forests, the one-size-fits-all policy has also had disastrous consequences. Tree-stand densities and species compositions have changed drastically, increasing vulnerability to water stress and susceptibility to insect infestation, disease and mortality.

For millennia, tribal peoples relied upon fire as an essential tool to maintain the health and productivity of animal and plant communities they depended upon. Managers are now trying to reintroduce fire as a means of renewing ecological processes and reduce occurrence of large, intense wildfires.

Federal funding for forest-fire prevention and suppression has been shifted to treat grass and shrub lands that normally experience frequent burning.

There are multiple factors that are moving us backward. Administrative withdrawals of federal lands prevent forest management in areas such as northeast Washington. There, infestations of spruce bud worms and pine beetles are reaching crisis levels.

Sawmill closures have reduced the economic viability of forest retention and discouraged investment in forest stewardship. Rising costs and regulatory uncertainty for forestland owners foster conversion of the land to residential development. That increases pressure to divert scarce public funding from land and forest management to protect private property.

Recommendations of scientists and managers are being lost in the teaspoons and bullets of media coverage, emotion, rhetoric, jargon, confusion, misinformation and hidden agendas that now typify public debate over the future of our forests.

Conditions are ripe for more forest conflagrations. All it takes is ignition -- from lightning, campfires, equipment sparks, arson.

What needs to change to reduce future threats of catastrophic loss from forest wildfires? From a biological standpoint, the prescription is obvious. Reduce hazardous fuel loads, improve the capacity of forests to lower risk and endure change by reducing tree densities, planting diverse native species and encouraging open spaces and clumpy vegetative patterns.

The prescription is much more elusive from a political standpoint. Treating the millions of acres of rapidly deteriorating forests will require large expenditure of public funds, but billions are already spent annually to fight wildfires in unhealthy forests.

Economic utilization of wood removed to reduce fuel loads will be essential to help defray costs, but sizable investments will need to be made to create economically viable forest-products management, harvesting, transportation and manufacturing infrastructure.

Recovered biomass could provide cellulose for emerging technology such as nanobiotechnology and feedstocks for biofuels, which could reduce fossil-fuel dependence and produce renewable materials for a wide variety of uses.

Legislators, administrators and land owners will have to embrace the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy under development by tribal, federal, state and private land managers.

Formidable challenges must be overcome to reduce threats of wildfire. But by doing so, we will enjoy benefits such as clean water, productive fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and vibrant rural economies.

Mega wildfires will become the unfortunate norm unless Congress, state legislatures and agency administrators are convinced of the need for fundamental change in policy direction for forest management. Sometimes, looking back can help us contend with today's challenges. Generations of living on the land taught tribal peoples to respect the land by caring for it, a lesson for everyone to take to heart.

Gary Morishima is natural resource adviser to the president of the Quinault Indian Nation and executive board member of the Intertribal Timber Council.

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