Forest health, like human health, involves a complex set of variables. Just like medical doctors, there are many types of forest health specialists. Working together, silviculturists, fire specialists, hydrologists, biologists and timber specialists create comprehensive forest treatment and management plans.
Forests face multiple health threats including disease, drought, fire and insect infestation. The way we manage our forests has short- and long-term impacts on a forest’s ability to respond to and resist these disturbances. This is similar to our own bodies: If we adopt healthy behaviors like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a balanced diet, we are less susceptible to illness and chronic diseases.
A Trip to the Doctor is Cheaper Than the ER
We all know that healthcare can be costly, particularly when we get really sick. Insurance is important to reduce those costs, but unfortunately, there are no insurance policies that can help pay the cost of full-scale forest health restoration. The incentive to restore our forests is simple: The longer we wait, the higher the cost rises. Just like our own health, going to the doctor for regular checkups is much cheaper and less traumatic than ignoring health problems and ending up in the emergency room.
Thanks to ongoing research, we know a great deal about how to address forest health across different forest types. And just like people, different forests need different types of treatment to restore health and resiliency. Treatments are as diverse as thinning trees in areas that are overgrown and at risk of large-scale fire, planting trees in areas already affected by fire, and employing prescribed fires to remove undergrowth and ground fuels.
For example, southwest ponderosa pine forests that grow across Arizona and New Mexico thrive in conditions where low-severity fires burn the forest every few years. These forests evolved with low-intensity fires that help recycle nutrients and maintain a low density of trees across the landscape. This helps reduce inter-tree competition for resources like sunlight and water, allowing the trees that survive to grow large and healthy. However, over the last 100 years, these forests have growth thick, and instead of burning at low intensity, fires are now killing entire stands of trees, healthy or otherwise.
We know that these forests require low-intensity fires, but we also know that they have too many small trees and too much fuel for fires to stay small enough to remain beneficial to these ecosystems. So, in order to maintain the long-term health of these stands, forest managers have to first thin some of the smaller and less healthy trees and then reintroduce low-intensity fire through prescribed burning. Importantly, this doesn’t reduce the occurrence of fire.
Fires will still happen, but thinning does reduce the impacts that these fires have on the overall health of the forest. It’s a bit like getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and making time to exercise. These actions won’t guarantee that you won’t get a cold, but they may help make the cold less severe and help you recover more quickly.
Sometimes You Need to Go to the ER
While preventative treatment is almost always better for both humans and forests, sometimes neither doctors nor forest managers can intervene soon enough to prevent acute problems. In the forest world, these acute problems typically result in largescale deforestation, often through severe wildfires, but also through disease and insect infestations. In places that have already burned severely, the likelihood of trees rejuvenating naturally is quite low.
Severe fires create soils that don’t support young trees and the flames often burn any seeds on the forest floor or on trees consumed by the fire. In such instances, reforestation is needed to prevent erosion and the loss of topsoil. Forests play a critical role in watersheds by capturing, storing, and purifying water. Planting accelerates forest and watershed recovery after high-intensity burns.
The NFF’s work in Arizona is a great example of how we help intervene to help prevent severe fires and how we triage when conflagrations strike. Through the Northern Arizona Forest Fund, we are working with the Forest Service, Salt River Project and other partners to thin some forests where we can most effectively prevent large fires. When fires burn too hot, we plant trees to jumpstart the forest’s recovery and help protect watersheds through our Trees for US program.
Perhaps the largest challenge in restoring forest health is the scale of work that needs to be performed across the country, whether thinning or planting.
Addressing forest health on 193 million acres of National Forests is a massive undertaking. In addition to our work in Arizona, the NFF supports local collaborative restoration efforts that utilize a wide set of prescriptions to maintain, improve and restore forest health. In California, the NFF-led Tahoe West Restoration Partnership is tackling forest health issues across multiple jurisdictions by working with partners to plan and implement long-term, largescale forest health improvement projects. In northern Idaho, the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative is working to plan and implement landscape-scale forest restoration prescriptions that will help prevent severe fires and make forests more resilient if and when fires do strike.
These comprehensive plans set a long-term trajectory for restoring health, protecting communities, encouraging recreation, and building restoration economies and capacity. Across the country, the NFF is investing millions of dollars in forest restoration treatments and spending those funds in strategic ways to maximize public benefits by making our forests healthier and safer. In addition to thousands of acres of forest thinning and prescribed burning treatments, we have planted over 11 million trees since 2007, all so that future generations can also enjoy the many benefits that healthy, sustainable National Forests provide.
At the end of the day, we are connected to the lands that sustain us. Our own health is not only similar to forest health, it’s dependent upon healthy forests that provide, clean water, clean air, wildlife, and amazing outdoor recreation opportunities.
How does the Forest Service define a healthy forest: A healthy forest has the capacity across the landscape for renewal, for recovery from a wide range of disturbances, and for retention of its ecological resiliency while meeting current and future needs of people for desired levels of values, uses, products, and services.