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Addressing wildfire through forest management

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SFI-certified forestland near Hazel Creek in California. Source: SFI.

This article is sponsored by SFI.

In 2020, we again faced catastrophic wildfires in the western United States and Canada. The fires took a devastating toll, including more than 40 lives lost in California, Oregon and Washington state. They affected the lives of those in major urban areas as seen in apocalyptic images of smoke-filled cities across the West, and even caused hazy skies on the East Coast, thousands of miles away. The economic damage was significant, with estimates of more than $20 billion in direct costs alone. 

For those of us who love forests, the damage is heart-wrenching. The power of forests is greater than many realize. They store carbon, which mitigates climate change. They provide habitat for varied species. They are a source of clean air and water. They provide economic benefits to diverse communities, and they are a renewable source for multiple products we use every day. They are also beautiful and provide many of us places where we love to spend time with friends and family. All this is why we need to ensure they last. 

Forest fires have long played a role in the evolution and function of natural ecosystems. While studies have predicted they would worsen, the current rate and scale is even worse than expected. In 2020, about 10 million acres burned in the U.S., an area about the size of Maryland and more than double the acreage burned in 2019.  

Why have the fires gotten so bad so quickly, and what can we — including the business world — do about it? 

There is little doubt that climate change is the most significant driver of this trend towards an increasing number of large wildfires. The link between wildfires and climate is clear. The planet is warming, and higher temperatures lead to drier conditions, resulting in more dead trees and debris that can act as a potential tinderbox. 

There is also an important link between wildfire frequency and intensity, and varying forest management practices. A history of fire suppression, or not allowing natural fires to occur, has led to a dangerous "fuel load," a buildup in the amount of forest debris in many forests. A lack of management also contributes to a prevalence of invasive and other aggressive species that thrive in current climactic conditions and contribute to unexpected fire patterns. Without forest management to mitigate these conditions, the potential for dangerous fires can mount. 

Proper management that increases overall forest health, including reducing fuel loads and invasive species, can decrease the likelihood of damage from catastrophic fire. Forest managers are experts in practices such as selective harvesting, thinning treatments, prescribed burning or brush removal to counteract the cumulative impact of years of fire suppression activity. Controlled burns, or prescribed fires, intentionally reduce forest debris to effectively reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and related side effects such as unhealthy air. Thus, sustainably managed forests can be used to reduce fire risk, advance ecosystem function and provide a range of important benefits, including pest management and clean air and water.

For 25 years, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative has worked to promote the values and benefits of sustainably managed forests. More than 375 million acres of forests in the U.S. and Canada are independently audited to the strict requirements of the SFI Forest Management Standard, with tens of millions more influenced by the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard, which helps elevate sustainability outcomes across forests that are not certified. This scale translates to enormous benefits relative to forest health, fire risk reduction, ensuring habitat for species at risk and much more. In the simplest of terms, that means highly trained forest managers are paying attention to vast areas of well-managed forests so that they are climate- and fire-resilient. 

SFI is not alone in our efforts. The organizations that use our standards, the conservation groups we partner with, the grantees with whom we collaborate and the academics who support our research all form a strong and committed group working in unison to improve the health of forests. Specifically, the SFI Forest Management Standard requires certified organizations to "protect forests from damaging agents, such as environmentally or economically undesirable wildfire… to maintain and improve long-term forest health, productivity, and economic viability." SFI also leads a variety of collaborative conservation projects including, for example, the Manastash-Taneum Resilient Landscape Restoration Project in Washington state. This project demonstrated the benefits of responsible harvesting in conjunction with prescribed burning in reducing catastrophic wildfire risk. The Washington Department of Natural Resources and Yakama Nation, both SFI-certified organizations, were two partners on this project which had the added benefit of contributing to the local economy through the harvesting of small trees. Consumers can support these efforts by choosing products from certified forests because those products store carbon and come from a renewable resource. 

Now is the time for leaders to emphasize sustainable forest management as a key mitigation tool in the fight against catastrophic wildfires. The benefits will do more than just reduce fire risk. We’ll see an increase in carbon storage and other benefits as well. And we’ll all be assured that our forests will support our quality of life now and for a long time into the future.

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