Explainer: Anti-Forestry Groups Protesting Effort to Thin Fire-Prone Forests in Southern Oregon

As anti-forestry groups prepare to protest the Bureau of Land Management’s Integrated Vegetation Management plan at federal court on April 2, the American Forest Resource Council offers the following explainer on the plan and why it’s important for improving forest health and reducing the risks of wildfire and smoke in Southern Oregon.

 Integrated Vegetation Management for Resilient Lands – Explainer

For those who explore the public lands surrounding the Rogue Valley, it should come as no surprise that federal forests in this region are at a tipping point. Wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent as the wildfire season expands deeper into fall and spring. Drought and soaring summer temperatures have aided the flatheaded fir borer’s northern push, leaving a wake of red and dead Douglas-fir across the valley. By every indication these trends will worsen, and the surrounding forests are ill-prepared to withstand this continued pressure. The result of these colliding factors may be disastrous, not just for the forests, but for wildlife and humans alike.

Fortunately, the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management understands the steps needed to prepare their land base for this likely scenario. Unfortunately, local anti-forestry groups intend to block this effort because they disagree with the science that supports the solution.

This Tuesday, April 2nd, the US Court in Medford will hear a case against a BLM project known as Integrated Vegetation Management for Resilient Lands (a.k.a. the IVM Project). The IVM Project proposes fuels reduction treatments which target some of the most vulnerable and ecologically valuable old forests surrounding the Rogue Valley with hopes that activities resulting from the IVM project will protect these forests from the next stand-replacing fire.

What is IVM?

Litigants accuse the BLM of failing to provide “meaningful public review and site-specific analysis” when they prepared the IVM EA. In fact, the opposite is true. IVM is a “programmatic” analysis document, whereby a large project area is examined, and an environmental analysis examines the effects to that landscape in the context of a narrow suite of treatments. When the BLM decides to carry out a project via the IVM EA, they thoroughly analyze that project based on more site-specific details, and they issue a decision based on that analysis.

While preparing the EA and any corresponding decisions, the BLM solicits public feedback and maintains total transparency to stay in compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The purpose of programmatic analysis is not to avoid public input; rather, they are designed to avoid unnecessary and duplicative analysis.

The treatments proposed in IVM are not novel. They are treatments, backed by peer reviewed science and decades of institutional knowledge, which have proven to be effective at increasing stand resilience in mixed conifer forests.  In fact, when the BLM finalized their current Resource Management Plans in 2016, they included a requirement that the treatments proposed by IVM be implemented within ten years.  The Environmental Impact Statement prepared in conjunction with those RMPs assumed this implementation and included an analysis of those effects.  The programmatic process is designed to avoid the unnecessary duplication inherent to this process and to give the BLM a chance at actually treating this landscape in a meaningful way within a realistic timeframe.

Why do treatments promoted in IVM target Late Seral forests?

It’s true that a large component of the IVM footprint includes some of the oldest and most ecologically significant forests within the Rogue Basin. Treatments proposed in IVM are designed to protect or enhance these forests, not destroy them. In every stand identified for treatment in IVM, the largest and most fire-adapted trees will be spared, along with any trees with important wildlife characteristics (broken tops, cavities, nesting structures).

What is permitted to be removed are the smaller trees which have grown into and under the canopies of the larger and older relics. The persistence of these mid-story trees is not the result of natural forest succession, but human intervention. Before the 20th century, regular fire intervals removed these trees when they were still at ground level, and there was little chance fire moving into the overstory. After over a century of fire suppression, however, those trees have become midstory trees while new seedlings have continued to grow underneath. As a result, many of the District’s largest trees sit atop a continuous vertical fuel load where even a benign ground fire threatens to destroy the most dominant trees in the stand.

The BLM’s plan in these stands with large overstory trees is to increase the amount of space between canopies and to create a natural and open forest structure. In the District’s homogenous stands that look more like modern plantations, the BLM will utilize skips, gaps, and group selections to impart complexity in these fire-excluded forests. All of these treatments, taken together, will result in open, dynamic, and resilient forests where large overstory trees are well-spaced and free to grow without competition for water and nutrients and are more likely to survive the next large fire.

Something must change in the way we manage our public forests; doing nothing is no longer an option. Forests are simply not prepared to withstand increasing global temperature and prolonged drought while also maintaining stand densities which have likely never existed in known history. Eventually, something is going to break, and we may lose more than just our beloved forests. Projects like IVM are critical if we hope to restore these forests back to the balanced and resilient ecosystems of years past.