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Climate & Energy
Decision Making Under Uncertainty: Managing Forests and Fire in the Anthropocene
V. Alaric Sample

The future of America’s forests is more uncertain now than at any time since science-based sustainable forest management was established in this country more than a century ago.

The Conservation Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century saw the creation of federally protected public forests, establishment of the basic laws and policies that guide the sustainable management of state, private, and tribal forests, and development of an unrivaled capacity for forest research and science. Our knowledge of forests has never been better, yet an area of forest larger than that of several states stands dead or dying, with millions more acres imperiled not by foreign invasive species, but by native insects and pathogens with which these forests have coexisted for millennia. US wildland firefighting technology and capabilities are widely acknowledged as the best in the world. Yet millions of acres of public and private forests go up in smoke each year, and natural resource agencies warn that fire losses may soon be double what they are today.

What is going on here? What has changed?

What has changed is us. Since the days of the Conservation Movement and Gifford Pinchot’s urgent call to action to protect America’s forests, our population has grown from 76 million people to 325 million. Human habitation and development continues to erode the nation’s forest land at an alarming rate. It presses hard up against the boundaries of public lands, and insinuates itself deep into forests in ways that make wildfires more likely, and more costly and deadly when they occur. Here as in the rest of the world, climate has become more unpredictable, more extreme, and more damaging; and the gathering momentum ensures that this trend will continue for decades to come. The physical infrastructure built to support today’s population has itself become a barrier to migration, seed dissemination, and other strategies that species have relied upon to adapt to changing climate in earlier ages.

The Pinchot Institute recently brought together some of the nation’s most accomplished scientists and conservation leaders to consider the future of America’s forests in the “Anthropocene Era”—the newest geologic epoch, in which Man is acknowledged as the dominant force influencing the Earth’s natural systems. Many of these experts came at the question from the perspective of their particular discipline—biodiversity conservation, water resource protection, or conservation of wildlife and fish habitat. note 1 A few focused on the forests themselves, without which none of these individual resources could be sustained, and offered up a number of valuable, creative approaches to integrating the management of public and privates forests across regional-scale landscapes.

Somewhat surprising was the way wildfire policy and management emerged as the keystone to it all. Experts identified many useful steps to be taken to conserve biodiversity, water, and other resources in the changing world of the Anthropocene. But the current and projected effects of wildfire are so pervasive and its influences so profound that a strategy aimed at protecting any of these important public resources must begin with a more deliberate and more successful strategy for managing wildfire.

In this issue of The Pinchot Letter, we look ahead at what is needed to better understand and direct the course of wildfire in America’s forests, as part of a bigger-picture strategy to prepare for and adapt to economic, social, and climatic changes in the Anthropocene. Renowned historian and prolific author Stephen Pyne puts present-day wildfire policies in historical perspective, highlights lessons learned along the way, and folds these into ideas for how best to shape the future. Greg Aplet and Travis Belote grapple with the difficult question of what the ubiquity of wildfire and other human influences mean for the concept of “wilderness” in the Anthropocene Era. Will future generations be able to experience natural systems “untrammeled by Man,” even in the most remote areas of America’s public lands? Will we be forced to reconsider the fundamental concept of wilderness-not just in terms of federal lands policy, but as a unique touchstone in the American experience and cultural identity?

Massive wildfires and dying forests are often thought of only in the context of federal forests in the West. But as other authors in this issue illustrate, the environmental changes of the Anthropocene Era will affect resources on other lands as well, in every corner of the country. Wildfires and forest mortality from insects and disease will become much larger factors in the predominantly private forests of the South. Iconic American tree species such as the sugar maple, ash, and hemlock are poised to go the way of the chestnut and elm. As Hurricanes Sandy and Irene demonstrated recently, protecting the forested headwaters of rivers and reservoirs will become even more important to buffering the effects of extreme storms, and protecting water supplies for New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and hundreds of other cities and communities in the East.

Since the days of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, we have developed a thorough understanding of the nation’s forests, built upon the solid foundation of decades of science and practice. But scientists and conservation leaders themselves are sounding a warning that what lies ahead is a “no-analogue future” in which neither current science nor past experience can be relied upon to adequately inform decision making, or prepare for secondary and indirect effects that are so unprecedented and so unexpected that no one could have predicted them.

So even in the current budget-constrained environment, meaningful additional public and private investment will be needed to support new science, and to accelerate the application of what we already know—to restoring ecosystems and channeling wildfire on federal forests, and to strengthening the financial underpinning for sustaining private forest lands. This will be a task not just on “all lands” but for all hands—natural resource agencies, legislative policymakers, forestland investors, conservation leaders, and everyone across the country who recognizes the important difference that forests make in our lives and those of future generations.

1 Sample, V.A. and Bixler, R.P. (eds.). 2014 [forthcoming]. Forest Conservation and Management in the Anthropocene. General Technical Report. Fort Collins, CO: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Research Station. [Conference presentations and other information available at: http://www.pinchot.org/2013_forest_conservation_ symposium]. (return to article)
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