New Analysis Guides Northern Rockies Forest Restoration, and the Future of Forest Management

Feb 11, 2009

The Wilderness Society released a new ecological analysis today to guide future forest restoration and assessments in the Northern Rockies. Titled “Restoration of Low-Elevation Dry Forests of the Northern Rocky Mountains: A Holistic Approach” the report argues the southwestern model for forest restoration is not appropriate to be applied across the west.

Dry forests of the Northern Rockies, characterized by ponderosa pine intermixed with Douglas fir and western larch, are more variable than the uniform forests of open, park-like stands of pure pines in the Southwest, according to the report. The restoration approach must also be more variable than the Southwest model.

“In forest debates there’s often a desire for simple answers, but it’s not possible in varied conditions and systems” said Tom DeLuca, a Senior Forest Ecologist with The Wilderness Society in Montana. “Our knowledge of how to best sustain and restore our forests must continue to evolve, leading to more effective actions.”

Restoration forestry is a growing concern in the West today. Lower elevation, dry forests in the Northern Rockies and elsewhere show the effects from logging, grazing, road building and fire suppression, starting in the 19th century.

“There’s work to be done on our nation’s forests” says the report’s lead author and Wilderness Society ecologist Michele Crist in Idaho. “And future forest management will be increasingly science based and site specific.”

The report points the way towards future forest management, where forest protection and restoration is tailored to the attributes of specific landscapes and communities.

“Restoration work starts with a scientific foundation, leading to immediate community benefits through jobs and long-term benefits from sustainable forests,” said John McCarthy, Idaho Forest Campaign Director for The Wilderness Society. “Goods and services from the forest – whether it’s fish or wildlife, water or timber – can all benefit from forest restoration.”

The dry forests are one of the main targets for forest restoration and fuel reduction treatments because of interrupted fire cycles and changes in vegetation composition and structure. But to-date most models for restoration of these areas have been derived from the ecology of ponderosa pine forests in the southwestern US, which historically experienced surface fire under regular, short term intervals. By contrast, the Northern Rockies dry forests are varied in their stand density and experience mixed-severity fires, that burn hot in places and hardly at all in others on a varying time interval.

The Wilderness Society report argues restoration strategies for the Northern Rockies must take into account the specific ecology of forests in this region, as well as the history of land management activities in a particular place. The report further lays out six elements that are likely required considerations for successful forest restoration throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Those elements include:

  • Using adaptive management, considering each management action as an experiment to inform future activities, and reorienting the management approach if the ecosystem’s trajectory is not meeting objectives
  • Setting priorities, choosing restoration projects with an awareness of their potential for impact in a larger ecosystem context, and with the goal of maintaining all the characteristic elements of the forest mosaic
  • Taking the long view, planning restoration strategies with an understanding of short- and long-term temporal variables such as seasonal cycles and centennial and millennial climatic cycles
  • Considering the whole ecosystem, with an awareness of the effects of restoration activities on wildlife species, non-native species, soil and soil processes, and insect and disease risks. Without careful planning, restoration treatments may lead to degradation of wildlife habitat, increased weed invasion, and degraded soil conditions
  • Being mindful of socioeconomic context, planning restoration projects with the existing infrastructure and economic base of surrounding communities in mind, and allowing ample opportunity for public comment and support from all stakeholders
  • Monitor restoration success with effectiveness monitoring of ecosystem health, aquatic integrity, fire hazard, and biodiversity variables

Copies of the report are available at The Wilderness Society website or as a CD. The lead authors, Crist and DeLuca, are available for interviews, discussions and presentations on the report findings.