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This year’s wildfire season is well underway, not just in the Southwest where extreme temperatures and mega-drought continue to bake the region, but also in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, which are under a record-shattering June heat wave. How oppressive has the heat been? It was 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon on June 28. Clearly, the climate crisis continues to redefine our new normal as the American West struggles with the worst drought in 1,200 years and wildfires burn at unprecedented levels.

Researchers from the Universities of Montana and Wyoming recently published findings that show wildfires are burning more high-elevation forests now than at any time over the last 2,000 years. Couple this with the fact that humans cause between 80-90 percent of wildfires, and the logical conclusion is that we urgently need to protect forests and stop burning fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers, federal and state agencies, and timber industry proponents claim that wildfires can be—and must be—stopped by more logging. The tired refrain goes that fires won’t burn if we just suspend environmental safeguards and allow tree “thinning” and associated road construction across vast landscapes. Of course, fires do not burn without fuel and decades of fire suppression have prevented fire from playing its natural role, in some ecosystems more than others. However, despite the scary images and rhetoric, most fires have a range of severity leaving some patches entirely unburned, or burned at low to moderate intensity. Fire plays a crucial role in providing habitat for species that rely on burned areas, and most forests need fire to regenerate— even high severity fire. In other words, wildfires—including high intensity fires—are an essential component of healthy forest ecosystems.

Ignoring these facts and well-established science, some lawmakers are once again pushing bad logging bills. But after the massive 2020 fire season, calls for landscape-scale thinning were quickly refuted. The retired Dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana explained, “all the forest management in the world won’t stop forests from burning at higher levels unless we turn down the heat.”

Of course, communities adjacent to forested areas need real solutions to help protect their homes, solutions based in facts and science, not rhetoric and fear mongering. Yet, instead of keeping the focus on community protection and the immediate area around homes, bills and policies that purport to “restore” landscapes by logging and thinning remote areas on America’s public lands do little except give property owners a false sense of security.

The science is clear that the best way to protect public safety and communities in fire-prone forested areas is to focus on the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), which is home and the immediate area extending 100 to 200 feet around structures. The National Fire Protection Association explains that following its guidelines within this zone will “interrupt the fire pathway and keep flames small, which creates a defensible space to help slow or stop the fire from spreading.” As the preeminent fire scientist Dr. Jack Cohen recently explained “ignition resistant communities based on the collective HIZs effectively address wildland-urban fire as a home ignition problem.”

Instead of playing politics and stoking public fear, federal and state agencies must work with property owners and communities to take these simple, yet effective, steps. And lawmakers must provide the authority and funding to do so.

The best way to manage wildfires is allowing them to play their natural ecological role wherever possible, and to promote true restoration that creates larger tracts of intact forests by removing unneeded roads. At the same time, lawmakers, federal and state agencies, and timber proponents need to stop promoting logging and thinning as a means to control wildfires. No one talks about hurricane-proofing the Gulf Coast, or tornado-proofing Oklahoma, and similarly, we cannot fire-proof forests. Only by taking bold action to address the climate crisis will the situation improve, and in the meantime, forests are going to burn as they adapt to hotter and drier conditions, which is why we need more ignition resistant communities and fewer opportunities for people to inadvertently start wildfires.

The concept of the Home Ignition Zone was developed by retired USDA Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat. The HIZ is divided into three zones. Graphic and caption by National Fire Protection Association.

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Ghost Roads. This term conjures images of a terrified Ichabod Crane slowly moving down a dark, frightening forest road on a trembling horse, waiting for the headless horseman to jump out of the shadows and lop off his head. After working this past spring semester as an intern for WildEarth Guardians I learned a lot about ghost roads, and other types of roads, that weave and wind through national forests. Even though these roads are not haunted by ghouls and goblins, a road that is abandoned, partially treated, or not maintained is very scary.

Ghost roads originate from old logging and mining roads, temporary roads constructed during U.S. Forest Service projects that were not removed after completion, or were illegally created through repeated use. They are not recognized or recorded in Forest Service databases, yet these apparitions still haunt the landscape. Ghost roads retain the potential for severe ecological impacts, particularly in post-wildfire settings. Leaving them on the landscape increases the likelihood of continued environmental impairment, negatively impacting water quality and wildlife habitats. Roads can also exacerbate the effects from wildfires and can make post-wildfire consequences worse, cause wildfires to occur more often, and amplify the magnitude of fire events.

Per the U.S. Forest Service manual, unneeded roads should be decommissioned to a more natural state to protect and enhance National Forest System lands. However, rarely will the agency fully remove the entire road length by recontouring it back to the original slope, leaving these roads on site in varying unnatural conditions.

During my internship I discovered humans have used and abused the forests leaving behind a mosaic of roads zig zagging and scarring mountainsides. Even though the Forest Service faces funding and staffing challenges, they should be identifying these roads and, if appropriate, recontouring them back to a more natural condition. The agency may suggest this occurs in other processes, such as during Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) activities; however, my research with Guardians proved this to be false. The BAER team admirably performs their post-fire emergency mitigation duties, but they are not actually remediating ghost roads.

My dad worked in the wood products industry most of his life. As a young man he hauled logs for a living and later wood chips from mills in western Montana to particleboard processing centers in Missoula. Even though he relied on the forest to support his family, he also believed in forest conservation and sustainability, although he never used those two words. He supported forest preservation for jobs and recreation. Growing up I spent many summers on Noxon Reservoir were my dad taught me to appreciate the land and treat it with respect so generations after can treasure and learn to love the forest like we did.

Dad passed away in 2017 but if he were here today and I could recite the ghostlore of these roads, he would agree 100 percent they need to be removed. Working with WildEarth Guardians resonated with me because it is what my dad instilled in all his daughters. My favorite place to be is in the deep green shadows of ponderosa pines and Douglas fir and to get there I need a road. But unused roads need to be recontoured to prevent the damage they cause after wildfires, prevent future wildfires, and help restore the watershed. We need to respect the forest and heal the past wounds from resource extraction and human made infrastructure by exorcising ghost roads from the landscape, preserving the forest for wildlife, fish, and future generations.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the U.S. Forest Service to focus on rewilding, not more roadbuilding.

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Standing next to a classic old-school U.S. Forest Service sign on a sunny early June day, Representative Kim Schrier (WA-08) spoke passionately about national forests and the need to restore lands and waters. While her words occasionally were impacted by noisy cars passing on a nearby road, she was speaking about other roads—the maze of Forest Service roads that impact how wildlife use forests, how fish use streams, and how people access trailheads. Just in Washington State, the “legacy” of a century of unconstrained logging, grazing, and mining has left over 20,000 miles of forest roads—enough to drive from Seattle to D.C. eight times. Nationally, there are over 370,000 miles of roads on National Forest System lands. Doesn’t that seem like too much?

Most people agree. And there is a simple solution—fix the forest roads we use and rewild the ones we don’t. Fund maintenance budgets for roads to campgrounds and trailheads. Fund Legacy Roads and Trails budgets to reconnect wildlife habitat, reestablish soils to infiltrate water and sprout new seedlings, and remove old barriers in rivers and streams.

The group quickly left the noisy roadway and headed into the woods for the day’s highlight: a short hike in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Gathering next to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River at the trailhead, the immediate commentary was about the giant potholes and deep dips that folks navigated on the way. Federal Highways funding paid for paving of some of this access road but the Forest Service’s minimal roads budget means that less than 10% of their roads get any type of attention (maintenance) in any given year. Potholes get bigger and the problems also expand.

WildEarth Guardians and many allies, such as WA Trails Association, Mountains to Sound Greenway, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited and more, showed up to hike and celebrate the outdoors but also continue to push solutions. Thanks to Representative Schrier, the Legacy Roads and Trails Act was introduced in Congress again this year. We are all working to ensure that as solutions to the climate crisis and crumbling infrastructure are hammered out in Congress, that Legacy Roads and Trails is part of the solution.

Please do your part and ask your members of Congress to fund Legacy Roads and Trails.

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January marks the 20-year anniversary of a U.S. Forest Service rule meant to rein in the agency’s vast, unsustainable network of roads, mostly dirt, and the serious environmental damage they cause. Commonly referred to as the “Roads Rule,” its purpose is to reduce, or right-size, the sprawling forest road system— a legacy of logging, grazing, mining and poorly-managed motorized recreation. After two decades, progress has been anemic overall. There are currently over 370,000 miles of roads on National Forest System lands and for most of the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service, the agency has yet to identify a minimum road system that it can afford to maintain and that is environmentally sustainable.

In our new report titled, A Dilapidated Web of Roads: The Forest Service’s Departure From a Sustainable Forest Road System, we provide an overview of the 2001 Roads Rule and its inconsistent application over the years. Our report also discusses relevant case law and concludes with a list of recommendations for achieving a sustainable forest road system.

The report is part of WildEarth Guardians’ continued support to our partners, colleagues, and activists working to improve the ecological integrity of National Forest System lands. It also follows our press release and action alert in recognition of the Roads Rule Anniversary and the need that remains to fully achieve a truly sustainable forest road system. Please add your name to our petition calling on the Biden-Harris administration to recommit to the goals of the Roads Rule and create a future where roads no longer muddy streams, harm fish and wildlife, and scar mountainsides.

On January 12, WildEarth Guardians joined 150 groups sending President-elect Joe Biden a Wildlife Recovery and Public Lands Restoration Economic Stimulus initiative, urging bold investments to stimulate the economy through the restoration of public lands, waters, and fish and wildlife habitat. Such investments will not only have the potential to put hundreds of thousands of people to work, but also to ensure more resilient ecosystems and communities throughout the United States.

The coalition called on the incoming Biden administration to establish and fund programs that focus on restoration rather than resource extraction and consumption, promote coordination and cooperation with local communities, and embody the principles of environmental justice. We also stressed that recovery programs should fully comply with all laws designed to safeguard the environment, workers and the public. To that end, we urged President-elect Biden to strengthen our bedrock environmental laws, including the restoration of critical protections under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“In the midst of a pandemic, a recession, dual climate and extinction crises, and a racial reckoning, we have the opportunity to build back in a deliberately equitable and regenerative fashion. After four years of destruction, division, and extraction, this blueprint could put people to work doing the vital restoration that the communities, public lands, wildlife, and waterways desperately need and deserve,” said Sarah McMillian, WildEarth Guardians’ Conservation Director.

Learn more about the work WildEarth Guardians is doing to restore and rewild lands and waters.

As many of us sit in our cars to drive up to a trailhead, campground, or river in our closest national forest, we likely spend little time pondering what kind of impact the road we are on has. But there is a large volume of scientific literature devoted to this question with much of it summarized in our paper: The Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System.

Roads have an enormous impact on many wildlife and aquatic species such as elk, grizzly bear, salmon, bull trout, pronghorn, and salamander. Our latest handout, National Forest Roads and Habitat (DIS)-Connectivity, draws from the paper to spotlight this harm and offers recommendations to reconnect habitat. These actions are increasingly important as wildlife seek food and security in an ever changing climate.

My car was third in a convoy of six vehicles turning off the main highway and onto a gravel road that wound upward through the thick forest. COVID-19 safety measures dictated that each person be in one car, so six people = six cars. Not the easiest way to go see restoration work in the Olympic National Forest but I was happy to be outdoors.

Our mission for the day was to see how the Forest Service was protecting water that eventually flowed downstream and out of the taps of nearly 6,000 households in Port Townsend, WA. Water is often lost in the debates over how public lands should be managed, even though half of the U.S. population relies on these lands to capture and filter their drinking water.

It may be surprising to some, but the National Forest System was not created solely for logging or even recreation. Way back in the 1880s, clear-cut logging in the Northeast left hillsides bare leading to erosion and flooding. As people saw clear streams that they depended on for water turn into muddy torrents, communities raised the alarm. Congress responded in 1897 with the Forest Service Organic Administration Act, reserving headwater forests for the purpose of “securing favorable conditions of water flows.” Today, national forests are the country’s largest single source of water. But is this valuable resource protected?

Water from this creek enters the Big Quilcene River, which supplies drinking water to Port Townsend, WA. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

Big cities like Seattle, Denver, Portland, and Salt Lake City often have the funds and staff time to invest in actively caring for the watersheds that supply clean water to millions of people. But smaller towns like Tillamook, OR or Port Townsend, WA have much smaller budgets. They depend on the Forest Service to safeguard the rivers and streams that supply drinking water. We were on our way to one of those important streams – hence the convoy.

In the forest, we stepped out of our cars and began finding our way over logs, past swordferns and thimble berry bushes, as we moved towards the sound of water below. We were on a hillside just above the Little Quilcene River. This water, along with the flows from the Big Quilcene River, is drawn into a pipeline that travels 30 miles to Port Townsend—completely by the power of gravity. When the water upstream in the forest is clean, then as the water exits the pipeline downstream, less effort and money is needed from the city to treat the water.

Trees, brush, and a large ditch are used to deter people from driving cars too close to a drinking water source stream. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

The “bushwhacking” we were doing was through a former road that had never been part of the official Forest Service road system but some people used any way. These incursions left behind human waste, trash, and had the potential to start fires—all of which impact drinking water quality. The Olympic National Forest received a grant last year from the Drinking Water Providers Partnership to restore this roadbed to natural conditions. On our visit, we could see wetlands reemerging and native plants spreading, creating a wider perimeter of protection around a valuable water source—a shining example of how restoration can work successfully. Thanks to the grant, the Forest Service was able to complete the work, so that this drinking water supply will be cleaner for the thousands of people downstream who rely on it.

Ensuring drinking water is clean at its source saves residents costs at the tap. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

Large and small threats to drinking water exist in national forests across the U.S. Trash and human waste contaminates critical streams. Dirt from roads muddy the water, shutting down treatment plants. And drought related to climate change reduces water availability. Instead of protecting waterways, the current administration’s singular priority is to cut trees. Ignoring the 140-year-old mandate to “secure favorable conditions of water flows” is unacceptable. We need to demand a complete transformation of the administration and agency leadership. The solutions are simple. Expanding protections for roadless areas, riparian areas, and wetlands can safeguard streams. Removing harmful infrastructure helps restore natural processes. Grounding land management actions in climate change science would ensure watersheds’ resiliency. Water is life and people in towns from Port Townsend, WA to cities like Atlanta, GA need assurance that their drinking water is protected.

Oregon and Washington drinking water suppliers, tribes, and NGO’s are currently invited to submit applications for the next round of grant funding from the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. Information can be found here and the deadline for submission is January 8, 2020.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important to ask the question, “what does our country need most?” To that question, I answer “grown-ups.” The Cambridge dictionary defines “grown-up” as someone who behaves in a mature and responsible way. It is not unusual for a child to complain, call people names, and avoid responsibilities. But, for an adult, that behavior is unacceptable at best, and dangerous at worst.

We live at a time of declining trust in government institutions—and with good reason. Deep economic and racial injustice, political polarization, and a world wide pandemic are just a few of the responsibilities our government has failed to address.

Yet, at a time when my faith in many American institutions is declining, I still have faith in some of the good people who serve in government.

This week, WildEarth Guardians settled our lawsuit with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement elevates the protection of the Mexican spotted owl and the ancient forest habitat that the owl depends on.

The agreement brings to an end the massive legal injunction on tree-cutting on six national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. A federal judge put that injunction in place after he determined that the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to monitor spotted owl populations.

This injunction was the third issued by a federal judge since the owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1993—what has to be a record for federal judicial accountability. The decades-long conflict over national forests and spotted owls in the American Southwest is a microcosm for the loss of trust in government institutions. On all sides of the debate, there is a belief that the Forest Service has failed to be responsible in its role of managing the national forests.

Rather than doing its job—namely, performing a serious study on the health of the spotted owl—the Forest Service dissembled and whined. And when the courts prevented logging, the Forest Service placed the blame on others. Leadership at the Forest Service viewed our public lands as their own “toy chest,” with the intention of sharing their “toys” only with their friends—those with power, influence, and money.

Fortunately, there are still some grown-ups at the Forest Service. People like Elaine Kohrman, the Deputy Regional Forester, who helped navigate the challenges that arose during our negotiations. I believe this agreement could not have come about without her leadership and vision.

Elaine, and her team, saw this conflict as an opportunity to set things right and to chart a new course for the Forest Service and the spotted owl. I commend her for that. I suspect it was not an easy path she chose. She probably met with serious resistance, but she did the mature, responsible thing. She reminds me of a time when our institutions served the people—not the other way around. Her efforts, along with other public servants who care deeply about our forests, avoided further polarization and led to common ground.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a Guardian. As much as I believe in collaboration, I also believe in conflict as a necessary part of social change, whether as an antidote to power inequity or as a remedy for historic injustice.

And I still believe that when a government breaks its promises to uphold the law and protect the public interest, citizens can enforce our laws as a means to not only protect civic engagement but also the rule of law.

One of the guiding principles of how national forests are supposed to be managed is through a scientific process of ‘adaptive management.’ Adaptive management done right builds trust—done wrongly it reinforces a mistrust that can become toxic to forests, people, and agencies.

I believe our agreement decreases the likelihood of ecological damage of all future tree cutting in and outside of spotted owl habitat. Still, there is more to be done.

One of the most destructive things President Trump has done over the last three and a half years is systematically rid our government of good public servants, whether by harassment, intimidation or the despair of working for a leader who doesn’t have your back. In short, he has attempted a purge of all the “grown-ups.” The hollowing out of government  institutions has been one of the defining features and strategies of the Trump administration.

I’m encouraged to know that, in spite of these conditions, some good public servants are still hanging on. It’s easier than ever to get discouraged in these times—not only by the challenges we face but also by our imperfect government. My advice is don’t get discouraged. My advice is don’t whine, but act. We can start by acknowledging the hard work of public servants who fight the good fight.

It’s true that I believe that the settlement of this Endangered Species Act conflict will be good for threatened Mexican spotted owls and our national forests—and that matters deeply to me. But perhaps of far greater importance is that this agreement restores a small measure of faith that there are still some grown-ups who yet remain in our government.

If, like them, we can address the problems we face in a mature and responsible way, I am convinced we will overcome them all.

Earlier this year we released a report titled “The Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System,” which updated a previous literature review on this topic by adding fifty-nine new citations along with several new sections. Notably, our report demonstrates the significant harmful effects forest roads pose to fish, wildlife and the overall ecological integrity of national forests. One section regarding the intersection between roads and wildfires is particularly relevant right now for obvious reasons.

While the wildfire debate rages on during another active fire season, our report demonstrates the urgent need for the Forest Service to acknowledge the fact that forest roads actually increase wildfire risk, affect fire behavior and result in sediment choked streams when they burn, among other serious ecological impacts. Records from over 20 years found 84% of wildfires were human-caused.

Now, as part of a series of factsheets based on our literature review, we are providing this new, convenient Wildfire and Forest Roads Fact Sheet with wildfire statistics and key findings. You can also check our first fact sheet on climate change and national forest infrastructure.

The best way to manage wildfires is by allowing them to play their natural ecological role wherever possible, reintroducing fire into fire-adapted forests and ecosystems through strategically-located prescribed burns, and focusing on community protection by creating defensible space within the Home Ignition Zone, (the home and its immediate surroundings, extending up to 100 – 200 feet around structures). The Forest Service also needs to focus on true restoration by removing unneeded roads to reduce human-caused wildfires and to create larger tracts of intact forests that tend to burn in patches of varying severities. Such steps are necessary given widespread acknowledgment that the drought, heat, and wind caused by climate change are the primary drivers of western wildfires, and no amount of logging, with its associated road building, is going to “fire-proof” the forests.

WildEarth Guardians and allies have filed our opening brief in a lawsuit to require the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore proven safeguards for the protection and recovery of imperiled grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolverine, and bull trout on the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana. Our lawsuit claims that the recently revised Forest Plan for the Flathead National Forest violates the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by favoring destructive activities such as logging, grazing, road building, and motorized use over protection and restoration of these species and their habitats.

The new Forest Plan is critical because it will govern all future activities on the 2.4 million-acre Flathead National Forest for the next 15 years or more. As part of the “Crown of the Continent,” the Flathead is a haven of rugged mountain peaks, rich, thick forests, and cool, clean mountain streams, with some of the last remaining intact wilderness and free-flowing rivers on the continent. Unfortunately, outside of protected wilderness, this national forest suffers from a long history of unsustainable logging, an excessive road system, and motorized use, including ATVs and snowmobiles, that harm and harass wildlife, fragment fish and wildlife habitat, and degrade sensitive riparian areas and water quality.

“The Flathead National Forest plays an essential role in the long-term recovery of grizzly bears and other imperiled species,” explained Adam Rissien, ReWilding Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “In its recent decision overturning the de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange to ensure the grizzly bear’s long-term health and recovery. The Flathead’s revised Forest Plan fails to ensure this connectivity and thus threatens grizzly bear recovery as well as other species such as threatened bull trout and lynx.”

Read the press release.