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Yearning for burning: Officials want more prescribed fires in Sawtooth National Forest

More burns for the Sawtooth?

U.S. Forest Service firefighters watch a tree erupt into flame in September 2019 at a prescribed burn in the South Hills. The Forest Service wants to dramatically scale up the amount of prescribed burning it does in the Sawtooth National Forest to help restore proper ecological function in timber areas. 

TWIN FALLS — The U.S. Forest Service wants to do a lot more prescribed burning in south-central Idaho to make timber healthier.

Last week, the Forest Service announced it’s launching an environmental assessment that will look at scaling up controlled, intentional burns in the Sawtooth National Forest, which includes many of the Magic Valley’s most beloved outdoor places and highest peaks.

More prescribed burns would create more natural and resilient forest ecosystems while improving wildlife habitat, removing excess fuels that can lead to catastrophic wildfires and increasing public and firefighter safety, the Forest Service says.

The agency already does some prescribed fires in the Sawtooth National Forest, typically averaging between 1,000 and 3,000 acres burned per year. Those fires remove fuels and old or diseased trees, paving the way for healthy growth.

But a few thousand acres a year isn’t enough to have a big impact given the Sawtooth is 2 million acres, the agency says. Nearly half of the Sawtooth National Forest has been unnaturally altered by long-term fire suppression.

So the Forest Service hopes to gradually ramp up its prescribed fire program and eventually burn as many as 50,000 acres a year.

Sawtooth Forest Fuels Planner Steve Clezie said he’s seen the number and size of wildfires increase dramatically during his 22 years with the Forest Service in southern Idaho. He said accelerating the pace and scale of forest restoration through prescribed burns is necessary.

“It’s the right place and the right time,” Clezie said. “This is landscape scale, this isn’t just 10 acres on the Minidoka Ranger District.”

The plan

The Sawtooth National Forest is one of many forests looking to do more prescribed burning. Clezie noted the nearby Humboldt-Toiyabe (northern Nevada) and Salmon-Challis (central Idaho) national forests are doing similar environmental analyses.

“The rest of the forests throughout the (intermountain region) are following suit,” Clezie said.

Here’s how the Sawtooth plan would work, if it’s approved.

Several parts of the forest would be off limits for prescribed burns. Wilderness areas — the Hemingway-Boulders, White Clouds and Sawtooth wildernesses in this instance — would be exempt. Forest managers want natural fires there.

The pinyon pine forest of the Raft River Mountains wouldn’t see prescribed burns, either. The pinyon pine is culturally important to the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, whose members collect pine nuts from the trees’ cones.

Outside of those areas, the rest of the forest could see prescribed burns. In some instances, there could be single burns as large as 10,000 acres.

But Clezie said it’s going to take a while to get to that point. To start out, he’d like to double the amount of prescribed burning — that’ll mean doubling 1,000 to 3,000 acres a year.

“Our program’s not big enough where we could do 50,000 acres a year on the Sawtooth,” Clezie said.

But over the next five to 10 years the Forest Service could dedicate more funding and resources for prescribed burns.

During the next 15 to 20 years the agency plans to gradually increase the acreage burned on the Sawtooth to get closer to the 50,000-acres-a-year figure.

The problem

Wildfires aren’t inherently bad. Many ecosystems in the West evolved with fire and need fire to be healthy.

But in recent decades, wildfires have become far more problematic. They’re happening more often, burning more land and burning hotter. The Sawtooth National Forest hasn’t been immune.

“I’ve been on most of the big (fires),” Clezie said. “Ever since I’ve been on the Sawtooth (since 1999) we’ve experienced a lot more and a larger number of wildfires than we have in the past.”

There are three main culprits: Long-term fire suppression, the spread of invasive species and climate change.

Invasive species, like cheatgrass, continue to expand. They burn more readily than native species. Climate change is warming and drying much of the West, leading to longer fire seasons and better burning conditions.

The Forest Service’s plan for the Sawtooth would mainly address the fire suppression problem.

In the last century, humans have been fighting wildfires, and they’ve been good at it. People snuff out burns that in the past would have led to natural, healthy forest regeneration.

Firefighting has disrupted forests’ natural ecological cycles. Historically, fires swept through consistently and periodically; stands of trees would grow, then burn, throughout the centuries. Rich mosaics of young and old trees of different species covered the land.

Lack of fire has reduced biodiversity. On top of that, dead trees and brush have built up, making forests more susceptible to unnaturally large and hot burns, which, unlike the smaller and milder burns of the past, can be ecologically devastating.

Good fire versus bad fire

Prescribed burns come with a host of benefits.

In the South Hills for instance, the Forest Service often does its prescribed burns in old, diseased subalpine fir stands. Those burns give aspens room to regenerate and create good wildlife habitat.

Clezie noted prescribed burns often “provide forage for ungulates, the critters out there.”

Prescribed fires typically mimic the smaller, milder burns that would have occurred naturally in the past. They also remove the unnaturally abundant fuels that have built up on the forest floor.

The Forest Service says that 1.2 million acres of the 2.1 million-acre forest has been unnaturally altered by fire suppression. More than half the forest is overdue to burn.

The Sawtooth National Forest is already seeing negative impacts from long-term fire suppression. From 1953 to 2019, wildfires burned roughly 5,000 acres of the Sawtooth annually. If you just look at the last couple of decades, though, tens of thousands of acres have burned every year.

In the last decade, two 90,000-acre fires have burned in the South Hills alone.

The general public, generally unenthused at the prospect of more smoke, isn’t always eager to see more prescribed burning.

But Clezie said public opinion has shifted over the years. People better understand the benefits of prescribed burning now. He said he expects lots of people to support the plan.

“The more prescribed fires we do the more prepared we’re going to be for the larger fires,” Clezie said. “I think it could be very beneficial.

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