“About three years ago, I wrote an essay in which I asked whether wildfire can be both good and bad at the same time. Society bases its answer to this questions on current values. What is currently inevitable is that there will be more big fires in our future. Past societal values favored excluding fire from forests and that broke our natural link to fire, leaving us with forests that are more vulnerable to insects, diseases and uncharacteristic wildfires . To alter the unexpected course nature has taken, our focus should be on promoting resilient natural and human communities.

In forests that have traditionally supported timber economies, we can use ecological restoration strategies that rely on mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. Elsewhere, we advocate for managing wildfires at the right place and time – when conditions are right. Just as there is no simple answer to the good-fire bad-fire question, there is also no single approach to conserving the forested landscapes we all treasure.”

Ryan Haugo
The Nature Conservancy – Senior Forest Ecologist
Yakima, Washington

Ryan Haugo has been the Nature Conservancy’s forest ecologist for northern Idaho and eastern Washington since 2011. He holds masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Washington, and is a widely published research scientist. He is stationed at Yakima, Washington,

Haugo co-authored a landmark 2015 paper titled, “A new approach to evaluate forest structure restoration needs across Oregon and Washington, USA.” The paper, which was published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management and posted online in October of 2014, lays out a working strategy for addressing the rapid decline of Intermountain, mixed conifer, dry site forests in eastern and southwest Oregon and eastern Washington.

In recent years, the Nature Conservancy has increasingly turned its attention to the disastrous decline in the health of the West’s national forests, some now in such bad shape that annual mortality exceeds annual growth. Although this is not yet the case in central and eastern Washington, the accelerating decline has become a matter of great concern, not just for the Conservancy and its cadre of scientists, but for Washington residents whose homes and communities now lay in the shadow of the largest forest fires in state history.

The Nature Conservancy’s Washington and Oregon staffs do much of their research work in concert with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Stations in Wenatchee Washington and Bend, Corvallis, Pendleton and Portland, Oregon.

In this interview, Haugo discusses the underlying causes of this decline and what the latest scientific research tells us we can do to slow tree mortality and reduce the risk of increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires.

Evergreen: Dr. Haugo, I’d like to start out with a question I don’t think I’ve asked a forest scientist in Evergreen’s 30-year history. Is there any truth to the rumor that the Nature Conservancy is actively shopping for someone with whom it can partner in the construction and operation of a saw mill in the Wenatchee area?

Haugo: It’s true. The Nature Conservancy has also hired a new a new staffer for our Seattle office whose job it is to look for large pools of investment capital with folks that are interested in both economic and ecological returns. We have Lloyd McGee for the same reason. Lloyd worked for Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company in Colville for many years before deciding he wanted to take a different approach. He’s also actively looking for investment capital.

Evergreen: I know that sawmilling is far outside your bailiwick, so I’ll get the details from Mr. McGee, but I must say that I’ve never heard of a conservation group taking such an unusual approach to the fulfillment of its mission. Have you?

Haugo: No I haven’t, but the Conservancy has been working for over a decade on forest health and resilience issues involving public lands across the nation.

Evergreen: We have been following the Conservancy’s journey into the public sector for some time now, but I think you’ll have to agree that the organization’s apparent desire to partner in the construction and operation of a saw mill is a game changer in the conservation world.

Haugo: As you have suggested, saw mills aren’t in my bailiwick, but I think the mere fact that the Conservancy would consider such an investment speaks to the complexity and seriousness of the forest health situation we face east of the Cascades in our region.

Evergreen: It certainly does, especially given the possible risk to the Nature Conservancy’s reputation and credibility, and its historic role in forest conservation in the United States. But how does your current research and that of other forest scientists in the region tie in with the saw mill story?

Haugo: We need to have a very clear understanding of how the wood processing pieces – in this case a saw mill – can be configured to fit with leading edge forest science. The Vaagen Brothers sawmill at Colville is a good example of a technologically advanced mill providing a reliable and unsubsidized market for small diameter trees thinned from overly dense national forests.

Evergreen: That’s true, but neither the Vaagen’s nor anyone else has been willing to invest the $70 or $80 million required to site such a mill in the Wenatchee area. How does the Conservancy hope to change the perception that the financial risk is simply too great?

Haugo: That isn’t a question I can precisely answer for you, but I can tell you that there are economic and ecological principles here that have to be honored to insure that investments made on the wood processing front fit with what we will be doing on the restoration front.  My colleagues and I need to form our own understanding of how the economic pieces fit sustainably with the environmental pieces.

Evergreen: That’s a tough assignment given the fact that the time cost of money doesn’t mesh well with the time it takes to grow a forest, or restore the health of one that’s already in trouble.

Haugo: That’s true, but I think we have a rare opportunity here to bring environmental and economic principles together in a way that accounts for the natural pieces of forests and the cyclical nature of our timber industry.

Evergreen: Let’s start with the environmental principles you referenced. Tell us what those principles are, what you’ve learned about our Intermountain forest health problems, and what we can do to resolve them?

Haugo: Working in concert with Forest Service scientists in the region, we are pulling together the best data we can find to answer the questions of why, where, how much, and what kinds of forest management is needed. Our goal is to restore a more natural range of forest conditions on landscapes that have been adversely impacted by climate change, root diseases, insect infestations, past timber management practices and the public’s preoccupation with removing frequent, low or mixed intensity natural fire from our forests.

Evergreen: Has there been an “ah ha” moment in your research?

Haugo: Not in the sense of great surprise, but certainly in our awareness of the pressing need to find ways to increase the pace and scale of ecological restoration in forests that currently fall outside the range of natural variability.

Evergreen: We’ve heard that message loud and clear in our conversations with collaborative groups that are working with the Forest Service on the design and implementation of restoration projects.

Haugo: So have we, but most of the past research has focused on patterns of departure from historic norms without answering  the questions where, how much or what type actual restoration work is needed. So we have lacked a comprehensive understanding of forest restoration needs at regional scales of, say, 250,000 to 2.5 million acres. Such large areas span multiple watersheds and usually several adjoining ownerships, both public and private. Although there has been a gradual increase in project size, restoration projects are still too small to be ecologically meaningful.

Evergreen: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Haugo: In a manner of speaking, yes. We have understood the need to reset nature’s clock by reestablishing natural processes, including forest disturbance and habitat connectivity at very large spatial scales, but we have lacked a system for prioritizing restoration work, evaluating its cumulative impacts, estimating costs or determining whether the work that we are doing is making a difference.

Evergreen: In our work with Indian tribes that own and manage forests, we have reported in depth on the blossoming of Anchor Forestry, a tribal proposal for managing very large landscapes that frequently include multiple ownerships. We titled our most recent report, “Forestry in Indian Country: Solving Federal Forestry’s Rubik’s Cube.”

Haugo: That’s an apt description. It is a Rubik’s cube. And the Conservancy is quite familiar with tribal forestry through our involvement in the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, which spans3.0million acres within lands owned by the Yakama Nation, the Nature Conservancy, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service.

Evergreen: Conceptually, Anchor Forestry allows landowners to do the kind of landscape scale work you are describing. It reminds us a bit of the old Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, much of which survives despite its initial failure to win public support, in our view because it became an issue amid the spotted owl controversy.

Haugo: You are correct.  An ICEBMP like approach is what is going to allow us to soon get to a point where we can confidently work at very large spatial scales.

Evergreen: Does your 2014 report overlay the same geographic areas as ICEBMP?

Haugo: Not all of it, but Washington and Oregon east of the Cascades, and Southwest Oregon – about 28.6 million acres that span the historic extent of frequent fire regimes in the Pacific Northwest.

Evergreen: That’s a big chunk of real estate. How did you break it down?

Haugo: We built upon the conceptual framework of the LANDFIRE and Fire Regime Condition Class programs, and incorporated Washington-Oregon specific data sets.

Evergreen: What were your primary data inputs?

Haugo: There were four: a classification map of forested biophysical settings, natural range of variability reference conditions for each biophysical setting, a delineation of landscape units for each biophysical setting and a map of present day forest vegetation structure. There are many different biophysical settings in the region, all based on vegetation, soils, climate, topography and historic disturbance regimes.

Evergreen: Fire being the most common form of disturbance in your study areas?

Haugo: That’s correct, and our criteria provide an excellent framework for describing fire regimes that, as you know, have been pretty seriously modified by public policies favoring excluding fire from forests.

Evergreen: No one realized what excluding fire would do, though I hasten to add that a Bureau of Indian Affairs forester – I think Earl Wilcox – was the first to warn about the relationship between excluding fire and the increasing density of ponderosa pine stands in eastern Washington. That was in the early 1950s.

Haugo: The results were not readily apparent for at least a generation.

Evergreen: We first wrote about the declining health of eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains in 1989. No one listened, mainly because everyone’s attention was riveted on the northern spotted owl. Now it is 27 years later, and what was then a problem in now a region-wide crisis.

Haugo: We have the science and the tools we need to move forward. One tool being the saw mill we were discussing a few moments ago. Another being what we call prescribed fire or controlled burning – fires we intentionally set to reduce biomass accumulations in forests, allowing early succession and fire adapted plant and animal species to thrive again.

Evergreen: It seems counter intuitive: intentionally set a fire to reduce the risk of a much larger wildfire.

Haugo: The combination of thinning and prescribed fire has a long track record of success. But we have needed a better understanding of the roles fire and thinning can play at very large physical scales.

Evergreen: It seems so. How did you break down your four biophysical settings?

Haugo: Each model is composed of a suite of three to five successional/structural stages: early development, mid-development open canopy, mid-development closed canopy, late development open canopy and late development closed canopy.

Evergreen: How does range of natural variability in disturbance patterns fit these models?

Haugo: The LANDFIRE and Fire Regime Condition Class conceptual frameworks assume that, given natural processes, a biophysical setting will have characteristic range of variation in the proportion in each successional/structural stage, and that the effective indicator of ecological condition for a given landscape is the relative abundance of each successional/structural within biophysical settings.

Evergreen: So what we can see and document in forests today can be used to reconstruct a history of the frequency and severity of forest fires in a way that compares today’s conditions and fire cycles with previous points in time, sort of like turning back the clock?

Haugo: Using state and transition simulation models that gave us statistically valid ranges of variability, we ran 10 for each biophysical setting in timeframes ranging from 200 to 400 years, using 1,000 cells and 1,000 annual time steps.

Evergreen: That’s impressive. What did you do with the data once it was assembled?

Haugo: We assessed restoration needs based on relatively abundant successional/structural classes compared to range of natural variability reference conditions. Within each biophysical setting and landscape unit we determined which successional/structural classes were overrepresented and which were underrepresented, then how many hectares would need to transition to a different class in order move the present day distribution of all classes within the natural range over variability reference distribution.

Evergreen: And the various results of data sets input into your simulation models tell you where and how thinning and prescribed fire can be used to most effectively restore a more natural range of disturbance patterns?


Evergreen: What did you learn from feeding all of these data sets and treatment options into your research project?

Haugo: We found that about 11.7 million acres of conifer forests in all ownerships in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and southwest Oregon are in need of a transition to a different successional/structural class in order to restore forest structures to more sustainable range of natural variability reference conditions.

Evergreen: That’s more than 18,000 square miles – in just these three regions?

Haugo: That’s correct.

Evergreen: How much of the restoration work is in national forest land classifications that permit mechanical thinning and fire as opposed to fire only?

Haugo: About five million national forest acres are in areas where mechanical thinning may be used in combination with prescribed fire. By contrast, the restoration need is higher on state, private and Bureau of Land Management ownerships, where overall restoration needs included 52 percent of BLM ownerships and 45 percent on the state and private ownerships.

Evergreen: What you have quantified in your research is a tremendous amount of work requiring an enormous amount of stakeholder collaboration.

Haugo: That’s true, though the overall level and type of restoration varies widely across the region. We identified a lot of thinning and low severity fire work in dry, mid and late development closed canopy forests.

Evergreen: These being the forests that are most overstocked and overstressed?

Haugo: Yes, and the greatest need is in northeast Washington and southwest Oregon. Slightly less so in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. And lower still immediately east of the Cascades in Washington, but the further east you go in Washington, the greater the need.

Evergreen: So the collaborative groups we’ve been interviewing that are working in central and northeast Washington are correct in describing the pressing need to move faster on much larger landscapes than current federal regulations permit.

Haugo: Yes, and hopefully the ongoing research we are doing in concert with Forest Service scientists will give policymakers and regulators the confidence they need to allow restoration work to proceed more promptly on much larger scales.

Evergreen: If you bring all your data down to a smaller watershed scale, how much variation in restoration need did you find?

Haugo: Pretty wide, from five percent to 80 percent, the higher percentages being in the more distressed areas we have identified in southwest Oregon and northeast Washington.

Evergreen: And from what you said, the need isn’t just on federal forest land.

Haugo: No, it isn’t. Ownership patterns and long-term differences in management techniques, characterized by differences in logging methods through time, also influence restoration need. Disturbance, alone, will not restore natural range of variability forest structure. Deficits in late development forest structure are clearly evident in about 66 percent of the successional/structure classes. The path forward here also requires the opportunity to regrow large, old trees.

Evergreen: Reading between the lines, your report seems to suggest a need to rely more on fire to restore a more natural range of variability than the public may be willing to accept – even allowing some wildfires to run, rather than slowing their advance. Are we correct?

Haugo: The successional pathways forward are complex, especially in mixed severity fire regime forests that characterize much of the region. Across the study areas, 4.3 million acres of unrestricted federal lands, meaning lands outside of wilderness and inventoried roadless areas, are in need of disturbance restoration and well-suited to a combination of thinning and prescribed fire.

Evergreen: You selected pre-European forest conditions as your benchmark – the point in time that most closely resembles the ranges of natural variability you hope to re-create. This seems a bit arbitrary to us, given the fact that Indians has been manipulating western forests, mainly through their use of fire, for eons. Likewise, we know that the region’s forests grew up, lived and died possibly 14 times since the last glacial ice retreated from the Pacific Northwest.

Haugo: That’s probably true. And Native Americans definitely had a big impact on forest and rangeland conditions, but we have to start somewhere, and the manipulation you reference increased significantly after white settlement began. Pre-settlement forest conditions become a reference point in time that is probably as reliable as any we could have picked.

Evergreen: How long will it take for the Forest Service to complete the work you envision on unreserved lands at the current annual per acre treatment rate?

Haugo: Many decades by our estimates, which is why a much higher level of coordination is needed amongst the various state, federal and private landowners. A primary motivation for those of us who participated in the study was to provide a pathway for cooperating landowners to move forward with restoration work on regional, multi-owner scales.

Evergreen: And clearly, some of the most important decisions to be made are political, not scientific.

Haugo: That’s been the case since the early years of the last century, long before the West’s federal lands were opened. Our role as scientists is to provide policy makers, regulators and landowners with management options based on the most reliable data available.

Evergreen: And so we face the value judgements that come with juggling the human condition with natural conditions.

Haugo: We do indeed. “About three years ago, I wrote an essay in which I asked whether wildfire can be both good and bad at the same time. Society bases its answer to this questions on current values. What is currently inevitable is that there will be more big fires in our future. Past societal values favored excluding fire from forests and that broke our natural link to fire, leaving us with forests that are more vulnerable to insects, diseases and uncharacteristic wildfires . To alter the unexpected course nature has taken, our focus should be on promoting resilient natural and human communities.

In forests that have traditionally supported timber economies, we can use ecological restoration strategies that rely on mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. Elsewhere, we advocate for managing wildfires at the right place and time – when conditions are right. Just as there is no simple answer to the good-fire bad-fire question, there is also no single approach to conserving the forested landscapes we all treasure.”

  • Jim Petersen, Evergreen