The Latest News in Conservation

Wildfires Spotlight Need for Forest Management


Boone and Crockett Club CEO, Tony Schoonen

About 7.5 million acres has already burned this fire season, mirroring the 10-year average since 2010 and rivaling 2015 and 2017 that each exceeded 10 million acres. California, Colorado and Oregon are still fighting some of the worst fires in their states’ history. Nine different fires have burned in Montana this year, and while the cumulative acreage is far less than other states in the West, these fires have also been destructive with 28 structures burned in the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman.

Across the country, Americans are experiencing tragic loss of life and property. This year, COVID-19 has added complications for firefighters, and the smoke is affecting the public at large, as new research suggests exposure to smoke could worsen symptoms and even increase the mortality rate.

Wildfires are nothing new, in fact it was the Great Fire of 1910 that brought attention to the potential for catastrophic wildfire leading to decades of fire suppression. However, development within the wildland-urban interface has since increased and is exacerbated by dense forest stands, the rapid spread of highly flammable invasive vegetation, and warmer, drier weather. Mother Nature is a harsh manager of these landscapes, especially in their current conditions. The resulting high-intensity wildfires cause total forest stand replacement, altering the soil chemistry and structure, changing hydrological systems, releasing tons of carbon and toxic pollutants, all while destroying wildlife habitat. These impacts are long-term and can permanently alter the forest.

Fortunately, we have the science and experience to return these ecosystems to a more balanced state. We know that active forest management such as harvesting trees, thinning dead and dying trees, creating fuel breaks, prescribed and managed burns, and creating defensible spaces are all effective tools at our disposal. The Forest Service and its partners are implementing active forest management projects that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. These projects improve the health of our forests and support jobs, but they also improve wildlife habitat by increasing forage production and creating more dynamic, resilient landscapes. Along with greater consideration of social-ecological systems, warmer, drier weather and projected landscape conditions, active forest management is a critical piece of a comprehensive approach to mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

The Boone and Crockett Club has a long history with wildland forest management. In the early 1900s, we worked to develop and pass legislation that created the National Forest System and the U.S. Forest Service to manage these forests. More recently, we have worked with Congress to give the federal government new tools and direction to address the situation, helping pass legislation in 2003 expediting thinning in the wildland-urban interface, in 2010 protecting the budget of the Forest Service against the rising costs of fighting wildfires, and in 2014 and 2018 creating Good Neighbor and Shared Stewardship authority to administer forest health projects.

In mid-September, a hearing in the U.S. Senate focused on the bipartisan Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020 that would grant broad authority to federal agencies to implement fuels reduction projects, create new training to implement much needed prescribed fire, and allow projects to proceed while agencies protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act. We look forward to working with the members of both the Senate and House of Representatives on this important legislation.

The time for blame, political gamesmanship, endless planning and litigation has passed. We need to come together with a common goal to apply science and all the available tools to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and restore our forested landscapes. The end result will be better for our communities, for forests, and for wildlife habitat.

Tony A. Schoonen is the chief executive officer of the Boone and Crockett Club, which has been headquartered in Missoula since 1992.