The Elliott State Forest will no longer be a source of income for Oregon’s Common School Fund. The State Land Board took what officials are calling a historic step, creating the Elliott State Research Forest. The board also appointed the first board of directors for the new public agency, which will be established in 2024. It will oversee the research forest in collaboration with Oregon State University.
The Elliott Forest was caught between the financial obligation of the forest to support public schools and the forest’s potential to provide benefits beyond harvest revenue, said officials.
“Truly, this is a Margaret Mead moment that wouldn’t have happened without all of you working together – never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” said Governor Kate Brown. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The vote was made possible by a payment of $221 million to the fund, which frees the forest of its obligations to generate money for Oregon’s public K-12 classrooms. The forest will remain in public ownership, under the oversight of the new Elliott State Research Forest Authority agency.
“This is a day to celebrate the creation of the largest research forest in North America, the Elliott State Research Forest,” said state Treasurer Tobias Read. “The Elliott will provide a better approach for working forest management, improve conservation protections and, significantly, keep the forest in public hands. We can be proud that current and future generations of Oregonians will benefit from this valuable natural resource.”
The change of the forest from providing money funding schools to that of a research forest was the vision of the Land Board. Officials say the forest will continue to contribute to conservation, recreation, education, the local economy, and more as a publicly owned, working research forest.
The number of wildfires and acres burned in the U.S. were higher than the 10-year average in 2022.
As of early December, 64,835 wildfires were reported in the nation this year, the most since 2017. They burned more than 7.4 million acres. That’s higher than the 10-year average in both number of fires and acres burned. The 10-year average for the same period was 54,091 fires and 7.1 million acres burned.
Scientists widely expect conditions to worsen in coming decades, the result of a combination of factors, including the warming climate, intense droughts, storms, forests laden with trees downed by hurricanes, urbanization, and conflicts over how to manage land to prevent extreme fires.
Unexpected wet weather arriving sooner than normal helped curb bad fire seasons in New Mexico and Alaska. Fire season ramped up quickly in Alaska, burning 3 million acres, more than twice the normal, but a wetter than expected summer brought a quick end to the season.
A generally wetter than normal spring benefited the Northwest and Northern Rockies while conditions in the Central and Southern Plains were more active than normal.
Over the past five years, wildfires have torched more than 38 million acres across the country, destroying thousands of homes and structures. Federal officials say extremes in drought and heat, fueled by climate change, are drying out forests in the West and Alaska and are the leading driver of an increase in fire weather.
In northern California in 2021, the Dixie Fire became the largest single wildfire in state history, burning about 1 million acres and more than 700 homes.
Fire models underestimate how dry conditions are in part because conditions are hitting levels not previously projected until 2050, said Charles Maxwell, a research associate at Oregon State University. “When we start getting these juiced up droughts that are outside of historical conditions and aren’t in any of these future climate projections, that’s when things start to go out the window.”
Fueled by drought and warming temperatures, trees and forest debris are drier than ever and ready to burn more intensely, said Taro Pusina, a fire behavior analyst with Spatial Informatics, a California-based environmental think tank. Flames pick up and run faster. Fires burn hotter and longer.
A century of fire suppression — stopping fires and not allowing them to burn further — adds to the hazards, said Pusina, a U.S. Forest Service retiree who still consults on fires. Forest floors are stacked with decades of needle fall and dead limbs.
In California, a state that’s grown accustomed to months of smoky skies, mass evacuations and the ever-present fear of wildfire, 2022 felt unusual. A giant blaze or siege of simultaneous infernos – the events that have defined recent fire seasons – failed to appear.
By the time November rains brought relief to the drought-stricken landscape, slightly more than 360,000 acres had burned. That’s a strikingly low number, compared with the 2.2 million that burned on average annually in California during the past five years, and only a fraction of the record 2020 season when more than 4.2 million acres burned.
The number of fires sparked remained similar to past seasons, indicating most were stopped before they ballooned in size. Resource availability played a role, but so did helpful timing, as weather conditions continuously aligned in California’s favor, ensuring enough firefighters were available to battle each blaze from the onset.
“There is this element of luck to it – and this year, we got really lucky,” said Lenya N Quinn-Davidson, an area fire adviser with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension, a research institution.
Despite the welcome reprieve brought by fewer acres burned, the dangers posed by the climate crisis have not dulled. She and other experts say the perceived lull is more of an anomaly than a hopeful trend.
The question now is whether California will use the quieter-than-expected season to its advantage. “We dodged a bullet,” said Quinn-Davidson. “But now is the time to continue to think about fire.”
In Montana, due to early summer moisture and a later start, the fire season was a reflection of recent years.
Overall, this year’s fire season was “relatively small,” according to Julia Berkey, the community preparedness and wildlife prevention program manager at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Spring rains lasted longer, helping to prevent a bigger season.
According to the agency, 2,063 fires burned 124,997 acres throughout Montana this year. The state spent $52 million suppressing wildfires.
About 44 percent of the fires were human caused. Air quality ratings statewide mainly stayed between “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
ON THE COVER
TimberPro feller buncher harvesting trees in Montana for Skookum Timber Harvesting
Keeping Montana Forests Healthy
Ken Swanstrom, owner of Skookum Timber Harvesting, is well known for his goal of harvesting for the future good of Montana forests.
Versatility Helps Keep Oregon Company Busy
Brian Thomas, owner of NWTL Inc. (Northwest Trees and Land), prides himself on the versatility of his company, which has kept him in business for 15 years.