Josiah is state forester and director of the Nebraska Forest Service at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Darnell is Nebraska national forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service.
Our pine forests are in trouble. The extraordinarily severe fires this past summer in both the Pine Ridge and Niobrara Valley are a wake-up call to the serious threats facing these beautiful and important forests and grasslands.
Even though the current fires have been extinguished through the heroic and determined efforts of hundreds of firefighters, this landscape is altered on a massive scale and remains threatened.
The remaining forests are heavily overgrown, with far too many trees for our drier growing sites to support. These highly stressed, unnaturally dense pine forests are at great risk for insect and disease epidemics and persistent catastrophic wildland fire.
Indeed, Nebraska’s iconic mature Ponderosa pine forests, long valued for their scenic beauty, are disappearing due to large and increasingly intense wildfires.
Forest inventories conducted by the Nebraska Forest Service and the USDA Forest Service show that from 1989 to 2011, intense wildfires have wiped out nearly half of the forest in Nebraska’s Pine Ridge alone. This summer’s fires have burned an additional 141,000 acres of forest and grassland (50,000 of these acres were forest) in the Ridge, along with seven homes and 41 other buildings.
Last month’s wildfire in the Niobrara Valley in north central Nebraska burned 76,000 acres, scorching more than 19,000 acres of beautiful pine forests lining the National Scenic River corridor.
This fire also heavily damaged the town of Norden, burned a total of 31 buildings and hammered the river-based tourist industry and associated communities along the Niobrara River at the peak of tourist season. Clearly, the economic, environmental and community impacts of these fires are huge.
These wildfires are fueled by increasingly hot and dry weather, combined with unnaturally dense forests that burn intensely and completely, putting lives of residents, tourists and firefighters at grave risk.
Though fire is both a natural and managed element of a healthy pine forest, these catastrophic crown fires usually kill nearly all the trees and may sterilize the soil. Because of severe soil erosion after the fires and the loss of tree seed, these former forests often do not regrow, and they may struggle to sustain healthy post-fire grasslands.
The loss of these unique and valuable forests also eliminates millions of tons of valuable wood that supports jobs and rural development; damages water supplies to communities; silts up streams, ponds and rivers; diminishes wildlife habitat; creates conditions for invasive plants to take hold; and reduces fee-hunting and tourism income.
The survival of our pine forests is at a crossroads. Unless we take concerted action, it is only a matter of time before we lose much of what’s left of these forests and, potentially, adjacent homes and communities to catastrophic wildfires.
We must restore our remaining pine forests to a healthier, more resilient and natural condition, with far fewer and more widely spaced trees.
Using a mix of federal, state and private funds, the Nebraska Forest Service and the USDA Forest Service have thinned forests through careful tree removals that reduced forest fuels on nearly 34,000 strategically located forested acres in the Pine Ridge and Niobrara Valley over the past 10 years.
Most of those treated forests, including those in Chadron State Park, have withstood the onslaught of intense wildfire and will continue to grow and thrive. But much more needs to be done if we want to preserve Nebraska forests for future generations.
Removing excess trees from these forests is expensive, but the alternative of doing nothing will almost certainly result in costs and losses far beyond what we can imagine or afford.