Pathways to Restoring Forest Health and Water Storage

October 21, 2021

Testifying on the impact of the 21st straight year of drought in the west – “an unprecedented disaster for many farmers and ranchers, their families and rural communities across the West” – SfL Board member Pat O’Toole offered a congressional subcommittee Wednesday a set of recommendations and guidelines that can help agricultural, urban, energy and environmental water users in developing responses to the catastrophic dry spells generated by our climate’s volatility.

O’Toole, a Wyoming cattle and sheep rancher and former state legislator, is the longtime president of the Family Farm Alliance, a grassroots organization of farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts and allied industries in 16 Western states. The alliance says it is “committed to the fundamental proposition that Western irrigated agriculture must be preserved and protected for a host of economic, sociological, environmental and national security reasons.”

He told a House Natural Resources Subcommittee that reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin are at their lowest levels since they were initially filled. O’Toole cited findings by the National Interagency Fire Center showing that more than 46,000 fires in the West have charred more than 5.8 million acres to date this year. That follows a loss of at least 10 million acres in three of the previous three years, including last year’s record-breaking 10.3 million acres.

The numbers reflect a growing devastation, especially in important Western forested watersheds. In his testimony, O’Toole cited the critical need for proactive restoration, including improving on-the-ground vegetation management that can lead to better forest health and water storage. Boosting the condition of the nation’s forested lands is of primary importance to water providers. National Forest lands are overwhelmingly the largest, single source of water in the country and, in most regions of the West, contributing nearly all the water that supplies our farms and cities.

The Wyoming rancher told lawmakers that U.S. forests are in a “sad state” and solutions must be found and applied through specific and thoughtful management. The problem involves a natural landscape, so some of the solutions will be time-tested natural processes. Others will be driven by landowners and forest managers through proactive, aggressive actions such as removal of dead trees, reforestation, invasive species mitgation, and natural and built water storage systems.

O’Toole said federal forests must be actively managed and restored through responsible levels of continuous fuels reduction, including a combination of robust mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. These processes can be employed to significantly reduce the loss of water into the atmosphere, tree stress, disease, and pest infestation, all while preserving healthy forest conditions and protecting habitats. Failure to employ an active management approach will lead, inevitably, to additional high- intensity and costly fire events in the future.

O’Toole told lawmakers that long-term conditions of water flows must be secured, contending that climate change and mismanagement have disrupted the crucial cycle in which forest floors act as a sponge soaking in snowmelt and rainfall.

O’Toole called for “bold action” on the part of upper-level Forest Service policy makers and managers to create a plan and set an agenda that will lead to success, including

eliminating the “bureaucratic morass” that has thwarted the implementation of pragmatic forest health and water management solutions. The SfL board member said the “neglect and deterioration” of U.S. forests cannot continue. Citing a growing recognition in Congress of the importance of active forest management, he warned that policy makers and stakeholders “must act now to heal” U.S. forestlands.

In stark contrast to “no-use and no-intervention” advocates, SfL believes that better forest management can improve ecosystem integrity and watershed yields, resulting in significant gains in wildlife, fisheries, groundwater recharge and streamflow. SfL calls on policy makers and land managers to heed O’Toole’s recommendations. They should embrace the collective, on-the-ground experience of farmers, ranchers, foresters and their collaborating conservation partners who can serve as a guide to ensure that funds broadly dedicated to conservation and restoration are best utilized to the benefit of ecosystem function, the vitality of local communities, and the health of working lands.

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