Challenges face national forests in centennial year

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Capital News Service
LANSING — 2011 is a big year for national forests.
A 1911 law allowed the use of federal funds to purchase denuded private land to establish publicly-owned forests for conservation.
A century later, around 20 million acres have been converted or expanded into national forests in 20 eastern states under the Weeks Act, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
That includes vast swaths of the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula.
“The Weeks Act is one of the most significant natural resource conservation achievements of the 20th century,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “It reminds us of the importance of past conservation efforts that shape our ability to sustain our national forests today, and to keep them healthy for the future.”
The law, named for a Massachusetts lawmaker, was created to salvage underdeveloped land that eroded into wasteland because of excessive lumbering, farming and mining, according to the service.  Key to the rescue mission was protecting major headwaters of rivers and watersheds.
Michigan has more than 2.7 million acres of national forest.  They produce enough lumber each year to build around 18,000 average-sized houses and provide habitat to endangered species such as the bald eagle and osprey.
They are the Huron-Manistee National Forest in the Lower Peninsula and the Ottawa and Hiawatha national forests in the Upper Peninsula.
To commemorate the centennial anniversary, events will include lectures, conservation education programs and a national symposium to discuss future conservation projects.
The three national forests in Michigan will join other eastern U.S. forests to show the “Green Fire,” a film about wilderness management and environmental ethics.
Despite the celebration, the forests face conservation hurdles, including intermingled land ownership that makes it more difficult to protect natural resources.
“Our ownership is kind of a checkerboard,” said Ken Arbogast, a public affairs officer for Huron-Manistee in Cadillac.  “Large tracts of private land are still within the forests, which make it hard to come up with a larger scale approach to management.”
Part of the service’s policy is to buy land only from willing sellers, and only land that has an impact on the forests’ conservation plans.
A recent national audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicated that the Forest Service lacks adequate wildland fire management.
According to the report, the service also lacks a comprehensive strategy for containing costs related to putting out fires.
Arbogast said that’s not the case in Michigan.
“We don’t have large-scale wildfire issues as those in the West,” he said.  “Usually our fires are in less than 100 acres and it takes the fire service one or two days to put them out.”
But Jim Thomas, the acting regional deputy director for fire operations based in Wisconsin, said putting out fires, however small, is getting costlier.
“We are more efficient than our partners in the West, but then we have more fire partners and we need to pay them,” Thomas said.  “Fire equipment and supplies are costing more, and many times we have to supply food and other needs for the time it takes to put out fires.”
Climate change is also adding a new dimension to the way the national forests are managed.
“We are seeing the effect of climate change on our forests – we need to deal with the issue of climate change as we address our forest management,” said Jane Cliff, public affairs specialists for the service’s eastern region.
Andrew Burton, a forestry professor at Michigan Technological University, said that one way to reduce the vulnerability of forests to climate change and invasive species is to increase the diversity of species there.
He also said that management of the forests is a public issue and the service needs to involve the public through education and by taking public comments into account when planning.
“We also need to know what the long-term nature of the forests will be before we implement some of our projects,” he said.  “We don’t want to do things that create an environment for, say, invasive species.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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