How do Wildfires — And Efforts to Abate Them — Affect the Nation’s Water Supplies?

by Stephanie Worley Firley, EFETAC
One consequence of wildfire is the increased probability of flash floods. Photo by John A. Moody, courtesy of USGS.

One consequence of wildfire is the increased probability of flash floods. Photo by John A. Moody, courtesy of USGS.

More than 180 million people across the United States rely on forest watersheds to store, filter, and deliver the water that flows from their taps. Unfortunately, in many parts of the country, these watershed functions face an increasing risk of severe wildfire.

Prescribed burning is one treatment that can reduce forest fuels and wildfire’s threats to municipal areas, but how does fire—planned or not—impact water quantity across the landscape? Can forest thinning, which causes forests to take up less water, reduce fire risk and also increase water supplies? U.S. Forest Service researchers are beginning a first-of-its-kind study to explore these questions.

Most previous research on this topic has taken place at a relatively small scale, so little is known about the effects of wildfire and fuel treatment strategies on water flow and yield over regional areas. “This is significant because there is an immediate need to identify high priority watersheds and to optimize limited resources for managing them based on the effectiveness of prescribed fuel treatment options,” says Ge Sun, a research hydrologist with the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center and principal investigator of the study, which is being funded by the Joint Fire Science Program. “Our study will extend the Forest Service’s research capacity and understanding of fire-water relationships to a much larger scale compared to traditional research methods.”

Over the course of the three-year study, researchers will use computer models, including the Water Supply Stress Index, to simulate and quantify water supply changes in response to wildfire and fuel treatments across 88,000 U.S. watersheds. “We hypothesize that water yield increases with fire severity and that streamflow is most sensitive to fire disturbances in regions where rates of precipitation and potential forest water use are similar,” says Sun. Researchers will test this idea by analyzing historic streamflow and wildfire data collected in multiple forested watersheds in the southern and western United States.

The study’s findings could have important implications for local forest management decisions that ultimately affect water quantity as well as quality. Researchers plan to share results throughout the study period and will engage forest managers in training workshops to support sustainable, science-based management practices that ensure water supplies can meet demand. More than 180 million people are counting on it.

 For more information, email Ge Sun at gesun@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Fire, Forest Watersheds

2014 Southern Research Station Director’s Awards

Forest Service LogoOn Tuesday, October 14, Southern Research Station (SRS) director Rob Doudrick presented the Station Director’s Awards to the following:

Distinguished Science Award – Kurt Riitters; Research Triangle Park, NC

Recognizing global leadership in quantitative landscape ecology research and the development and application of landscape pattern analysis techniques and tools in Forest Service national resource assessments.

Early Career Scientist Award – Michael Ulyshen; Athens, GA

In recognition of remarkable contributions to the understanding of invasive insects and insect-pathogen complexes in forest ecosystems.

Science Delivery Award – Dave Wear and Jim Vose; Raleigh, NC

For exceptional accomplishments in developing and delivering integrated synthesis products that support science-based management of the nation’s natural resources.

Multicultural Organization Award – Acquisition Management Group; Asheville, NC

For outstanding support to SRS Headquarters and SRS Research Work Units during Fiscal Year 2014.

Safety and Occupational Health Award – John Roberts; Asheville, NC

For innovative solutions and active support of the SRS safety and occupational health program.

Sustainable Operations Award – Jason Anderson; Asheville, NC

For providing leadership at the Agency and Station levels in sustainable operations and the implementation of sustainable technology.

Business Operations Support Award – Patsy Hunsucker; Asheville, NC

For providing sustained excellence in business operations to SRS.

Research Technical Support Award – Andy (Charles) Harrison; Cordesville, SC

For extra effort and challenges with development of long-term database for Web portal-based data delivery system and contributions to publications/presentations on research at Santee Experimental Forest watersheds.

Research Professional Support Award – Louise Loudermilk; Athens, GA

For recognition of the exceptional performance in supporting SRS research activities.

Customer Service Award – Jeff Williams; Asheville, NC

For exemplary customer service to the Station and partners.

Partnership Award – Kent House Bug Day Team; Pineville, LA

In recognition of outstanding innovative and creative approaches in the successful implementation of the Kent House Bug Day partnership and promotion of the Forest Service and SRS.

 

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Who Will Own Southern Forests in the Future?

Findings from the Southern Forest Futures Project

by Zoё Hoyle, SRS Science Delivery Group
The forest products industry divested about three-fourths of its timberland holdings between 1998 and 2008, the largest ownership transition in the last century. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

The forest products industry divested about three-fourths of its timberland holdings between 1998 and 2008, the largest ownership transition in the last century. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

The Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP) started in 2008 as an effort to study and understand the various forces reshaping the forests across the 13 states of the Southeast. Chartered by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region and Southern Research Station along with the Southern Group of State Foresters, the project examines a variety of possible futures and how they might shape forests and their many ecosystems and values.

Forest ownership in the South has changed substantially over the past decade, raising questions about future landowner objectives and approaches to forest management and ultimately about the retention of forest lands. How will ownership change in the future? What are the implications for forest management and forest sustainability? Chapter 6 of the SFFP technical report examines the recent dynamics of forest ownership, develops forecasts of potential future changes, and identifies some implications of these changes for forest conditions and management.

Key Findings:

  • Private landowners hold 86 percent of the forest area in the South, with two-thirds of this area owned by families or individuals.
  • Fifty-nine percent of family forest owners own between 1 and 9 acres of forest land, but 60 percent of family-owned forests are in holdings of 100 acres or more.
  • Two-thirds of family forest land is owned by people who have harvested and sold trees from their land. Assuming that corporate owners have harvested timber, then in all about 8 of every 10 acres of private forest land in the South is owned by individuals or organizations who have commercially harvested their timber.
  • The average size of family forest holdings is 29 acres. Ongoing parcellation and fragmentation through estate disposal and urbanization will continue to alter forest management in the South.
  •  The largest gain in ownership was realized by timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts.
  • Forest products industry divestitures were likely driven by a combination of factors including mergers, alleviation of timber-scarcity concerns, new technologies for reducing the cost of fiber acquisition, redeployment of capital, and desire to reduce tax burdens.
  • As a result of the transfer of holdings from the forest products industry to timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts, forest land held by corporations is now a more liquid asset class and will likely trade more frequently in the future. If this holds, individual corporate forest holdings could decline in size over time.
  • Although the forest products industry land base was long perceived to be a stable and predictable component of the forest landscape in the South, corporate lands may become less stable and more changeable with implications for both timber and nontimber values of forest lands.
  • Increased liquidity of forest assets argues for increased monitoring of ownership changes and of forest land transaction values to better understand the conservation implications of economic trends.

Read the full text of the chapter.

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Posted in Economics & Policy, Ethics & Values, Forest Landowners, Forest Operations, Forest Products