America's Forests
1999 Health UpdateOverview MapIntroduction
Issues and Examples of Forest Ecosystem Health Concerns
I. Wildfire Threat (fuel buildup)

Years of fire suppression and other management practices have resulted in high-intensity fires that threaten the lives of the public and firefighters, private and public property, and critical natural resources. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service has identified approximately 39 million acres of National Forest System lands—primarily in the interior West and the Atlantic coastal States—that are at high risk from catastrophic fires. Many of these forests are overcrowded, resulting in high mortality rates from bark beetle and other insect and disease outbreaks. High mortality rates result in excessive fuel buildups.

To minimize fuel buildups, the USDA Forest Service annually treats about 1.5 million acres through mechanical treatment and prescribed burning. By the year 2005, the goal is to treat at least 3 million acres per year to address the most critical high-fire-risk areas. In treating acres at risk—and minimizing the impact to the public—the USDA Forest Service works closely with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), State organizations, and others to manage smoke duration and volume. In addition to these treatments, the threat of destructive crown fires in unnaturally dense forest stands is being reduced through thinning of small-diameter trees. Wildlife biologists participate in treatment design and implementation to ensure that wildlife habitat needs are being met while reducing the potential for catastrophic wildland fires.


Forest Lands in the Southeast—In most of the forests of the Southeast, a low risk to fire is maintained by frequent application of prescribed fire treatments, which prevent accumulation of fuel to hazardous levels. In the coastal plain forests of the South, the volatile shrub and brush species create a highly flammable fuel condition in 4 to 5 years, unless treated. Of the approximately 5.4 million acres treated by prescribed fire each year across all ownerships in this region, 75 percent are in the States of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia and 800,000 acres are on National Forest System lands. All 34 Southeast national forests have aggressive prescribed fire programs and have completed approximately 21 million acres of prescribed fire treatment since 1944.

Wildland fire

The Conecuh National Forest in Alabama (84,000 acres in size), predominately a fire-dependent longleaf pine ecosystem, annually performs prescribed burns on 20,000 to 25,000 acres. This means that nearly the entire forest is treated every 4 to 5 years. The forest also applies growing-season prescribed fire treatments that restore and maintain natural plant communities, such as wiregrass and bluestem instead of the volatile wax myrtle, galberry, and yaupon brush species.

Following 55 years of aggressive prescribed fire treatment by the National Forests in Florida, 161 out of 163 wildland fires were successfully suppressed with minimum effort during the 1998 fire season. The only two large wildland fires on National Forest System lands in the State occurred in wilderness areas where suppression tactics and options were constrained. During this same 6-week period, fires on other lands in the State of Florida reached catastrophic levels, impacting the quality of air, water, and other natural resources.

Prescribed fire reduces fuel buildup on the National Forests in Florida

Gila National Forest, New Mexico—As a result of critical declines in mule deer populations, the Black Range Ranger District of the Gila National Forest initiated a study to determine causes of the decline in the Hermosa Ecosystem Area (110,000 acres). The examination determined that one of the main causes of the decline is the increasing densities and range of the pinyon-juniper tree species. To improve wildlife habitat and watershed health and reduce stems-per-acre in the pinyon-juniper and pine types, five phases were identified for landscape-scale application of prescribed fire. To date, three phases have been completed on multiple ownerships, with application of prescribed fire on 46,570 acres. This treatment reduced the risk of catastrophic wildfires and expanded browse species, such as mountain mahogany favored by mule deer.

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