Restoring resilience to beloved forests

My passion for forest restoration began while camping with my family in the New Jersey Pinelands. I can still feel the rush of adrenaline from running up the steps of fire towers to see the expanse of pitch pine forests. Those camping trips shaped so much of who I am today — my connection to nature, my love for the outdoors, the courses I took in school and ultimately my career choice. Flash forward, and I’m now 15 years into my work on forest and watershed resilience.

Much of that time has focused on the intersection of ecology and communities. In addition to earning degrees in natural and cultural resources, I’ve learned from and worked with Native Americans, indigenous communities, botanists, ornithologists and entomologists, watershed and soil specialists, fire ecologists, and firefighters. Together, we’re accelerating the return of fire as a restoration tool to ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer ecosystems.

Fire has been shaping and stewarding this region for thousands of years, except for the last century (largely due to wildfire suppression). Sometimes, the reintroduction of natural fire processes requires a preliminary thinning of small and medium sized trees. For millennia, this meant controlled burns built on past burn footprints, but we’re playing a serious game of catch up and therefore need to do thinning selectively.

Outside of the Santa Fe area, this is broadly seen as a win-win for New Mexico’s forests, watersheds and communities. However, in this paper’s My View column, on social media and at public forums in Santa Fe you may have noticed an uptick in opinions that at best cast doubt on these restoration efforts and at worst obfuscate and decry these efforts as malicious and destructive. The nature-loving-simply-trying-to-care-for-forests-kid side of me is hurt by these claims.

Some of this opposition calls these actions misguided, some say the actions aren’t wrong but will be implemented poorly and some opposition is based in the visual appeal of a densely packed dry forest. What’s lost is an opportunity to have a constructive discussion about how best to restore resilience to our forests and protect our communities. Anything can be done poorly, but some of the loudest voices decrying the current and proposed plans aren’t calling for any solutions save for continued fire suppression.

A common tactic often used to advance these positions is to cherry-pick information that aligns with a pre-determined opinion, also known as confirmation bias. Rather than look at the whole body of forest and fire ecology research and learn, these individuals and groups are intentionally and selectively focusing on the minority of contrarian researchers whose findings align with theirs. Another tactic is to flat-out misinterpret peer-reviewed papers or even dismiss science entirely.

These approaches and tactics are as damaging as they are effective. It’s also ironic that groups would use methods that so clearly reject the scientific method itself. People using this logic are associated with those who use similar methods to reject climate change science and instead prop up the fossil fuel industry. These approaches and tactics are delaying urgent efforts and draining resources from other landscapes and communities in need.

When you read the next piece that disagrees with forest and watershed restoration, please consider science, the scientific method, the communities who likely won’t withstand the next fire without this progress and the many people trying to make this important work happen.

Eytan Krasilovsky has lived and worked in New Mexico for 15 years. He is a forester and wildland firefighter. Eytan is a deputy director of the Forest Stewards Guild, and is currently serving as chair of the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition (www.santafefireshed.org) this year.

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