Earlier this year, wildfires burned in large areas of California, Oregon, and Washington. The 2020 fires in California spanned an area larger than nearly the entire past two decades of fires in California. Following the trend, Australia has also seen unprecedented fires in recent years and there are frequent blazes across the African continent.
These events made us ask: What is the condition of Wisconsin’s forests? Are they susceptible to wildfires? What are the best sustainable management practices to support our Wisconsin ecosystem?
Higher than average temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and forest management decisions – among other climate related issues – have all contributed to this trending pattern towards more frequent, more intense, and more costly wildfires than in past history. In our own backyard, forest managers monitor ever-growing concerns of tree species diversity, insects and pests, as well as windstorm events, underscoring the delicate balance we must achieve for an environmentally healthy future. Understanding and acknowledging the science can help us better prepare and adapt to protect Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
Health of Wisconsin’s Forests
Wisconsin has about 17 million acres of forested land cover, covering almost 50 percent of the state’s total land area according to the US Forest Service. However, only about 30 percent of that land is managed by the state and federal government. Private land managers are responsible for the remaining 70 percent of forested land cover.
In order to maintain the health of the forest, landowners are encouraged to have action plans that layout sound forest management guidelines and principles to follow. However, Anna Haines, director for the Center for Land Use Education and Professor at UW-Stevens Point, found that these plans might not account for climate change in their scope of future preparedness.
Haines conducted a study on the content of county forest plans within Wisconsin because counties manage the greatest public forest land area in Wisconsin. Most plans were created in 2005-06 and did not include any mention of climate science. Plans are updated approximately every 15 years, however, a follow-up survey found that currently the updates will likely not include climate science either.
There is a large growth opportunity for protecting and supporting a thriving forest ecosystem. It will be important to include the most recent science on adapting to climate change for future preparedness. Haines encourages forest managers to be proactive. That includes land conservation, particularly in the Northwoods and “recognizing that climate change is happening is half the battle” in her eyes.
Haines is a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, a board of appointed individuals that work to find climate solutions in Wisconsin. Ultimately, she wants people to understand that taking climate actions helps protect nature and the places we love for many years to come.
“The strange thing about these socially distant times is that while we humans are away, natural areas are flourishing and returning to an equilibrium. We need to keep this level of conservation for natural habitats,” Haines emphasized. “And that’s my big thing – making sure the places we love are resilient.”
Preparing for Climate Risks & Vulnerabilities
Stephen Handler, a climate change specialist with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS), says that we should understand climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ – meaning that it enhances the instability of situations that are already happening in the ecosystem.
“It’s not one drought or one rainy day, but rather something that plays out over decades,” explained Handler. “It creates extra pressure and extra stress by tipping the scales of ecosystems beyond their natural limits.”
Handler sees NIACS as a sort of “climate change help desk” where people reach out to them to find solutions for preparing and responding to environmental impacts from climate change. His work mainly deals with research on the Northwoods region spanning across Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Handler assists forest managers through vulnerability assessments, which help with planning ahead of time to reduce future hardships.
Wisconsin is no stranger to wildfires. In recent history, the Germann Road fire in 2013 burned 7,500 acres of land on the Northern tip of the state. That fire had no casualties or injuries. In 1871, the Peshtigo fire blazed across Eastern Wisconsin in the towns of Peshtigo and Brussels, killing around 1,500 people, claiming the title of deadliest fire in U.S. history. In 2020, Wisconsin has had more than 600 wildfires so far, with fire season winding down into winter.
While most wildfires are the result of human error, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for fire in the natural ecosystem. When used strategically, prescribed wildfires can enhance natural ecosystems, but in our current climate conditions, with natural or human-made fire it can be harder to control the flames.
A Culture of Sustainability for the Future
For the Menominee people of Northern Wisconsin, land preservation is part of their culture and a sacred practice passed through generations. Their reverence for the long-term health of the Menominee Forest, managed by Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE), is internationally recognized as a gold standard for land stewardship and a prime example of “resiliency in practice.”
Adrian Miller, president of MTE, says the Menominee go to great lengths to preserve the forest both as a source of economic livelihood and of natural habitat for the local wildlife. “The Menominee people give ecological equity and intrinsic value to all species. We don’t just manage trees, we manage the whole ecosystem,” shared Miller.
This modern blend of forestry science and natural resource management with tribal land ethic and cultural tradition has brought the Menominee great success. The secret to their sustainability practice is the sustained-yield approach, which is a forest management technique that balances the equilibrium between harvesting only what the forest can provide and maximizing the benefits of more jobs and a better economy for the Menominee people.
A 2018 UW-Madison study found that their forest yields larger, more mature trees. These trees support a wide diversity of both plant and animal species and store more relative carbon than other government and private forests in Wisconsin.
A lot of decision-making goes into which trees are eventually marked for harvest. Over the course of 30 years, interim Forest Manager Ron Waukau has perfected that process by using forest assessment tools like GIS technology to track and monitor tree age, health, location, and proximity of wildlife habitats. The decisions allow the trees to be harvested with minimal disturbance.
Part of his job is also to maintain the overall health of the forest, and keep it growing for future generations. He uses standard techniques like thinning, but he also coordinates prescribed burns, utilizing fire ecology to control the landscape and facilitate the growth of fire-loving plant species.
While actively setting fires in the middle of a forest might seem contrary to forest health, proper fire management provides many benefits as a controlled disturbance source, reducing the risk of extreme fires and recycling nutrients back into the soil. However, Waukau makes a point to distinguish between prescribed burn ecology and the wildfires out in the American West.
“Fire is a natural part of the ecology and the land, but the big fires we’re seeing on the west coast, that’s due to removing fire from the ecosystem has helped create these huge tinder boxes, just waiting to burn,” Waukau stated. The Menominee actually sent some of their own members to help on the West coast, which included a crew of about a dozen rotating out to assist with the wildfires.
Both Waukau and Miller see themselves as stewards of the land, maintaining and protecting the forest for future generations that will inherit this Earth. Miller says this land mandate comes from the Great Spirit, who put this dream in his heart to represent the forest and maintain the majesty of this space for centuries to come.
“We take a lot from our environment, but there’s also something we have to give back,” Miller shared, “I hope that over the decades I’ve been on this Earth and in this forest, I gave back more than I received.”
Independent data analysis on wildfires
USDA Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) program – updated 2019