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Land | Environment

Changes in Forests Increase Fire Risks, Insect Outbreaks

RICHLAND, Wash. – The Pacific Northwest’s inland forests have dramatically changed over the past 100 years. That’s according to a new study by The Nature Conservancy. These changes can lead to larger fires and insect outbreaks.

The report examines forests in central and eastern Washington. Researchers found human activities have changed the way forests grow:

  • Fire suppression: Historically fires have played an important role in forest growth, clearing out underbrush and preventing invasive species. Now, fire suppression has allowed forests to become much more dense. This helps fuel large, hot fires.

  • Pest management and invasive insects: Like, fires, insects have long been a part of forest health. But now a number of invasive insects are reaching the west, like the spruce budworm and pine bark beetle. These species can leave large numbers of dead trees, which ignite quickly in a fire. A health hazard warning has been issued for some eastern Washington counties.

  • Grazing: Livestock grazing can cause erosion, damage to the trees and habitat as livestock feed.

Ryan Haugo is a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. He says forest disturbances, like fire and insects, are complicated.

Eastern Washington Forests: Ecological Departure
Map of study area: The Nature Conservancy

“Fire and insects and different diseases have always been a part of these forests,” Haugo says. “Historically, they were an important part in maintaining the forests and keeping them healthy. But today, because of the condition that [the forests] are in, we’re at a point where the fire and insect outbreaks may become much more severe and widespread than we would have seen historically.”

Haugo says 73 percent of the forests studied are unhealthy.

“The risks that these forests face are increasing each year, as you go along. It’s something that we need to get a handle on now,” Haugo says.

Haugo says the report will set the stage for the next step: long-term restoration.

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