Active Management Does a Forest Good
Forest managers and scientists agree that executing active forest management techniques such as prescribed burns, thinning and other treatments enhance habitat for elk and other wildlife while also improving overall forest health.
That's why, in 2021 and 2022 alone, RMEF committed more than $1 million for wildfire restoration efforts.
View official news release
Since 1984, RMEF and its partners conserved or enhanced more than 8.6 million acres of wildlife habitat.
Specific to fire-related treatments, RMEF helped complete approximately 1,500 lifetime projects across 1.6 million acres of habitat in 23 states.
What Recent Research Tells Us
- Post-Wildfire Logging Reduces Fuel Loads, Risk of Future High-Intensity Fires: : Pacific Northwest Research Station (2022)
- Fire Can Be Our Friend, Unless We Don't Use It First: Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory (2022)
- Science says thinned forests are healthy forests: Pacific Southwest Research Station (2022)
- Removal/thinning encroaching conifers benefits sagebrush-steppe ecosystems, sage grouse: Ecosphere (2021)
- Thinning & prescribed burns help forests survive wildfires: Journal of Ecological Applications (2020)
- Prescribed burns help restore healthy forests & ecosystems: Fire (2019)
- Prescribed fire helps mitigate future fires & assists long-term ecosystem resilience: Science (2019)
- Small natural fires increase plant diversity & benefit native pollinators: Ecology and Evolution (2020)
- Post-wildfire thinning, prescribed burns benefit wildlife habitat & forest health: Pacific Northwest Research Station (2018)
- Fire triggers new growth that produces quality forage 'approximately equivalent to that of irrigated agriculture' for elk, other animals: Journal of Wildlife Management (2018)
- Removing conifers benefits aspen stands and understory plant communities: Forest Ecology and Management (2017)
The Historic Use of Fire
The archaeological record in many places across North America shows Native Americans used fire extensively as a management tool for thousands of years to clear the way for travel, lure game or prepare agricultural lands. When the early European settlers moved in, they copied those practices at first, but as populations increased so did potential losses. Out-of-control fires had a knack for destroying crops, timber and homes which led to widespread fire suppression.
Fire suppression – What Is It and Why Did It Happen?
Devastating fires like Wisconsin’s 1871 Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest in American history that claimed at least 1,200 lives, and the Great Fire of 1910, which scorched almost 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington over three days, helped cement fire suppression. By 1935, the U.S. Forest Service implemented its “10 a.m. Policy,” with a goal of stomping out all wildfires by 10 a.m. following the morning of their discovery. And in 1944, Smokey Bear made his debut with what’s become the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history. It initially ingrained the message that any fire is a bad fire.
Highlighting a specific example, native red cedar was described as “scattered throughout Oklahoma” in 1927 but by 2010 it had colonized new areas and taken over pasturelands and forests by outcompeting traditional species.
“We never had that problem when it was open range because there was fire on the landscape frequently,” said Jack Waymire, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) senior biologist. “In the state of Oklahoma, we are losing acres and acres every year to eastern red cedar encroachment.”
No Fire = Poor Forest Health
Without flames, forest health nosedives. Elk and other wildlife pay the price for decades of fire suppression in the form of less forage and unfriendly habitat. Thick, mixed pine forests and conifers invade aspens stands and huge swaths of sagebrush-steppe habitat. Those overly dense tree stands create canopies that block the sun from allowing its rays to reach the forest floor below. As a result, native grasses and vegetation, so vital for elk, give in to invasive growth.
Keeping fire off the landscape leads to the growth of smaller trees and shrubs that serve as ladder fuels up into the tops of older trees. Additionally, downed and decadent material litters forest floors which chokes out native forage while also lingering as potential fuel for wildfires.
When Fire is Bad
Hot-burning or catastrophic wildfires destroy plants, root systems and the layer of duff, or dead plant material like twigs, leaves, bark and needles, that sit atop the ground protecting the soil beneath from erosion, High intensity fires also trigger the proliferation of noxious or invasive plants or weeds and ruin water quality in streams and rivers. Additionally, they cause the soil to repel water which again leads to soil erosion, especially during severe rainstorms and heavy snow runoff, flooding and the decimation of water quality.
When Fire is Good
Prescribed or controlled burns seek to replicate the results wildfires have traditionally brought forth, but in a measured and calculated fashion. Ignited by highly-trained fire managers under specific conditions, they are a way to reap fire’s natural benefits while eliminating much of the uncertainty, risk and cost.
ODWC maintains the nation’s longest-running prescribed fire study. Dating back to 1980, it started using prescribed fire on the Pushmataha Wildlife Management Area. Data showed closed-canopy control plots, which are neither thinned nor burned, produce about 200 pounds of forage per acre. But treated savannah areas, thinned and then burned on two-year intervals, produce 4,000 pounds per acre. A small but prized elk herd has called the WMA home since the late 1960s. Breeding bird surveys have also shown upticks in both the number and diversity of birds in the area.
“Most people don’t realize that fire has always been a natural part of the ecosystem. It is necessary. And done correctly, it is a good thing,” said Waymire.
Prescribed fire acts to refresh the system by returning nutrients to the soil, stimulating plant growth and restoring forest health and resiliency. It safely reduces hazardous fuel build-ups while helping to control pests, diseases and invasive species. It improves habitat for everything from butterflies to bull elk. Regarding elk, fires help jumpstart grasses, forbs and browse which improves the health of the herd.
Shoshone National Forest Aspen Restoration, Wyoming
Conservation work began on the Shoshone Landscape Habitat Project when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation committed $365,000 in 2016 for the multi-year aspen and forest restoration effort.
Specific treatments across a 260,000-acre landscape include removal of encroaching conifer, prescribed burning, noxious weed control, fence removal and thinning, all to enhance aspen stands and other habitat that support more than 12,000 elk along with moose, bighorn sheep, ruffed grouse and other wildlife species.
The result is more healthy aspen stands that provide important cover, an increased amount of early seral habitat that offers improved forage, fewer invasive weeds that crowd out native vegetation, improved wildlife movement and thinned out overstocked stands that remove beetle kill and reduce the threat of catastrophic fire.
Slowing Catastrophic Wildfires
Active management projects aren't intended to all prevent wildfires. These projects allow natural fire to occur in a way that reduces the risk of catastrophic, earth-scorching fire while also preventing structure losses. This allows habitat to regenerate as nature intended.
In 2021, the Bootleg Fire scorched more than 413,000 acres of forestland in southern Oregon. Flames jumped from treetop to treetop as the fire tore across the landscape. However, fire activity slowed and dropped to the ground after hitting an area that previously received thinning operations. That allowed firefighters an opportunity to get on the ground and turn the fire away from a research station.
In 2017, the Boyds Fire burned an estimated 4,700 acres of timber and grass understory in northeast Washington. It threatened homes, businesses and power lines that provide electricity to nearby residents. But the flames slowed after hitting forestland previously treated with prescribed burn and thinning projects, allowing firefighters to make a successful stand.
Where the $1 Million+ is Going to Work
Funding for the 2021 work targets 19 different projects across Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wyoming
Colter Creek Dirt Tank Maintenance – Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
Cow Canyon Wildfire Tank Repair – Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
Rafael Wildfire Water Development Repair – Kaibab National Forest
Antelope Wildfire Guzzler Rehabilitation – Klamath and Modoc National Forests
Post-Wildfire Noxious Weed Control – Cecil D. Andrus Wildlife Management Area (Idaho Department of Fish & Game)
Salmon River Breaks Wildfire Restoration – Salmon-Challis National Forest
Badger Wildfire Winter Range Restoration– Sawtooth National Forest
West Lolo Wildfire Restoration, Invasive Weed Control – Lolo National Forest
Three Rivers Wildfire Tree & Shrub Restoration – Lincoln National Forest
Bootleg Wildfire Restoration – Fremont-Winema National Forest
Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area Post-Wildfire Shrub Planting – Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area
Ashley National Forest Dollar Ridge & East Fork Wildfire Areas Guzzlers – Ashley National Forest
East Fork Wildfire Seeding – Ashley National Forest
Richard Mountain Wildfire Seeding – BLM Vernal Field Office; State Lands
Miller Creek Watershed Weed Treatment & Stream Restoration – Gordon Creek Wildlife Management Area (DWR)
Bennion Wildfire Restoration –Manti-La Sal National Forest & Starvation Creek Wildlife Management Area (DWR, USFS)
Lick Creek Wildfire Invasive Weed Control & Native Forb Restoration – Umatilla National Forest
Evans Canyon Wildfire Shrub & Native Forage Restoration – Wenas Wildlife Area (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)
Mullen Wildfire Cheatgrass Control – Medicine Bow National Forest
Snowy Mountains Post-Wildfire Shrub Restoration – Medicine Bow National Forest
RMEF is currently reviewing proposals for 2022 projects focused on large-landscape restoration across public and private land. The following projects have currently been approved.
- Arizona - Cow Canyon Wildfire Area Water Development Repair
- Arizona - Slate and Rafael Wildfire Water Development
- Colorado - Northern Colorado Front Range Post-Wildfire Cheatgrass Treatment
- Montana - Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Wildlife Restoration 2022
- Oregon - Malheur National Forest Post-Wildfire Seeding
- Oregon - Crooked River National Grassland Post-Wildfire Restoration
- Oregon - White River Watershed Post-Wildfire Houndstongue Treatment
- Utah - East Fork Wildfire Seeding Phase 2
- Washington - Asotin County Wildfire Restoration
- Wyoming - Palmer Canyon Cheatgrass Control
How you can help do more
Join or Donate Today
When you join or donate to RMEF, you provide critical funding to ensure that RMEF can continue to be good stewards of the land long into the future.
RMEF volunteers play an important role in improving habitat for elk and other wildlife as hundreds commit annually to remove hazardous fencing, install wildlife water sources, plant native seeds and saplings, and carry out other habitat enhancement work.
New volunteer opportunities arise regularly. When you submit your information below, it goes straight to local representatives in your area who will contact you about opportunities that may be available.