5 November, 2014
Thousands gather in Wasatch forest for global forest conference.
SALT LAKE CITY - Several thousand forest researchers, foresters and policymakers are in Salt Lake City in week-long meetings to discuss the sweeping threats to forest health - such as pests, disease and "mega" wildfires - and how to best arrive at solutions.
The International Union of Forest Research Organizations World Congress convened in Salt Lake City Monday on U.S. soil for the first time since 1971, drawing 2,500 delegates from 102 countries.
Salt Lake City won the bid for the conference in 2009, and has been working since to prepare for the mass gathering of experts - who were joined Thursday by 1,500 more foresters in joint sessions with the Society of American Foresters and Canadian Institute of Forestry.
"We are here in Salt Lake City, which has the backdrop of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, three wilderness areas and the largest urban forest in the nation," said Jennifer Hayes, project manager for the congress. "It is this arid, unique ecosystem that has provided us with a really good backdrop to talk about forest issues.
First held in 1893, the congress is staged every four years and was last held in the United States in Gainesville, Florida.
Since then, a bevy of new challenges facing the global canopy of forests has emerged that span both continents and cultures, including a changing climate that has stoked disease and pest outbreaks such as bark beetles, and catastrophic wildfires that burn more acreage and with greater intensity.
The conference also brings together shared stories on innovative solutions - both at community and large-scale levels - and the latest developments in groundbreaking research that may reshape how people think about trees and their role in the world.
Hayes said a highlight of this year's conference were the Wednesday field trips in which the congress sent 2,300 people out on buses to explore Utah forestry, including a southeasterly trek to view "Pando," the world's largest living organism that is actually a more-than-100-acre aspen grove that is genetically one tree.
Some of the more popular outings that day were ventures into Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, where Hayes said researchers could see up close the interplay between a critical watershed and its urban partner, Salt Lake City.
"A lot of them were impressed by the stunning beauty and the incredible amount of thought that went into the landscapes and how well kept those were," she said.
The congress featured a visit by U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell, who was returning to an area where he served as forest supervisor of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest during the Winter Olympics through 2004.
Tidwell, who also worked as a ranger in the Uinta National Forest, spent close to 15 years working in Utah.
In an interview, the Boise native described the challenge of being plucked by President Barack Obama in 2009 to head the agency at a time when the country was reeling from economic upheaval and climate change was taking on new political and scientific urgency.
"It has been an interesting five and half years since I've been in this position," Tidwell said. "No doubt we've seen an increasing fire season where they are 60 to 80 days longer and the fires that are occurring on the landscape are double the amount in acres than what we have seen in just the past 15 years. That definitely drives a lot of actions."
Tidwell said his focus has been restoring forest health, even as a volatile climate and drought are combining to deliver devastating fires to states each season.
"Not only are the fire seasons longer, almost every year we set records for the driest fuels and that is reflected almost every year when one state or another sets a record for the largest wildfire in history," he said. "That occurred in the state of Washington this year."
Western states and their conservative congressional caucus have been largely critical of forest management, and Tidwell conceded the federal agency itself has identified up to 83 million acres in the national forest system that are in need of some sort of restorative attention.
That said, he pointed to funding challenges that have helped to keep the agency from doing the necessary type of pre-suppression fire work on the most vulnerable landscapes.
"The percentage of our budget that goes to fire - it used to be around 14 percent and now it is over 40 percent, and at the same time our budgets have been relatively flat."
He said bipartisan legislation that has been introduced would allow a small percentage of the worst fires to be treated budgetarily like the natural disasters that they are, and be taken care of out an emergency fund much like hurricanes and tornadoes.
As it is, each devastating fire season ultimately has the agency borrowing money from itself - its other programs - to knock down wildfires that destroy communities, wildlife and entire ecosystems. That money eventually gets repaid, but it is a cumbersome process that disrupts the work on the ground such as thinning of forest stands, he said.
"We are always going to have wildfires," Tidwell noted. "But because of the science we have and the research that has been done, we know what we need to do to restore these forests. Our challenge is to be able do it on a large enough scale that it will actually make a difference."