Researchers Help Forest Service Respond to "Roadless" Rule Change

New tools to reduce wildfires risk allow for "scheduling" of fuel-reduction efforts

Release Date: May 16, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The development of geographic information science tools to help rangers and forest scientists determine whether logging or prescribed burning is the best way to reduce the fuel load to mitigate the risk of devastating wildfires is the goal of software-development work being done in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service by Chris S. Renschler, Ph.D., of the University at Buffalo.

His groundbreaking work comes just as the Bush Administration has reversed the roadless rule for federal lands, potentially opening up 58.5 million acres to logging, mining and other commercial uses.

"Now that we have this rule change, the question is, 'Do we want to reduce the fuel load in a particular watershed by doing selected burning, should we build roads so that we can bring equipment in to log or should we do both?'" said Renschler, assistant professor in the Department of Geography in UB's College of Arts and Sciences. "The tools we are developing can compare those two scenarios for a specific watershed and help managers make sound decisions."

The new capabilities are an upgrade of an existing software package called GeoWEPP (Geo-spatial interface for the Water Erosion Prediction Project) developed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Agricultural Research Service. Renschler's co-investigator on the project is William J. Elliot, Ph.D., a project leader at the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Idaho.

The new features of the extension, to be released for testing later this year, will allow managers to use the software to simulate and predict the effects of erosion for watersheds covering up to 250,000 acres.

The result will be much more precise predictions about the amount of erosion and sediment yield that will end up in nearby rivers.

Earlier versions of GeoWEPP focused on targeting soil and water conservation measures after a fire and planning fuel-management efforts to reduce the risk of wildfire.

The new capabilities will help managers accurately compare their options -- including the new option of logging and road building -- for reducing the fuel load.

"We are developing tools that allow managers to actually schedule their fuel-reduction efforts in space and time," explained Renschler.

"Managers need to schedule them over a long time period and to properly sequence the efforts so that there's minimal impact on the environment," he said.

Now that logging is an option in millions of acres of federal lands, Renschler said, managers will need to evaluate where that option best is exercised.

"Naturally, roads increase erosion because the protection of the vegetation cover is gone," he explained. "We have to plan for that now and evaluate prescribed burning or road building in ways that consider the increased runoff and erosion that will occur and compare mitigation strategies."

At the same time, he said, with exurban sprawl spreading ever-closer to forests, the decision to do a controlled burn also is becoming increasingly complex.

"We need tools to explore all of these considerations," he said. "We need to build long-term strategies to reduce fuel loads and GeoWEPP is the best tool to support these new strategies."

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