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Center for Biological Diversity

Restoration, Fire & Ecosystem Health


Controlled burn, Dixie National Forest, UT. Notice the low intesity of the flames, and the clearing of some small trees.






Impacts of the 2003 Southern California Wildfires on Four Species Listed as Threatened or Endangered Under the Federal Endangered Species Act: Quino checkerspot butterfly, Mountain yellow-legged frog, Coastal California gnatcatcher, Least Bell's vireo

Ecosystem Restoration

The Center for Biological Diversity works to establish restoration principles for forests and damaged riparian ecosystems across the West.

Restoration is no substitute for preservation, but as more and more wilderness disappears it is crucial that effective standards and technologies be devised for restoring ecosystem functions to ensure the survival of animal and plant habitats. Developing the ability to restore the damage we've already done will be key to the future of biodiversity conservation. Even if the entire pristine wilderness that still exists in the U.S. today were protected tonight, species would continue to go extinct because of habitat destruction that has already occurred. Since all remaining U.S. wilderness will not be protected in the near future, the rate of fragmentation and destruction-and the need for restoration-will increase in years to come.

The Center is working to (1) compel restoration of important and critically degraded ecosystems through policy, advocacy and litigation; (2) develop ecological principles and frameworks for the restoration of Western forests through hands-on research and scientific collaboration; and (3) organize the environmental community to unify in the adoption of restoration principles that can guide federal restoration policy.

Forest Restoration at the Center

Among other restoration initiatives, the Center is working at the cutting edge of restoration technology on an innovative, collaborative on-the-ground project in the Gila, Santa Fe and Kaibab National Forests to develop systems for restoring ponderosa pine forest—one of the Southwest's best-understood and most degraded forest ecotypes. With significant economic value and exceptionally high ecological value-home to endangered species like the Northern Goshawk and the Mexican Spotted Owl, both severely jeopardized by poor forest management practices-only about 5% of ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest remain as old-growth.

The Center's goal with our ponderosa project-which involves hands-on forest work including tree thinning, prescribed burning, erosion control, and road removal-is to develop policy guidelines to set rigorous standards for forest management activities throughout ponderosa pine forests and ultimately all publicly owned forests in the West. Along with local and regional allies, we are developing both general and site-specific restoration prescriptions.

In our broader forest restoration program the Center has prepared a series of GIS maps on land uses within Forest Service Region 3; we are using GIS technology to analyze the effects of the government's fire reduction program on sensitive species and develop comprehensive recommendations for alternatives to the harmful practices that are now standard in forest management. We have instigated an exhaustive review of photographic archives to understand historical conditions in ponderosa pine. In 1996 we produced, along with our allies at the Southwest Forest Alliance, an historical review of ponderosa pine based on early forest surveys conducted in the region; entitled Presettlement Conditions of Ponderosa Pine Forests in the American Southwest, this report remains the most comprehensive look at the subject to date.

Watershed Restoration

The Center's work to promote the restoration of degraded watersheds in the West has focused on rivers and estuaries as well as ocean habitats. In the Colorado Delta, our independent and coalition efforts have set important benchmarks for water delivery to stressed endangered species in the region; our negotiations to decommission hydropower plants and remove diversion dams at places such as Fossil Creek have freed up rivers to revive ecosystems and save suffering species downstream. Our work to shut down a halibut and angel shark fishery that was harming sea otters and murres in the Monterey Bay area prompted an emergency fishery closure that protected 150 miles of California's coast and a host of dependent species.

More broadly, the Center's endangered species advocacy, petitions and litigation have secured critical habitat protection for riparian obligate species such as the Southwestern willow flycatcher; vernal pool dwellers like the Riverside fairy shrimp; and oceangoing birds such as the Steller's and spectacled eiders. The Center brought about the designation of more than 35 million acres of critical habitat between 1993 and 2004-setting the stage for recovery and restoration of a wide variety of forest, river, wetland, estuarine and marine habitats.

Fire and Ecosystem Health

Fire is a natural and vital component of most western forest ecosystems. In the dry forest types, such as ponderosa pine, fire was historically present as a frequent, low-intensity disturbance. Fire is necessary for the health of the forests, and the forests have evolved to depend on fires to clean out underbrush and maintain biological diversity. Dead trees serve as important wildlife habitat and contribute to the nutrient cycle, and patches of dead trees allow for forest succession. Even stand-replacing fires have historically occurred at some level in almost every forest type in the West. Unfortunately, the fires of this year and the past several years have been burning large areas with relatively high severity, as well as burning into communities.

Past Management

The vast majority of western dry forests are at risk of large, high-intensity fire because of the effects of bad forest management over the past 100 years. The primary factors that lead to the current forest conditions include logging large trees, fire suppression, and livestock grazing. Since the beginning of the 20th century all three of these factors have been present in our forests, and all continue today.

Logging operations have historically removed the largest and most fire resistant trees. The young trees that replace the cut trees are highly susceptible to fire, and serve as fire ladders, allowing the fire to reach up into the canopy of the forest.

Fire suppression efforts over the past century have been greatly successful, and have effectively removed fire as a thinning agent from most forests. Because of this, many small trees that would have been killed by fire have been allowed to survive, and currently fill many forests at high density. Besides being prone to fire, these small trees are present at such high densities that they are growing slowly due to the intense competition.

The relatively frequent and low-intensity surface fires that historically burned in many forests, were carried primarily by ground vegetation such as grasses. However, livestock grazing on our public lands has severely reduced the amount of grasses, and fires are now able to burn only when there is significant build up of woody debris, often leading to severe fires. Furthermore, by shading the ground, grasses would suppress the growth of tree seedlings at the youngest stages. With grasses reduced or cropped short by livestock, tree seedlings are much more likely to survive, growing at extremely high densities, and encroaching upon meadows and grasslands.

The factors mentioned above are not for the purposes of placing blame, because it is impossible to undo the damage done to our forests over the past 100 years. However, it is important to acknowledge the causes of the problem so that we may work to remove these factors entirely from our public lands. We can not protect and restore our forests, unless we stop the activities that continue to degrade them.

Protecting and Restoring

The Center for Biological Diversity has three goals for dealing with fire in our forests:

  1. To provide wildland-urban interface communities with protection from the threat of forest fire.
  2. To reduce the severity of forest fires , and reintroduce fire as a natural component of the ecosystem.
  3. To steer the forest on a trajectory toward recovery by reintroducing and enhancing the range of natural forest ecosystem processes.

Fortunately, there is significant overlap among these three goals and the methods required to achieve them. Also, these goals can be obtained with a minimum of controversy and delay.


Our highest priorities include protecting lives and houses in the communities that are currently at risk from forest fires (more information). At the same time, it is critical to protect areas of special concern, such as municipal reservoirs, and habitat for sensitive species. Once those efforts are under way, the greater long-term task of restoring the forest at large must begin.

Small Trees

All of the methods used to achieve these goals must focus on reducing the number of small trees, and protecting the remaining large trees. Small trees make up the greatest portion of the trees in the forest, and comprise the vast majority of the fire risk to communities and the forest. In the Southwest, approximately 90% of the trees in the forest are smaller than 12 inches in diameter.

Forest Restoration

Work within the wildland forest (away from communities) has two main objectives: 1) to mitigate the unnatural fire threat to the forest, and 2) to restore the forest ecosystem so that natural processes, such as fire, may be reintroduced at the landscape scale and over the long-term.

The Natural Processes Restoration approach proposes a conservative approach to restoration, implementing treatments that preserve the greatest amount of the present biological diversity while restoring ecosystem integrity.

The goals below will allow the forest to recover from ecological degradation. The Natural Processes Restoration approach has been developed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Southwest Forest Alliance, and so far has been implemented in experimental plots on the Gila and Kaibab National Forests in New Mexico and Arizona.

Specific goals of the Natural Processes Restoration Approach include:

  • Restoring the ecological integrity of the forest, including the composition, structure, and function.
  • Increasing ecosystem resilience to disturbance events, including fire, drought, insect infestation, and climate change.
  • Restoring the natural distribution of tree ages, sizes, and spatial structures.
  • Reducing the potential for large, high-intensity crown fires.
  • Encouraging the development of a diverse understory community of plants.
  • Enhancing habitat for imperiled and sensitive species.
  • Decreasing excessive tree competition to protect and invigorate old growth trees and encourage the development of old growth structure.
  • Minimizing the risks and negative effects of forest restoration.

The end result is a forest with a diversity of structure at multiple scales. Such treatments will increase the diversity of the forest while increasing its ability to sustain a frequent fire regime.

Thinning efforts should focus entirely on the small trees that make up the vast majority of the fire risk in the forest. Approximately 90% of the trees in the Southwest are smaller than 12 inches in diameter. Large and old trees are relatively fire-resistant, and are extremely rare after 100 years of logging in the forests. For these reasons, it is important to protect and preserve the large trees that are largely deficient in the forest, and remove much of the small trees that are found in high densities. At the same time, it is critical to remove the factors that have lead to the degradation of the forest ecosystems, such as logging large trees, livestock grazing, and fire suppression. It is impossible to protect and restore our forests unless we stop the activities that continue to degrade them.