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The Flawed Assumptions of the Farm Bill

The Myth of “Forest Health” Logging

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

There are widely held assumptions that logging will reduce or preclude large wildfires and beetle outbreaks. The recent Farm Bill provision that would allow categorical exclusion to log up to 3000 acres without environmental reviews (as required by NEPA) is based on flawed assumptions about forest health and wildfire.

LARGE WILDFIRE CLIMATE DRIVEN

1. Large fires are driven by climatic/weather conditions that completely overwhelm fuels. Changing fuels does not prevent large fires and seldom significantly reduces the outcome of these large fires. The climatic/weather factors driving large blazes are drought, low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly high winds. High wind is the critical factor because winds will blow burning embers over, through or around any fuel reductions including clearcuts. When these conditions line up in the same place as an ignition, it is virtually impossible to stop such fires–until the weather changes.

BEETLE KILL REDUCES FIRE HAZARD

2. Beetle kill actually reduces fire hazard once the needles fall off, so all this panic about dead beetle killed trees will lead to massive fires is myth. We may have large fires, (but it is due to climate) but the presence of beetle kill has little do with the fire spread.

FUEL REDUCTIONS FAIL UNDER SEVERE FIRE CONDITIONS

3. Fuel reductions effectiveness is inconsistent. There are places where it appears to reduce fire spread under MODERATE fire weather conditions but it tends to fail under SEVERE fire weather which is when you have the big fires. Many of the larger fires in Oregon in recent years have burned through “managed” forests. The Biscuit Fire in SW Oregon burned through substantial sections of previously logged lands or the Barry Point Fire by Klamath Falls burned up about a third of Collins Pine managed private lands. Similar large fires in Montana burned through “managed” forests including the Jocko Lake Fire near Seeley Lake, Lolo Creek Fire outside of Missoula, and Derby Fire near Big Timber, Montana.

FUEL REDUCTIONS CAN SOMETIMES INCREASE FIRE SPREAD

4. According to one meta-analysis of fuel reduction effectiveness, in about a third of cases reviewed, fuel reductions INCREASED fire spread. This is typically due to the movement of fuel from trees to the ground during logging operations as well as to the fact that logging opens up the forest to greater drying and wind penetration–both factors that favor fire spread. Other studies also question the ability of fuel reductions to influence LARGE fires under severe fire weather. And that is the key phase–severe fire weather. Even if fuel reductions appear to work under moderate conditions, they generally fail completely under severe fire conditions.

PROBABILITY OF FIRES ENCOUNTERING FUEL REDUCTIONS IS LOW

5. Fire is unpredictable. Most fuel reductions will have no influence on fires because the probability that a fire will encounter one in the time frames when fuel reductions are presumed to work (about 10-20 years at best is extremely small. Statistically fuels reductions, except for those immediately next to communities and towns, are a waste of tax dollars.

MOST FIRES ARE NOT UNHEALTHY OR OUT OF HISTORIC CONDITION

6. New interpretations of forest historical condition are questioning whether our forests are really out of ‘whack” or outside of their historic condition. This is especially true for all forests outside of the lowest elevation dry forest of ponderosa pine. Thus logging to “restore” forests is an oxymoron because it is questionable that most forests are not in need of restoration.

LOGGING HAS MANY EXTERNALITIES

7. Logging has many “externalities” that are a consequence of logging are not acknowledged by logging promoters. These include the spread of weeds due to disturbance accompanying logging operations and roads, sedimentation from logging roads into streams which destroys fisheries, reduction of wildlife security cover because of increased access from logging roads, disturbance of sensitive wildlife and so forth. When theses “costs” are internalized, logging would almost never make any economic sense.

PROTECT HOMES BY REDUCING FLAMMABILITY OF HOMES

8. The proven way to safeguard communities is to reduce the flammability of homes through the adoption of fire wise policies like installation of fire resistant roofing material, removal of burnable materials away from homes, zoning to prevent home construction in the fire plain (like flood plain of a river) and other measures.

WILDFIRE, BEETLES, AND DISEASE ARE RESTORING FORESTS

9. Finally, wildfire and beetle kill are ‘RESTORATIVE” processes that are critical to HEALTHY forest ecosystems. Even if logging could preclude or limit the influence of fire, beetles and so on, it would not be desirable from an ecosystem health perspective. The ecological truth is that dead trees are critical to healthy forests. Indeed, the snag forests that result after severe wildfires are home to the second greatest biodiversity after old growth forests, but this phase is shorter lived as forests regrow, thus relatively-speaking scarcer.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.