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Don’t Be Fooled by the Latest Smokescreen for Logging Forests

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U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) have joined with several Republican senators, who are among the logging industries biggest advocates in Congress, to propose legislation, the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act of 2016”, that would severely weaken environmental laws to facilitate a large increase in commercial logging on our national forests and other federal public lands. Specifically, the bill would eliminate most environmental impacts-disclosure and analysis requirements for logging projects on federal lands, and would severely curtail public participation in public forest management decisions.

Their bill would also dramatically increase taxpayer funding for mostly backcountry logging operations and fire suppression in remote wildlands, ostensibly to save our forests, and rural communities, from fire. Clearcutting and logging of old-growth trees would be expedited and increased under the guise of “fuels reduction”, “ecological restoration”, and improving “forest health”. Essentially, the legislation is a timber-industry wish list, loudly promoted by the logging industry’s number one campaign contribution recipient in all of Congress: Ron Wyden.

Yet there are large parts of the story that are not being told. For example, backcountry logging and fire suppression do not protect rural communities from fire. Scientific studies consistently find that the only effective way to protect homes from wildland fire is to create “defensible space” around individual homes, removing lower limbs on mature trees and removing many of the small trees and shrubs within 100 feet of each house, and by making the homes themselves more fireproof, using fire-resistant siding and roofing materials, installing rain gutter guards (to keep pine needles from accumulating in rain gutters), and using a fine wire mesh over exterior vents so embers don’t float into attics and other spaces.

In fact, spending billions of dollars of additional taxpayer money every year on increased fire suppression and logging in remote forests will put rural homes at greater risk not only by diverting scarce resources away from true home protection, but also by giving homeowners a false sense of security that a mechanical “thinning” logging project over a far ridge will somehow protect them. Increasing fire suppression far from homes will also unnecessarily put more firefighters at risk.

Moreover, the science is clear that larges fires are driven by high to extreme fire weather—hot, dry, windy conditions. In such conditions, neither fire suppression nor logging operations packaged as fuel reduction or forest thinning will stop forest fires or reduce fire intensity. As acknowledged in a recent study by Forest Service scientists, Lydersen and others (2014), with regard to the 257,000-acre Rim fire of 2013 in the Sierra Nevada, “Plots that burned on days with strong plume activity experienced moderate- to high-severity fire effects regardless of forest conditions, fire history or topography…Our results suggest that wildfire burning under extreme weather conditions, as is often the case with fires that escape initial attack, can produce large areas of high-severity fire even in fuels-reduced forests with restored fire regimes.” Other recent studies indicate that forests with an active logging history tend to burn more intensely, not less, compared to forests that are protected from logging. Fundamentally, the notion promoted by the logging bill’s advocates in the Senate—that clearcutting and logging of old-growth trees will somehow reduce the occurrence and intensity of forest fires—is pure mythology, and is contradicted by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence.

Another thing left out of most of the media coverage of the logging bill is the fact that there are now dozens of scientific studies concluding that historical mixed-conifer and ponderosa pine forests of the western U.S. had a substantial mix of fire intensities, and small and large patches of high-intensity fire are a natural component of fire regimes in these forests. Contrary to popular misconceptions, we currently have less, not more, mixed-intensity fire in these forests than we did historically.

Also contrary to common beliefs, forests that experience large fires are not destroyed. Even in the patches where fire burns hottest and kills most or all of the trees, this creates “snag forest habitat”, which is comparable to unburned old forest in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance. Over 250 scientists recently sent Congress a letter concluding that snag forest habitat, created by patches of high-intensity fire occurring in mature conifer forest, is an ecological treasure that should be protected, not logged. The scientists concluded:

Though it may seem at first glance that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe, numerous scientific studies tell us that even in the patches where forest fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most ecologically diverse on western forestlands and are essential to support the full richness of forest biodiversity. Post-fire conditions also serve as a refuge for rare and imperiled wildlife species that depend upon the unique habitat features created by intense fire. These include an abundance of standing dead trees, or “snags,” which provide nesting and foraging habitat for woodpeckers and many other plant and wildlife species responsible for the rejuvenation of a forest after fire.

The post-fire environment is rich in patches of native flowering shrubs that replenish soil nitrogen and attract a diverse bounty of beneficial insects that aid in pollination after fire. Small mammals find excellent habitat in the shrubs and downed logs, providing food for foraging spotted owls. Deer and elk browse on post-fire shrubs and natural conifer regeneration. Bears eat and disperse berries and conifer seeds often found in substantial quantities after intense fire, and morel mushrooms, prized by many Americans, spring from ashes in the most severely burned forest patches. This post-fire renewal, known as “complex early seral forest,” or “snag forest,” is quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests…Moreover, it is the least protected of all forest habitat types, and is often as rare, or rarer, than old-growth forest, due to extensive fire suppression and damaging forest management practices…

Advocates of the logging bill have also attempted to fan the flames of fear amongst the public about patches of snags resulting from periodic cycles of drought and native bark beetles, suggesting that increased logging of snag forest habitat, which would result if the bill passed, would somehow curb fires in our forests. However, several scientific studies have been published regarding actual fires occurring in conifer forests with widely varying levels of snags. They consistently find that snags do not increase fire intensity or spread, contrary to widespread popular misconceptions. One of these, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that “the annual area burned in the western United States has not increased in direct response to bark beetle activity”. The most recent of these studies determined that, “in contrast to common assumptions of positive feedbacks, we find that insects generally reduce the severity of subsequent wildfires” in conifer forests.

chadforest

Figure 1. Snag forest habitat at 12 years post-fire in the Star fire of 2001, Eldorado National Forest of the Sierra Nevada, with abundant snags and downed logs, and vigorous natural regeneration of conifers, oaks, dogwoods, and shrubs (photo by Chad Hanson).

Further, the logging bill is based on a mythological notion that historical forests of the western U.S. were homogenously “open”, with relatively few trees, and little or no snag forest habitat. In reality, these forests always had a mix of open and dense forests. When John Fremont and Kit Carson traversed the forests of eastern Oregon in 1845, Fremont’s journals specifically describe forest density conditions 18 times—in 12 of them Fremont explicitly notes “dense” forests, often with such “thick” understories that his crew made painfully slow work cutting small and medium-sized trees for miles just so the expedition could pass through. This misguided logging bill seeks to “restore” a forest that never existed.

We need to focus our resources on genuinely protecting communities, while recognizing the important ecological work that large mixed-intensity fires are accomplishing in remote forests. The legislation proposed by Senate Republicans and Democrat Senators Wyden and Cantwell would, with a wink and nod, gut environmental laws and raid taxpayers’ pockets to promote a logging industry agenda that hides behind creative euphemisms in order to promote the same old logging of the past.

What You Can Do: Please call your U.S. Senators at the Capitol Switchboard (202-224-3121) and urge them to oppose the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act of 2016” that is being promoted by Senators Crapo, Murkowski, Wyden, and Cantwell. Ask them to support increased, not decreased, protection for our federal forests, and to stand up against pressure from the logging industry.

 

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Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project. He has a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of California at Davis, and focuses his field research on forest and fire ecology, particularly in California.

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