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Stealth Logging in the National Forests

Recently I drove up the Lostine River corridor on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest in eastern Oregon and hiked the trail in the Eagle Cap Wilderness giving me a good opportunity to review a Forest Service proposal to log the river corridor.

The agency is using a stealth method of approving the proposed logging called a “Categorical Exclusion”.  The CE allows the Forest Service to proceed with logging without the usual public review and environmental analysis.

Why would the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest be using the CE for this proposal?

The reason is abundantly clear. The proposal is based on flawed assumptions about wildfire and ignores the best and most recent fire science that questions the efficiency and effectiveness of fuel reductions.

Most of the forest species along the Lostine River corridor consists of moist, higher elevation conifer species like subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, and spruce.

A rudimentary review of the fire regime of these forest types reveals that they tend to burn infrequently, often with centuries between major wildfires.

Indeed, the only time you get a major fire is when there are extreme weather conditions that include drought, low humidity, high temperatures and high winds. Under these conditions, you simply cannot halt a fire.

For instance, one study published by scientists by the Forest Service Fire Lab in Missoula concluded that:

“Extreme environmental conditions. .overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. . . This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning. . .. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

This is particularly true in the narrow Lostine Canyon where any fire burning under extreme conditions with high winds will cast fire brands a mile or more that will jump over, around, and perhaps even through any thinned forest stands.

Add to this factor that even when thinned/logged, trees grow back quickly negating any benefit of fuel reductions—assuming it even worked—which increasingly researchers are questioning.

As another study of fuel reduction effectiveness concludes: “When the probability of fire occurring in a particular area is relatively low (as with the Lostine corridor due to the long fire intervals) the odds of a fuel treatment influencing the behaviour of a wildfire there, within the time frame that treatments are effective, is also low.”

In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests logging increases high severity fires.  The reason is clear—logging/thinning opens the forest canopy up. This results in greater drying of the fuels and allows for greater wind penetration—exactly the factors that sustain high severity fires.

For instance, the Congressional Research Service found: “From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires. … the data indicate that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”

Another study published this winter that reviewed 1500 wildfires and the influence of logging/thinning on fire severity summarized findings this way:

“We investigated the relationship between protected status and fire severity applied to 1500 fires affecting 9.5 million hectares between 1984 and 2014 in pine (Pinus ponderosa, Pinus jeffreyi) and mixed-conifer forests of western United States… We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”

As FS researcher Jack Cohen has stated:

“Wildland fuel reduction may be inefficient and ineffective for reducing home losses, for extensive wildland fuel reduction on public lands does not effectively reduce home ignitability on private lands.”

Adding insult to injury logging the corridor will result in logging roads that add sediment to the river negatively impacting fisheries, disturbance and displacement to sensitive wildlife like elk, the spread weeds, compaction of soils, loss of carbon storage, and creation of an industrial zone with logging trucks running up and down the road in an important recreation area.

So, we the public, get all these negatives, while the timber companies get the benefit. It’s another example of the PPSC—privatize profits, and socialize costs. No wonder the FS doesn’t want the public to understand what is going on by using the Categorical Exclusion to hide the reality.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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