A number of politicians have promised to weaken environmental laws and increase logging, supposedly to stop forest fires. Here’s what they aren’t telling you.
Fires, including large fires, are a natural and ecologically necessary part of forests in the Northern Rockies. Dozens of plant and animal species, such as the black-backed Woodpecker, depend upon post-fire habitat—including patches of forest where fire burns hotter and kills most trees—due to the abundance of standing dead trees, downed logs, flowering plants, and natural regeneration of trees, which provide both food and homes for fire-dependent insects and wildlife. In fact, the “snag forest habitat” created by patches of intense fire is comparable to old-growth forest in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance. Fires do not destroy forests, and forests are not “lost” when fires burn; rather, they are restored and rejuvenated.
This year is by no means a record fire year in Montana’s forests. Historically, there was generally more, not less, fire than there is now. Fire is as natural, essential, and inevitable in Montana’s forests as rain, snow, wind, and sun. Given this, there is no sound scientific reason to attempt to further reduce or eliminate fire from these forests, and logging does not lead to that result anyway.
Last year, in the largest analysis of fire intensity and logging ever conducted in Western U.S. conifer forests, scientists found that, in every region, including the Northern Rockies, the forests where the most logging is allowed tended to burn the most intensely, while the most protected forests had overall lower intensity, but still had an ecologically healthy mix of fire intensities.
Proponents of logging claim that, since logging removes trees, it reduces forest density and removes “fuels” from the forest. Not really. The material that allows fires to spread in forests is very small — branches, twigs, and pine needles. Tree trunks are relatively non-combustible. When logging removes trees, it leaves behind flammable “slash debris”, comprised of tree tops and branches that are not usable for lumber. This acts like kindling in forest fires. In addition, by removing much of the forest canopy cover, logging reduces the cooling shade that it otherwise provides, creating hotter, drier conditions on the forest floor, which can allow fire to spread faster.
We need to allow more lightning fires to burn, without trying to suppress them, in more remote forests, while focusing our resources on protecting homes and communities from fire, including creating defensible space around homes and making homes themselves more fire safe.
The truth is that our forests need fire, and will always have it, and no amount of logging will change that. Forest ecosystems are not just live, green mature trees; they are also snags, downed logs, under-story trees, shrubs, and other flowering plants. This complexity is what allows forests to be ecologically healthy. Politicians who tell you that they can stop forest fires with fewer environmental protections and more logging are simply not being honest.
Chad Hanson, Ph.D. is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project, and co-editor “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix”.
Mike Garrity is executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.