Big Timber’s Voodoo Science About Forest Fires

A hundred years ago or so there was a pseudoscience that focused on measurements of the human skull, known as phrenology. Phrenology was based on the flawed assumption that skull size was indicative of intelligence. These studies demonstrated and confirmed that men had larger skulls and thus were smarter than women. The only problem was the flawed assumption that there existed a correlation between skull size and intelligence.

We see a similar set of flawed assumptions driving the conventional perspective on forest management as exemplified by the (Dec. 4) column by Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.

Smith, like many unfamiliar with ecological science, starts with the faulty assumption that Montana forests are “unhealthy” because there are large wildfires, and then goes on to assume that logging/thinning can correct this perceived “problem.”

If your starting assumptions are inaccurate, then your perception that there is a problem is also inaccurate. In the case of forest management, the idea that large wildfires are the result of unhealthy forests with too much “fuels” is the result of the industrial forestry paradigm that views anything that kills trees other than chainsaws as “wasted” resources.

It also fails to acknowledge that most forest stand types in Montana, including common species like lodgepole pine or subalpine forest, have very long fire rotations, and it is entirely reasonable for “fuel” to accumulate in these forests until released by high-severity blazes.

There are many wildlife and plant species that depend on dead trees for habitat and food. As much as two-thirds of all wildlife species may use dead trees and down wood at some point in their life cycle. And fish biologists will tell you that there’s no upper limit to the number of dead trees in streams that benefit aquatic ecosystems.

Plus, trees killed by wildfire store a lot of carbon — while logging has been shown to be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, in Oregon, the logging industry is the largest source of carbon emissions in the state — far more than transportation or wildfires.

If you want “healthy” forest ecosystems, you celebrate large wildfires, not demonize them. An ecological definition of a healthy forest ecosystem is one that has many dead trees. And any management that seeks to reduce the creation of snags is impoverishing the forest, not “restoring” it.

Furthermore, multiple studies, including many done by U.S. Forest Service researchers and others, have found that thinning forests seldom affects large blazes. The likelihood that any fire will encounter a fuel treatment is minimal.

Additionally, what drives all large wildfires are climate/weather conditions that include drought, low humidity, high temperatures and wind. Thinning forests does not affect extreme weather so can’t “cure” the perceived problem.

Indeed, logging often increases the surface fuels, and thinning can encourage the growth of grasses, shrubs and small trees which are the “fine fuels” that carry wildfires. Indeed, any number of studies have documented that the highest severity burns are in areas with “active forest management.”

The only way to protect communities is to reduce the flammability of homes. Anything else is just “voodoo science,” much like the phrenology of old.


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