Forest Service Ignores Science to Justify Logging

The Helena National Forest has released its Ten Mile-South Helena Project, which will include logging, prescribed burning on more than 17,500 acres including in roadless lands proposed for wilderness designation. Throughout its document, the FS ignores the preponderance of fire science to justify logging/thinning of the forest and ignores the many environmental impacts that result from such actions.

First, the FS implies that dead trees, particularly beetle-kill lodgepole pine, increases fire risk. Contrary to this message, numerous studies have concluded that dead trees reduce, not increase, fire hazard.

For example, a study done on bug killed trees in Colorado found: “Contrary to the expectation that bark beetle infestation alters subsequent fire severity, correlation, and multivariate generalized linear regression analysis revealed no influence of pre-fire beetle severity on nearly all field or remotely sensed measurements of fire severity.”

The authors further noted: “In comparison to severity of the pre-fire beetle outbreak, we found that topography, pre-outbreak basal area, and weather conditions exerted a stronger effect on fire severity.”

Another study found “Modeling results suggested that undisturbed, red, and gray-stage stands were unlikely to exhibit transition of surface fires to tree crowns (torching) and that the likelihood of sustaining an active crown fire (crowning) decreased from undisturbed to gray-stage stands.”

Scientists at the Missoula fire lab found that thinning/fuel treatments basically don’t work under extreme fire conditions — which are the only conditions that spawn large fires. Their study concludes: “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.”

A letter signed by over 200 scientists, including some of the preeminent fire scientists in the country, and sent to Congress this past year argued: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity. … However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture).

The letter goes on to say: “Thinning large trees, including overstory trees in a stand, can increase the rate of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased wind velocity, damage soils, introduce invasive species that increase flammable understory vegetation, and impact wildlife habitat.”

Even the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded: “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.”

This study compliments another 2016 study which found that higher severity fires occurred in treated areas compared to protected landscapes like wilderness and parks.

Salvage logging increases surface fuels, which are what carries most wildfires. A study done by the Forest Service’s researchers (maybe the Helena Forest should consult with its researchers) found that salvage logging increased the total woody surface fuels 2.7 times compared with untreated stands following salvage logging. Even worse for fire risk, the amount of fine fuels increased by 3.3 times over untreated stands.

The probability of a wildfire encountering a fuel reduction is minuscule. A recent study concluded: “Forested areas considerably exceed the area treated, so it is relatively rare that treatments encounter wildfire. … Therefore, roughly 1 percent of U.S. Forest Service forest treatments experience wildfire each year, on average. The effectiveness of forest treatments lasts about 10–20 years, suggesting that most treatments have little influence on wildfire.”

Logging activities disturb wildlife (like elk). Logging removes snags and down wood, which is critical habitat for many wildlife species. Logging activities spread weeds. Logging removes carbon from the forest.

However, the worse aspect of all of this project is that logging/thinning doesn’t work to reduce large wildfires which are climate/weather-driven events.


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