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Bleeding Trees for Forest Health?

Log export dock, Columbia River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is arguing that we need more logging/thinning as a panacea for wildfire and forest health.

It reminds me of the same approach that Medieval doctors took to illness. If a patient was sick, the solution was to “bleed” the “bad” blood from the individual. If the patient recovered, it was attributed to the removal of the tainted blood. If the patient died, apparently not enough blood was removed.

The problem with bloodletting as a cure for a disease is twofold. First, illness is not due to “bad” blood. Secondarily, bloodletting often results in collateral damage like infections that ultimately kills the patient.

Bloodletting did not succeed in curing disease because it failed to identify the real problem, so the proposed “cure” did not work. It is the same problem with proposals to log forests to reduce wildfire and “improve” forest health.

The reason we are seeing more acres burning has to do with climate heating, not fuels build up as often suggested. Every large fire across the West is the result of extreme fire weather conditions. These include drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and most importantly high winds. I do not know of a single exception.

High winds blow fire through thinned stands and usually transport burning embers far beyond a fire front.

A good example was the recent Camp Fire that destroyed 14,000 homes and resulted in 87 deaths in Paradise, California.

The forest around Paradise had two previous fires in the past ten years (a fuel reduction), much of the private lands had been clearcut to “improve” the forest “health” (another fuel reduction), and the Forest Service had done a “hazardous fuel reduction.” None of these slowed the Camp Fire driven by 80 mile per hour winds, and there is evidence the opening of the landscape promoted the growth of more shrubs and grasses that increased the rate of fire spread.

Like bloodletting, there is collateral damage from thinning/logging. Thinning/logging opens the forest stand to greater wind penetration and drying that can exacerbate climate heating effects. Disturbance of soils from logging roads/and equipment results in the spread of weeds and adds sediment to streams harming fisheries. Logging removes biomass and snags that are critical feeding and hiding places for wildlife. It reduces carbon storage for decades, thus contributing to greater climate heating. Indiscriminate removal of trees removes individuals with genetic resistance to beetles, drought, extreme cold, and even wildfire, thereby reducing the long-term health of our forest ecosystems.

Rather than focus on logging the forest, we should be investing in protecting communities from the unavoidable wildfires by reducing the flammability of homes and structures. Long term we need to address global climate change that driving our increase in wildfire acreage burned.

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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