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Massive Logging Putsch Planned for Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Forest

Hikers on Medicine Bow Peak, Medicine Bow National Forest. Photo: George Wuerthner.

The Medicine Bow National Forest is proposing one of the most massive logging operations in the lower 48 states.  As much as 320,000 acres (an area bigger than Grand Teton National Park) will be “treated” by logging and other “vegetation” manipulations.

In the 1970s, the Targhee National Forest in Idaho created enormous clearcuts along the border of Yellowstone National Park to “stop” a bark beetle outbreak. The clearcuts are visible in photographs from space. The ecological damage that resulted was huge, and the areas are still suffering from that misguided logging.

This proposal by the Medicine Bow National Forest is bigger and more disgraceful because we have a lot of knowledge and information about the crucial ecological role of bark beetles and large wildfires and how ineffective chainsaw medicine is for curing non-existence problems.

Let me not mince my words—this is a tragedy of enormous proportions. This “vegetation treatment” (read forest destruction) will entail clearcutting a shocking 95,000 acres, as well as 80,000 acres of logging in designated roadless areas. Under this forest demolition plan, the Forest Service would create 600 miles of new, temporary roads (temporary roads are environmentally worse than permanent roads).

In short, the Medicine Bow Forest is going to destroy the forest ecosystem, cause excessive environmental and ecological damage in the name of “forest health” and fire risk “reduction.” Neither of these goals will be achieved, and the forest ecosystem and American citizens will bear the costs.

Worse for American citizens who own these lands, the justifications for this enormous logging program is based on flawed science from one end to the other.

First, one of the rationales for logging is to protect homes and property from wildfire. The underlying presumption is that logging will reduce “fuels” and thus reduce large fires. Yet logging/thinning increase the likelihood of wildfires in several ways. Numerous studies have suggested the most effective way to protect communities is to work from the home outward.

A further flawed assumption is the idea that fuels are the problem. Large fires are driven by weather/climate, not fuels.

To quote from one recent study: “Managing forest fuels is often invoked in policy discussions as a means of minimizing the growing threat of wildfire to ecosystems and  Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) communities across the West. However, the effectiveness of this approach at broad scales is limited. Mechanical fuels treatments on US federal lands over the last 15 y (2001–2015) totaled almost 7 million Ha, but the annual area burned has continued to set records. Regionally, the area treated has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming.”

The Forest Service is ignoring numerous scientific studies that find that dead trees are less flammable than live trees. What burns in wildfires are fine flammable fuels like needles, small branches, grasses, and shrubs—not tree boles. Logging/thinning typically adds more fine fuels to the ground surface, thus increasing the overall flammability of the forest.

Numerous studies do not support the hypothesis that bark beetle-killed trees will lead to more enormous wildfires.

A study published in Conservation Biology reported: “We concluded that fuel buildup in the absence of fire did not cause increased fire severity as hypothesized. Instead, the fuel that is receptive to combustion may decrease in the long absence of fire in the closed forests of our study area…”

One study in Colorado of beetle-killed trees’ influence on wildfire concluded: “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 spruce beetle severity on nearly all field or remotely sensed measurements of fire severity.”

Another study opined, “In contrast to common assumptions of positive feedbacks, we find that insects generally reduce the severity of subsequent wildfires.”

Many researchers question the idea that fuel reduction from logging/thinning or even prescribed burning is effective at reducing or stopping large blazes. This is a representative sample from a study by scientists at the Missoula Fire Lab. “Extreme environmental conditions. .overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. . . This included all treatment methods, including prescribed burning and thinning … Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.

This view was echoed by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which states in a report to Congress, “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.

In testimony before Congress, Dr. Norm Christensen of Duke University’s School of Environmental Sciences and Policy had similar conclusions. “First, larger-diameter woody materials do not pose a significant threat for wildfire ignition or spread. It is largely the finer fuels (a few inches and less in diameter) that carry fire. More important, large, old trees actually provide protection from fire spread because they are resistant to fire, and their shade maintains favorable moisture conditions in the understory fuels. Too much thinning of the forest canopy can produce more rapid drying of such fuels and, thereby, more frequent and severe wildfire risk.”

In a letter to Congress, more than 250 scientists warned: “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). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning…”

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.”

Worse for our forests, which are suffering from climate warming, numerous studies note: “we find that thinning existing forests to reduce crown-fire risk increases net carbon emissions to the atmosphere for many decades… “

The final insult is that this level of forest manipulation depletes the forest ecosystem. High severity fires and beetle outbreaks that the Forest Service want to eliminate or reduce are the main factors that produce the snags and down wood critical for many species.

In a sense, many plant and animal species live in mortal fear of green forests. They depend on the dead and dying trees for their very sustenance.

Indeed, at least one study suggests as much as 2/3 of all wildlife species depend on dead or down wood at some point in their life cycle. That is one reason why the snag forests that result from fires and beetles often have the second-highest biodiversity after old-growth forests.

Dead trees are a biological legacy that sustains the forest for decades and centuries. Plus, they are major storage elements for carbon. Even burnt trees store more carbon than logged forests.

Finally, roadless areas are well documented as critical to sensitive wildlife and fisheries. Their destruction is an unaccountable loss. The Forest Service suggests temporary roads have few ecological impacts. But many scientific studies articulate the colossal environmental effects of roads—including temporary roads.

Roads are a significant vector for the spread of weeds. Logging equipment compacts soils, which reduces water infiltration and contributes to the creation of sedimentation that degrades streams and fisheries. Roads even closed roads provide access for Off-Road vehicles, mountain bikes, and even pedestrians, which disturb and displaces wildlife like elk.

Most human ignitions start on or near roads. More roads. More ignitions.

All of these are merely representative of the numerous studies that conclude that the 320,000 acres of forest desecration proposed by the Medicine Bow National Forest are both unnecessary and, more importantly, ethically deplorable.

I know the Forest Service is under tremendous pressure to “appear” like they are doing something, but destroying our forest ecosystems and roadless areas to give the appearance of “doing something” is not acceptable.

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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