The Problem With Chainsaw Medicine: the Forest Service’s Move to Cut Oregon’s Big Trees

The Forest Service is proposing to remove the prohibition against logging trees larger than 21 inches that grow in national forests on the eastside of the Cascades in Oregon. The probation was put into place when ecological studies demonstrated the critical importance of large-diameter old-growth trees to overall forest ecosystem function.

The Forest Service argues that it needs the flexibility to cut larger fir and other tree species competing with ponderosa pine to “restore” forest health. The agency suggests thinning the forests will enhance the resilience of the forest against the “ravages” of wildfire, bark beetles, and other sources of tree mortality.

The so-called need for “restoration” to what ails the forest by chainsaws medicine reflects the agency’s Industrial Forestry Paradigm. By happy coincidence, such “restoration” happens to provide wood fiber to the timber industry, and typically at a loss to taxpayers.

One might assume that green and fast-growing trees are more desirable than dead or slow-growing trees. What the agency doesn’t acknowledge due to its inherent Industrial Forestry bias is that healthy forest ecosystems require significant sources of tree mortality. The healthy forest that the Forest Service promotes is a degraded forest ecosystem.

Dead trees provide food and shelter to many plants and animals. By some estimates, more species depend on dead trees than live trees. These species live in mortal fear of “green” forests, which is the ultimate expression of the Industrial Forestry Paradigm.

Indeed, the second-highest biodiversity in forest ecosystems occurs after high severity wildfires kill most of all living trees.

However, due to the Industrial Forestry worldview bias of foresters and the Forest Service, that views any source of tree mortality as antithetical to forest “health.” Forest “health” is not the same as forest ecosystem health.

Logging does not “restore” forest ecosystems. It removes the snags and down wood that is critical wildlife habitat for many species of animals and plants. It removes carbon that is stored in those trees. It compacts soils and spread weeds. Logging roads fragment forest habitat and provide access for ORVs, hunters, and just more human disturbance for wildlife.

Worse for our forest ecosystems, thinning/logging can reduce the genetic diversity of our forest, eliminating, rather than enhancing, forest resilience. We know that some individual trees possess genetic traits that allow them to endure drought or resist bark beetles, and even some ability to survive some wildfires.

If foresters were concerned about forest ecosystem health, not just whether trees remained green until they were cut for lumber, they would welcome the wildfires, bark beetles, drought, and all the other sources of mortality that maintain healthy functioning forest ecosystems.

Yet the Forest Service continuously justifies timber cutting to “restore” forest health and resilience to the forest by trying to limit or exclude the very ecological processes like high severity wildfire, bark beetles, mistletoe, and other agents that sustain healthy forest ecosystems.

Allowing natural processes to thin the forest or select which trees have the best attributes to survive is how you preserve healthy forest ecosystems. Chainsaw medicine, the favored response of the timber industry for restoration, is not the solution; it is the problem.

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