The Latest Logging Industry Smokescreen

Logging site, Siuslaw National Forest. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The United States Forest Service isn’t what you may think. The primary land management activity in which the Forest Service engages is selling public timber to private logging corporations, while keeping the revenue for its budget. It is quite literally in the commercial logging business, like a giant logging corporation that is subsidized by taxpayers. As the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals put it in one case:

“We have noticed a disturbing trend in the [Forest Service’s] recent timber-harvesting and timber-sale activities…It has not escaped our notice that the [Forest Service] has a substantial financial interest in the harvesting of timber in the National Forest. We regret to say that in this case, like the others just cited, the [Forest Service] appears to have been more interested in harvesting timber than in complying with our environmental laws.”

In a sense, however, this is not the fault of the Forest Service; it’s fundamentally the fault of the U.S. Congress, which created the federal laws upon which this troubling system has been built, and it is the ultimate responsibility of Congress to pass new laws to get the Forest Service out of the commercial logging business.

For years, hundreds of independent scientists from universities and non-governmental organizations have been producing research that has increasingly questioned the claims and assumptions used by the Forest Service to perpetuate its logging program. In response, the Forest Service has, over the past two decades, allocated tens of millions of dollars to pay a few dozen agency and university scientists to attack this much larger group of independent scientists, who are not funded by the Forest Service or any other logging entity. But the scientists and agencies whose funding is tied to logging keep ending up on the losing end of the scientific debate in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Recently, agencies and scientists affiliated with the logging industry have turned to whisper campaigns and character assassination, as well as social media and certain willing news outlets to personally attack independent forest, fire, and climate scientists, including myself, rather than try to debate us on the evidence.

In my new book, “Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate”, which was released in May of 2021, I discussed this context in great detail, and provided several hundred citations to scientific studies in the endnotes to back up my points. It was not long before the Forest Service retaliated, in what has become a government-funded campaign to suppress science in order to aggressively advocate for increased taxpayer subsidies for commercial logging on public and private forestlands, and rollbacks of environmental laws to facilitate increased logging. This retaliation came in the form of a heavily slanted article in the Sacramento Bee, followed by an attack piece on me and dozens of other independent scientists by the Bee’s editorial Board.

Notably, all of the scientists making these attacks in the Bee article are funded by the U.S. Forest Service, typically to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars over just a few years per scientist, and none of them provided a single substantive critique of any of my dozens of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies, nor a single evidentiary criticism of the work of any of my colleagues. Instead, the quotes in the Bee article were all baseless personal attacks.

The basic message of the attacks by these Forest Service-funded scientists, and the Bee, was clear. They were telling me, and several hundred of my colleagues, to “stand down”, “Get out of the way”, and to stop publishing science if it might raise questions about the negative impacts of commercial logging on public safety, climate change, and biodiversity, to stop speaking to the press about our scientific findings, and to stop informing the courts about the science. That a news organization and a group of government-funded scientists would openly and aggressively try to suppress and censor hundreds of scientists should send a chill down the spines of readers. It turns out there’s quite a lot the Bee neglected to tell its readers, or flatly mischaracterized.

First, the Bee claimed that clearcutting and selling and removing large trees from public lands to lumber companies is a thing of the past for the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bee further suggested the agency is now involved merely in reducing “undergrowth”, such as small trees and shrubs. The Bee attacked me, and my organization, the John Muir Project, for supposedly filing lawsuits against such projects. This is a falsehood. The Forest Service never stopped clearcutting and selling large trees to lumber companies, and such practices remain the norm. In fact, the only projects that John Muir Project has challenged in court are commercial logging projects that propose some form of clearcut logging, or sale and removal of mature and old-growth trees, often up to 8 or 10 feet in circumference, or larger, under the deceptive guises of euphemisms like “thinning”, “fuel reduction”, “restoration”, and “forest health”. The Forest Service-funded scientists quoted in the Bee article are well aware of this, and misled readers with their quotes. The Bee was severely misled by the Forest Service, and should have known better, or looked more closely into the facts (while the co-author of the Sacramento Bee article spoke with me, the lead author of the article never even contacted me).

Second, the Bee claims that 41 studies authored by a total of 111 scientists have supposedly “made the case for more forest thinning, and in the process ripped Hanson and his allies’ methods and results”, based on a comment from one of the Forest Service-funded scientists, Keala Hagmann. But the 41 studies in question are from Tables 3 through 6 of Hagmann et al. (2021), according to the lead author of that article (I sent her an email and she confirmed this), and not one of them pertains to thinning and fire intensity—not one. Moreover, most of these 41 studies did not even challenge the main conclusions of the independent scientists but, instead, largely questioned or criticizing peripheral aspects of studies on fire history and forest ecology. Even these peripheral criticisms have been utterly refuted and discredited by a stack of subsequent studies from the larger group of independent scientists (I would be happy to send anyone the list of studies) but Hagmann et al. (2021), which was funded by the Forest Service, failed to mention any of these rebuttal studies. This is tantamount to scientific fraud. I told Bee this, but neither the reporters nor the editorial Board mentioned these facts.

One of the Forest Service-funded scientists quoted in the Bee article, Susan Prichard, stated that “the science is settled” about the effectiveness of thinning as a fire management strategy. But her own recent article, upon which the Bee relied, repeatedly contradicts this statement, indicating a wide gap between the political messaging of Forest Service-funded scientists in the press and social media versus what they can state in scientific journals. Prichard et al. (2021), for example, acknowledges that thinning can cause “higher surface fuel loads” which “can contribute to high-intensity surface fires and elevated levels of associated tree mortality”, and mastication of such surface fuels “can cause deep soil heating” and “elevated fire intensities”. Prichard et al. (2021) also acknowledges that thinning “can lead to increased surface wind speed and fuel heating, which allows for increased rates of fire spread in thinned forests”, and even the combination of thinning and prescribed fire “may increase the risk of fire by increasing sunlight exposure to the forest floor, drying surface fuels, promoting understory growth, and increasing wind speeds”.

Wildfires are highly variable, even at small spatial scales, usually depending upon what the weather is doing at that moment, since fires are driven mainly by weather and climate factors. As a result, in any given large fire there will always be some thinning units that experience low intensity fire, and the Forest Service has been cherry-picking such locations to highlight for the press and politicians for years. But Forest Service-funded scientists don’t want the press, the public, or elected officials to know that most “thinning” units experience moderate to high-intensity fire when large fires occur—and this is without even taking into account the fact that “thinning” kills most of the trees in a stand before the fire ever occurs. As one of the studies upon which Prichard et al. (2021) relied put it, “some” of the thinning units in the Rim fire burned at low intensity (which is another way saying that most burned at moderate and high intensity, without directly admitting it). That is common. When one takes the time to actually read the studies cited by the Forest Service for the proposition that thinning is an effective fire management approach, you typically find results that do not support that proposition.

Third, the fact that “thinning” and other so-called “fuel reduction” logging is an utter failure as a fire management strategy should now be obvious to any honest person who is paying attention to the facts. The Bee, quoting Forest Service-funded scientists, suggests that perhaps so-called fuel-reduction logging didn’t stop recent large fires because there wasn’t enough of it, implying that the fires were somehow burning around and between the logging units. That is dangerously dishonest. For example, in November of 2018, the Camp fire swept rapidly through several thousand acres that had been intensively and pervasively logged in the preceding years through a combination of post-fire clearcutting and “thinning”—all of which was advertised by the Forest Service and the logging industry as “fuel reduction” that would save the town of Paradise from wildfire. The Camp fire burned the fastest and most intensely through those logged forests. Over 14,000 homes were destroyed and 86 people were killed. The role that logging played in the Camp fire, and the devastation of Paradise, has been meticulously documented by CNNNBC Bay Area News, and in a feature-length film entitled, “Bring Your Own Brigade”.

Essentially the same thing happened to the town of Grizzly Flats in the Caldor fire just weeks ago, after the fire burned very fast and intensely through areas had been commercially “thinned” across thousands of acres completely surrounding Grizzly Flats (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The town of Grizzly Flats completely surrounded by extensive commercial “thinning” on the Eldorado National Forest. The Caldor fire rapidly and intensely swept through these “thinned” forests (orange and yellow areas) and destroyed Grizzly Flats. See the full Caldor fire map, with pre-fire forest management shown, at: Map prepared by Bryant Baker, Los Padres ForestWatch.

In fact, the Caldor fire burned through nearly every “thinning” unit that had been previously logged in forest wildlands on the Eldorado National Forest, and the vast majority of the places where the fire ultimately stopped had not been thinned. The only places where it consistently stopped were locations where defensible space pruning had occurred adjacent to homes on private lands and a short distance into National Forest lands from private property boundaries. A map from the Forest Service’s own publication, Wildfire Today, shows how the Caldor fire burned through thinning units but stopped at or just before all private property boundaries (see Figure 2).

And, it happened again this past summer when the town of Greenville was destroyed after the Dixie fire burned intensely through thousands of acres that had been “thinned” on the Plumas National Forest just a couple of years earlier, ostensibly as a “fuelbreak” to stop a fire from reaching the town. In many cases, rural mountain towns are not conducting defensible space pruning or home-hardening because they have been told by the Forest Service, and the Bee, that massive commercial logging projects, on public forests distant from towns, will somehow prevent wildfires from reaching the towns, giving communities a deadly false sense of security. The Forest Service and the logging industry make many millions of dollars from this system, but it is leading to the destruction of entire towns and the loss of dozens of lives.

Figure 2. Map from Wildfire Today, showing the Caldor fire racing right through “thinning” units in wildlands but stopping at or immediately adjacent to private property boundaries, where defensible space pruning had been conducted on private lands and a short distance on to the National Forest. Map accessed here. Black ovals have been added to show where the fire stopped in defensible space areas adjacent to homes. 

For years the science has been accumulating, indicating that “thinning” and other logging conducted under the guise of “fuel reduction” often tends to increase, not decrease, fire intensity. Last year, over 200 forest/fire and climate scientists sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to shift away from such forest management because the most comprehensive and current science indicates it is ineffective and often counter-productive. The scientists wrote, “Reduced forest protections and increased logging tend to make wildland fires burn more intensely”, noting specifically that this also applies to commercial “thinning”. The Bee tried to downplay this extraordinary statement from the nation’s top scientists, falsely suggesting that very few forest/fire scientists were among the signatories. In fact, about half of the signatories have conducted and published articles on forest and fire science, as anyone can verify for themselves by reading the list and spending a few minutes with Google (the remainder were mostly climate scientists and general ecologists).

Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that a deep and growing body of scientific studies are finding that the effects of the Forest Service’s commercial “thinning” program on wildfire behavior are “highly controversial and uncertain”, and that such logging often increases fire intensity and the rate of wildfire spread by reducing the cooling shade of the forest canopy and altering the microclimate of the forest, creating hotter, drier, and windier conditions. The Court ruled that the Forest Service violated the nation’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by refusing to meaningfully acknowledge this large body of scientific evidence. Since this ruling was published, the Forest Service-funded scientists have stepped up their attempts to suppress this rapidly accumulating body of science, and have been increasingly promoting rollbacks of NEPA to relieve the Forest Service of its current legal obligation to tell the public the truth about whether their proposed logging projects might increase threats of wildfire to lives and homes in at-risk communities.

Relatedly, the Bee also claimed that independent scientists such as myself are saying our forests should simply be “left alone”. That is another falsehood. Hundreds of my colleagues and I have been saying for years that we need to allow more managed wildfire in our forests (allowing more lightning strikes to burn without fire suppression in more remote forests), along with prescribed fire where appropriate, while focusing on scientifically-proven approaches like defensible space and home-hardening to protect homes and communities. We have made clear that the best available science finds that more logging in forest wildlands is not the answer, and will only make things worse and put communities at risk. My organization, the John Muir Project, also promotes the removal of current administrative barriers to cultural burning by Native American tribes.

Fourth, the Bee failed to mention to readers that “thinning” makes climate change worse, as thinning emits three times more carbon into the atmosphere per acre than wildfire alone. This is so because only a tiny percentage of tree carbon (less than 3%) is actually consumed even in a big wildfire. However, it’s a completely different story when it comes to “thinning” projects, which are intensive commercial logging operations that kill and remove upwards of 70% of the trees in a given stand, typically, including many mature and old-growth trees. Only a small fraction of the carbon in trees that are removed ends up in lumber products, while most of it—the slash debris (branches and tree tops) and mill residue—is burned as a form of dirty energy production, sending the carbon into the atmosphere. I discuss the severe climate change impacts of thinning and other logging in detail in my book, Smokescreen.

Last, the Bee claims that I am “agenda-driven”, relying upon a letter to the editor published a couple of years ago by several scientists who are funded by the Forest Service. The two main assertions put forth in this letter to the editor were that: 1) I am supposedly a practicing lawyer and a working scientist and there could theoretically be conflicting ethical obligations between the two professions; and 2) my colleagues and I believe that National Forests should be managed according to ecological science, rather than timber commodities incentives. As for the first assertion, I’ve never been a lawyer. I got a law degree in 1995, but changed career course shortly after law school and later became a scientist. I never even took the Bar Exam and have never practiced law. As for the second assertion, in what world is it a conflict for a scientist to say that federal lands should be managed in accordance with science? Of course, factual accuracy and reason were not the objectives of the Forest Service-funded scientists who made the “agenda-driven” personal attack (they never even reached out to me to fact check anything). The goal was simply to smear me in order to give biased news outlets and Forest Service timber sale planners a convenient excuse to ignore the best available science.

Here’s who I am as a scientist: I have a Ph.D. in ecology. I have published several dozen scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals. I have authored numerous book chapters. I co-authored and co-edited what many consider to be the definitive science textbook on forest and fire ecology, “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix”. In 2021, I published “Smokescreen”, a book focused on the importance of protecting forests to mitigate the climate crisis. The New York Times has described me as one of the top scientists in my field in the nation. The Forest Service isn’t attacking me and my hundreds of colleagues because the agency doesn’t think we are credible. It is attacking us because it knows were are right on the science. The agency, and scientists funded by it, feel threatened that the current and emerging science could mean fewer taxpayer subsidies for logging, and less money for scientists who promote logging, in the future. A lot of money is at stake. Billions. And they want that money.

The truth is that everyone has an “agenda”. Mine is science. I seek to use the process of scientific discovery to acquire knowledge about how best to protect forest ecosystems, and human communities, and how to most effectively overcome the climate crisis. In stark contrast, the scientists who are funded by the Forest Service, and other logging entities, consistently promote commercial logging in their studies. That is their agenda.

As for the Sacramento Bee, I will simply say this: when a news outlet openly promotes censorship of hundreds of independent scientists on behalf of a destructive industry that is making the climate crisis worse and putting communities at risk, we should all sit up and take notice.

Chad Hanson is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project. He is a co-editor and co-author of “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix” and the author of “Smokescreen.”