Logging Won’t Do Much to Reduce Large Wildfires

Clearcutting in the Willapa Hills, Washington state. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recently the Biden administration announced it will spend billions of dollars on logging forests to preclude or slow the spread of large wildfires.

One of the arguments alleged by proponents of thinning or logging forests is that it would preclude wildfires and reduce carbon emissions from wildfire. Proponents argue that more trees survive a fire if there has been “active forest management.”

The problem with such ebullient pronouncements is that they fail to provide a full accounting of the carbon losses and emissions.

A number of studies that reviewed carbon emissions conclude that logging and wood processing emits far more carbon than a fire.

For instance, one study estimates that logging in the United States releases five times the carbon as wildfire, bark beetles, wind thrown, land use conservations, and drought combined.

Another Oregon study calculates that 35% of the carbon emissions in the state results from the wood products sector, while wildfires average approximately 4%.

Making matters worse is that logging advocates fail to consider that in thinning the forest, you are killing trees. The problem is that where and when a fire will occur is unpredictable. The majority of all thinned acres never encounter a fire. Some estimates suggest less than 1-2% of all thinned acres experience a fire when they might potentially influence fire behavior and tree mortality.

As one group of researchers concluded: ““Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals.” They go on to conclude “the amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior, and more area has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment.”

In fact, one estimate suggests that it may take 100 years to replace the carbon loss resulting from forest management.

Thinning larger areas to decrease the probability of high-severity fire ensures decreased carbon stock and net carbon balance over the treated area.

Let us say 50% of the trees are removed in a thinning project, that is 50% of the stored carbon. So even if a thinned stand burns at lower severity and most trees survive a fire, the net result is still a significant loss of carbon due to tree removal because of the logging.

Plus, in logging the trees (killing them), you reduce the future carbon storage that would have otherwise occurred had the trees remained in the forest.

So, we get a guaranteed removal of carbon and carbon emissions with logging/thinning that contributes to climate warming, which is, in turn, contributing to more fires.

Even if a forest stand burns in a high severity fire where the majority of trees are killed, most of the carbon remains on the site as snags, branches, charcoal, and roots in the soil.

There is abundant scientific and anecdotal evidence that logging does little to prevent large wildfire.

If you are running in the wrong direction, running faster doesn’t do you any good The best management for our forests and climate is to stop logging our public forests.


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