High Country News Engages in Climate Change Denialism and Greenwashing

Log landing for a “thinning” operation, Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A once-respected news outlet for environmental journalism that highlighted and exposed abuses of our natural world, High Country News (HCN) has now taken an ugly turn for the worse. On February 10, 2023, HCN published and distributed an article, “Does thinning work for wildfire prevention?”, that presented itself ostensibly as an examination of “what scientists find” to be true on the subject of “thinning”, wildfires, and climate change. But, to address this issue, the article only quoted one forest/fire ecologist, Gavin Jones, a pro-logging scientist employed by the U.S. Forest Service, who has never published a single scientific study on how “thinning” affects wildfires or climate change.

The HCN article, which was written by a former Forest Service employee and reads like an opinion piece, tells readers (in bold font) that “Thinning is not a climate change risk”, quoting Jones claiming that, without thinning, forests are “pretty darn at risk of total loss from wildfire…” Jones also has never published a scientific study on the forest carbon consumption associated with wildfires. Jones does, however, have ample experience promoting the commercial logging policies of the agency that pays him, the U.S. Forest Service, which has been described by federal courts as a federal agency that “has a substantial financial interest in the harvesting of timber in the National Forest[s]” and is “more interested in harvesting timber than in complying with our environmental laws.”

Jones’ claim that wildfires cause “total loss” of forest carbon is simply Forest Service climate denialism and pro-logging propaganda that has been repeatedly and soundly discredited by forest and climate scientists. The Forest Service would have the public believe that

(1) thinning only removes very small trees and “brush”, causing only a small reduction in forest carbon,

(2) this insignificant reduction in forest carbon from thinning is justified because thinning will effectively stop wildfires or make them burn almost exclusively at low intensities, and

(3) without thinning the fires will burn largely at very high intensities, consuming most of the carbon in the trees and sending it into the atmosphere.

The HCN article tells readers that “[w]ildfire ecologists almost universally support” this view, and that “[t]here is no sizeable cohort of scientific dissent”. Really? In 2020, over 200 scientists, including dozens of the nation’s top forest and fire experts and climate scientists, sent a letter to Congress concluding the following:

Importantly, mechanical thinning results in a substantial net loss of forest carbon storage, and a net increase in carbon emissions that can substantially exceed those of wildfire emissions (Hudiburg et al. 2013, Campbell et al. 2012). Reduced forest protections and increased logging tend to make wildland fires burn more intensely (Bradley et al. 2016). This can also occur with commercial thinning, where mature trees are removed (Cruz et al. 2008, Cruz et al. 2014). As an example, logging in U.S. forests emits 10 times more carbon than fire and native insects combined (Harris et al. 2016). And, unlike logging, fire cycles nutrients and helps increase new forest growth.

The 200+ scientists stated that we need to increase protections of our forests from logging operations, including “thinning”, and “shift away from consumption of wood products and forest biomass energy to help mitigate the climate crisis.”

In November of 2021, another letter was sent by over 200 scientists, including a long list of top forest, fire, and climate scientists, concluding that “Greenhouse gas emissions from logging in U.S. forests are now comparable to the annual CO2 emissions from U.S. coal burning”, and “[l]ogging conducted as commercial ‘thinning’, under the rubric of fire management, emits about three times more CO2 than wildfire alone.” The scientists noted that:

[C]ommercial logging conducted under the guise of “thinning” and “fuel reduction” typically removes mature, fire-resistant trees that are needed for forest resilience. We have watched as one large wildfire after another has swept through tens of thousands of acres where commercial thinning had previously occurred due to extreme fire weather driven by climate change. Removing trees can alter a forest’s microclimate, and can often increase fire intensity. In contrast, forests protected from logging, and those with high carbon biomass and carbon storage, more often burn at equal or lower intensities when fires do occur.

Last year, after four and a half years of intensive field research, my colleagues and I published the largest-ever scientific study on the extent of forest carbon consumption in wildfires, using some of the biggest recent fires in the Sierra Nevada. Similar to other field-based research, we found that even the biggest fires consume less than 2% of tree biomass and carbon, dramatically contradicting the logging propaganda being disseminated by Jones and other scientists funded by the Forest Service. Moreover, after big fires, the latest and most comprehensive research is finding that forests naturally regenerate quite well, even in the big high-intensity fire patches, and this facilitates excellent post-fire carbon sequestration and storage.

In an attempt to further bolster its advocacy for commercial logging of mature trees under the guise of “thinning”, the HCN article references a trio of articles by a few dozen scientists funded mostly by the Forest Service. HCN failed to mention, however, that in these articles the Forest Service scientists repeatedly admitted that “thinning” often increases, rather than decreases, wildfire severity. The Prichard et al. (2021) article, cited in the HCN article, admitted 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 acknowledge 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 vegetation, promoting understory growth, and increasing wind speeds.”

In fact, dozens of scientific studies by many different groups of scientists, over the course of decades, have found that thinning often tends to increase overall wildfire intensity and severity. But this scientific reality did not fit with HCN’s intention to greenwash the wildfire and climate change impacts of this type of logging.

Contrary to HCN’s claim that there is no significant scientific disagreement with thinning, in reality there are a few dozen scientists who promote thinning—nearly all of them funded by the Forest Service or other logging interests—and hundreds of independent scientists expressing serious concerns and objections. And even the few dozen Forest Service-funded scientists could not get through the scientific peer-review process without including numerous admissions that the logging that they propose, under the euphemism of “thinning”, frequently tends to increase wildfire behavior and overall tree mortality.

However, the fact that most scientists urge a shift away from logging under the guise of “thinning”, and a shift toward focusing resources and attention on home hardening and defensible space to directly protect communities from wildfires, was also inconvenient for HCN’s manufactured pro-logging narrative. Instead, they lied once again to their readers in the course of making unprofessional and baseless personal attacks on me. HCN quoted Jones as saying that I have “conflicts of interest”. This is a reference to a 2019 letter to the editor by Jones, and some other scientists funded by the Forest Service, in which they said that I am both a practicing environmental lawyer and an ecologist, and that the two professions supposedly have different and competing ethical duties. The problem with this claim is that I’m not a lawyer and never have been one. I have a law degree from 1995 but changed career paths shortly after law school, never took the Bar Exam, and ultimately chose to be a research ecologist. Not that the facts mattered to Jones and his colleagues, or to HCN. Their goal was character assassination. Tellingly, neither Jones and his co-authors, nor HCN, bothered to reach out to me for a comment before publicly attacking me based on this lie, and HCN’s editors have refused to respond to my emails requesting a conversation with them about their article.

The HCN hit piece also claimed that my colleagues and I selectively use data. This is another reference to the 2019 letter to the editor by Jones and other pro-logging scientists, and it is also false. We had published a study in 2018 that, for the first time ever, investigated the influence of wildfires on spotted owls without the confounding influence of post-fire logging. Our separation of these two distinct things was good science, but our objective scientific results were politically and economically inconvenient for the Forest Service, which makes tens of millions of dollars per year from post-fire logging projects in spotted owl habitat on public lands. Our research showed that wildfire alone did not adversely affect spotted owls, but post-fire logging severely impacted them. Jones and his fellow logging advocates attacked us for publishing our study, saying that we should have conflated fire and logging like they have done in the past—in other words, urging us to conduct bad science. Our subsequent research has further vindicated our initial approach, and the need to separate fire and logging in any analysis of spotted owls. Notably, Jones and some of this colleagues had been hired and paid by the Forest Service through a contract that required Jones and others to say that the Forest Service’s logging program is “contributing to the viability of the California spotted owl”, regardless of the actual facts.

Last, HCN’s hit piece alleged that my colleagues and I have pressured scientists and graduate students to withdraw certain articles—another falsehood on HCN’s part. We have asked some of the Forest Service-funded scientists to correct clear misstatements of fact, but we have always done so professionally and have not “pressured” anyone, nor do we have the power to do so.

I would have been happy to convey any of this information to HCN, if they had contacted me before attacking me, which they did not.

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.”