The Logging Juggernaut

Industrial logging in the Willapa Hill of coastal Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Across the West, the Forest Service and logging proponents continue to mischaracterize forest health by the standards of the Industrial Forestry Paradigm. Under this logging juggernaut paradigm, any natural evolutionary agent that kills a tree, such as a drought, wildfire, insects, or disease, is considered a threat.

These agents recycling nutrients, creating wildlife habitat, producing down wood and snags, and oher physical features that maintain ecosystem health.

Furthermore, terms like “active forest management,’ “restoration,” “resilience,” and “fuel reduction” are euphemisms for logging and ecosystem manipulation better characterized as chainsaw medicine and are premised on flawed assumptions.

The Forest Service continues to characterize natural disturbances that it cannot control as the problem while ignoring the one thing it can control, namely chainsaw medicine and other forest manipulation.

Large fires are driven by climate/weather factors such as drought, high temperatures, low humidity and especially wind. All large blazes are associated with extreme drought, and historically there were larger wildfires in the past than at present.

For instance, the 1910 Big Burn that raced across 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana occurred long before anyone could suggest fire suppression and fuel buildup were the cause.

Logging in the backcountry and prescribed burning will not counter the main driving force shaping forest ecosystems-namely climate warming due to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases. In May, global CO2 levels surpassed 417 ppm, 50% higher than in the pre-industrial era, the highest level in 4 million years!

Moreover, some studies suggest that up to ten times as much carbon is released by logging as natural disturbances (like wildfire). For instance, 66% of the carbon lossesacross the West were due to logging, while only 15% was due to wildfire.

Indeed, intact forest ecosystems play a massive role in carbon storage. Soils stored most of the ecosystem carbon (63 percent), followed by live vegetation (26 percent) and dead organic matter (11 percent).  Even heavily burnt forests maintain most of their carbon for decades to centuries as snags, soil carbon, and down wood. Large trees, in particular, are critical for carbon storage.

By contrast, transforming forests into wood products releases most of the carbon into the atmosphere immediately or only stores it for short periods as paper or slightly longer as structural beams and wood siding.

Contrary to Forest Service propaganda, natural evolutionary agents like insects, wildfire, and drought create healthy forest ecosystems. Biological agents select and kill the trees that lack the genetic and physical traits to survive under current climate conditions, creating resilience in the ecosystem.

Trying to “restore” the forest to some historical condition that existed a hundred or more years ago is a fool’s errand. All vegetation reflects the influence of climate. The climate today is warmer and drier than in the recent past. We must expect the vegetation communities to change, not remain static.

The prevailing mantra that historically wildfire was frequent and low severity (i.e., few trees were killed) is misleading. Most western plant communities naturally experienced mixed to high severity fire at intervals of decades to hundreds of years, including chaparral, juniper, sagebrush, lodgepole pine, hemlock, spruce-fir forests, and aspen.

There is no abnormal fuel build-up in these plant communities.

In addition, there is evidence that logging can enhance fire spread by opening the forest to greater wind penetration and drying. That is one reason numerous studies have shown that lands protected from logging, like wilderness and parks tend to have fewer acres burning at high severity compared to areas with “active forest management.”

Furthermore, chainsaw medicine has collateral damage, including loss of carbon storage, disturbance of wildlife, increased spread of weeds, chronic sedimentation of streams from logging roads, and many other well-documented impacts.

The current misguided policy of ramping up “active forest management” or logging in the backcountry to protect homes and communities is delusional. Structure loss was driven primarily by wildfires from unplanned human-related ignitions (e.g. backyard burning, power lines, etc.), which accounted for 76% of all structure loss and resulted in 10 times more structures destroyed per unit area burned compared to lightning-ignited fires.

Therefore we need to reduce the construction of homes in the Wildlands Urban Interface and focus on hardening homes against fire.

The primary threat to homes comes from wind-driven embers. A recent California studyof wildfire found that home hardening, zoning reforms, and buffering could result in 75% fewer homes ignitions.  Metal roofs, screened vents, and other modifications significantly improve the chances of a home surviving even a high-severity blaze.

Rather than continue to spend billions on logging our forests, we should be strategic and focus on working from the home outward. Chainsaw medicine is not the cure, but the problem.

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