A hundred years ago or so there was a pseudo-science that focused on measurements of the human skull known as phrenology. Phrenology was based on the flawed assumption that skull size was indicative of intelligence. These studies demonstrated and confirmed that men had larger skulls and thus were smarter than women. The only problem was the flawed assumption there existed a correlation between skull size and intelligence.

We see a similar set of flawed assumptions driving the conventional perspective on forest management as exemplified by the editorial of Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. https://missoulian.com/opinion/columnists/why-montana-needs-forest-management-reforms-in-the-farm-bill/article_fd323d9a-3def-5c76-9ceb-77d5860b22a9.html

Smith, like many unfamiliar with ecological science, starts with the faulty assumption that Montana forests are “unhealthy” because there are large wildfires, and then goes on to assume that logging/thinning can correct this perceived “problem.”

If your starting assumptions are inaccurate than your perception, there is a problem is also inaccurate.  In the case of forest management, the idea that large wildfires are the result of unhealthy forests with too much “fuels” is the result of the Industrial Forestry Paradigm that views anything that kills trees other than chainsaws as “wasted” resources.

It also fails to acknowledge that most forest stand types in Montana including common species like lodgepole pine or subalpine forest have very long fire rotations, and it is entirely reasonable for “fuel” to accumulate in these forests until released by a high severity blazes.

There are many wildlife and plant species that depend on dead trees for habitat and food. As much as 2/3 of all wildlife species may use dead trees and down wood at some point in their life cycle. And fish biologists will tell you that there’s no upper limit to the number of dead trees in streams that benefits aquatic ecosystems.

Plus, trees killed by wildfire store a lot of carbon—while logging has been shown to be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, in Oregon, the logging industry is the largest source of carbon emissions in the state—far more than transportation or wildfires.

If you want “healthy” forest ecosystems, you celebrate large wildfires, not demonize them. An ecological definition of a healthy forest ecosystem is one that has many dead trees. And any management that seeks to reduce the creation of snags is impoverishing the forest, not “restoring” it.

Furthermore, multiple studies, including many done by Forest Service’s researchers and others have found that thinning forests seldom affects large blazes. The likelihood that any fire will encounter a fuel treatment is minimal.

Additionally, what drives all large wildfires are climate/weather conditions that including drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and wind. Thinning forests does not affect extreme weather so can’t “cure’ the perceived problem.

Indeed, logging often increases the surface fuels, and thinning can encourage the growth of grasses, shrubs and small trees which are the “fine fuels” that carry wildfires. Indeed, any number of studies have documented that the highest severity burns are in areas with “active forest management.”

The only way to protect communities is to reduce the flammability of homes. Anything else is just “voodoo science” much like phrenology of old.


About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

27 Responses to Voodoo forest science

  1. avatar Bob Zybach says:

    George: Your arrogance and misdirection are showing when it comes to your comments on Nick Smith. Comparing his understanding of forest management to “phrenology” is both insulting and inaccurate. Conversely, blaming his “flawed assumptions” due to lack of “familiarity with ecological science” is both presumptuous and very probably not true.

    My own background includes more than 20 years as a reforestation contractor in the Pacific Northwest and a PhD in “historical ecology,” making me a certified “ecological scientist.” From those standpoints of personal experience and academic training I can say confidently that it is you, and not Mr. Smith, who is more likely in error. Maybe Lysenkoism is closer to your perspective than phrenology.

    The studies you generally cite exist, all right, but your cherry-picking of perspectives that support your own bias is blatantly obvious. If you can’t grasp the simple concept of the relationship between fuel and fire, then that is your problem — not Smith’s lack of capability, as you state.

    These fires are deadly to wildlife, unsightly, dangerous and costly to humans, and major causes of air and water pollution and erosion. Great that you think they are “good” because you think they are “natural,” but people dying in California and breathing smoke all summer in western Oregon likely have a perspective different than your own.

    “Indeed,” some of your statements are blatantly and easily proven false and apparently made to support an anti-logging bias that permeates your work. Example:

    “Indeed, logging often increases the surface fuels, and thinning can encourage the growth of grasses, shrubs and small trees which are the “fine fuels” that carry wildfires. Indeed, any number of studies have documented that the highest severity burns are in areas with “active forest management.””

    As an historical ecologist who has researched wildfires and subsequent reforestation for more than 50 years, I can state with confidence that your assertions are pure, fictional crap. “Highest severity fires” (mortality?) occurs in areas of greatest fuel concentrations — NOT in areas with “active forest management” (whatever that term might mean to you and whoever you are apparently citing).

    And so on. You don’t like logging and are willing to say or write almost anything in defense of your bias is the conclusion I keep coming to when I read your editorials. You can do better.

    • avatar Mat-ters says:

      Bob, I’ve read that the state of WI in relative recent historic time burned at a rate of 70% of the state every year from purposeful, unpurposeful and natural means. What real historic evidence is there of this carbon contamination of native American air quality? (tongue in cheek)

      Thank you for your post & perspective ….. historical ecology …. I would have a thousand questions on your interesting discipline. What books would you consider good reads for those interested in “historical ecology”?

      • avatar Bob Zybach says:

        Hi Mat-ters: Thank you for your interest. Naturally, if you are interested in wildfire and historical ecology research methods, I would recommend my book, which is essentially a reformatting of my PhD dissertation: http://nwmapsco.com/Books/Great_Fires

        Mostly this discipline focuses on the roles and impacts of people in the environment and uses historical documentation, such as first-person accounts, land survey notes, photographs, maps, etc., to reconstruct past conditions (or “habitat”). People are the only animals to gather fuel and that can start fires, so there is an important consideration to begin with.

        • avatar Mat-ters says:

          Bob, Your book is just in time to get on my Christmas list.

          I gotta question…..or two. People here on this wildlife thread try to tell us that the unprecedented protection of predators in places like Yellowstone are “natural”, where I know that man has been part of the ecology here in North America for at least 12000 years. What does your historical evidence tell us about man and predators in years past?

          I’ve seen estimates for human population totals of between 10 to 100 million Native Americans lived here fluctuating based on numerous factors from starvation to diseases…. what are your estimates? Almost always, the estimates plummet when white-man arrived with diseases leveling out at around only 1 million. What are your historic studies telling us?

          • avatar Bob Zybach says:

            Hi Mat: Probably the best authority on the relationship between hunters and predators in the Yellowstone area is Charles ay, recently retired from Utah State. Much of his research focused on the Yellowstone and was specifically looking at predator-prey relationships involving people, wolves, and elk. And he uses Repeat Photography in his research, which is a powerful analytical tool in the field of historical ecology.

            • avatar Bob Zybach says:

              Charles Kay. My keyboard “k” has been sticking lately.

              • avatar Mat-ters says:

                Bob, Isn’t that the same Dr Kay that put out an EIS on the effects of unmanaged predators in Yellowstone and was attacked viciously by those benefiting from the 60 million dollar wolf restoration and YET in the end is EIS stands as is as the exact replica of the outcome WHICH some now blame on climate change?!

                • avatar Bob Zybach says:

                  Mat: Yep, the same. Us Cassandras have to stick together! Also, earlier question: I think the number of 100 million (or more) is far closer than 1 million or 10 million for pre-Columbian North American population. Camas, corn, and oak savannas coast-coast are keys. Lots of managed food crops capable of feeding millions of people, plus hunting and fishing.

  2. avatar Patrick says:

    Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you are any less prone to bias than George is. Your training makes you see trees as a commodity crop, just like soybeans. Whether you grow beans or trees, no farmer is going to like to see that crop “wasted”. His central premise that prolonged drought and weather events that favor conflagration are the principle causes of large wildfires, whether the forests have been “managed” or not, is scientifically sound. The idea that you thin your way out of them is not. You also cannot deny that dead trees are utilized by wildlife. That is a fact. So really the question at hand is how often and where do we use forests for commercial production. George’s premise is that we already use too much of our forests for commercial production, and leave relatively little forest where natural processes, which include stand replacing fires, are allowed to occur. I agree with that. Logging is hard on soils, removes biomass, and increases erosion. Building logging roads degrades habitat, facilitates invasive species spread, and creates forest edge that favors species that reduce success of interior forest species. Lest you conclude that I am against logging altogether, you would be wrong. I am not. I am interested in increasing wilderness designation, living with natural forest processes that occur there, and managing our remaining forest in such a way as to increase tree diversity, stand complexity, and biodiversity. That means I would not favor tree plantations, which are biologically as bereft as cornfields, or clearcutting. If you don’t appreciate this viewpoint, then I would have to wonder whether the reason is due to humanistic and economic preferences. If that is so, then the value system will always place the trees ahead of the forest. I value the ecosystem more than the economics. But I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. I suspect we actually share common ground here, but your writing came across as screed, no better than you perceive George’s writing as a diatribe against logging. Perhaps both of you can do better.

    • avatar Bob Zybach says:

      “Patrick”: I almost stopped reading when I saw you were not using a last name. Then your second sentence was: “Your training makes you see trees as a commodity crop, just like soybeans.”

      That’s when I stopped reading to write this. If you actually think you know how I “see” things, then you are dead wrong. What you are really saying is that is how You see Me. And you are 100% wrong. I can see why you hide behind a pseudonym with statements like this.

      Oh, and yes, like George I do have my own biases. My cultural anthropology background taught me how to identify them and state them clearly for others to consider in context to my public ideas and opinions. Also, to reference such ideas and opinions with my actual name in order to be responsible for them.

  3. avatar Bruce Bowen says:

    I am not surprised that someone who makes money off from public lands would object to ecology but what is good for the forest is not necessarily good for the lumber industry.

    Today’s forest practices are dictated by economic self interest. So why not just be honest and say so instead of putting up a barrage of hypocrisy or and blaming people that don’t want to put up with corporate BS.

    Today the corporate propaganda and control has intensified, largely because Trump ‘kicked’ honest science out of the government. I see that in order to be able to testify at forest service “public” meetings, that one has to preregister as an “objector” or an “interested person”. This is done to give the timber industry guys and forest service officials an idea of who they will be up against so they can prepare and response ahead of time. They also send in their front men that go amongst the crowd in public meetings to weed out the people that might protest against modern forest practices and stupid bureaucratic decision making. I think the historical reality is that good forest management practices went down with the Mayflower.

    I am still reminded of what Aldo Leopold said over 50 years ago: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise”.

  4. avatar Yvette says:

    Talk about voodoo….two words: Heartland Institute.

    Oh, and there is this:


  5. avatar Rich says:

    Thanks Yvettte. Mr. Zyback seems a little sensitive if he feels simply pointing out his association with Heartland Institute (HI) constitutes an attack. He is responding like HI is an unsavory organization like the KKK. But wait a minute didn’t HI also play a leading role in denying for many years the link between tobacco smoking and cancer. So perhaps there is a reason to not mention HI and the denial of climate science. Accusing you of using a pseudonym while not disclosing his role in HI is a bit duplicitous to say the least.

    • avatar Bob Zybach says:

      “Rich”: Does everyone on this blog make unfounded accusations and then hide behind pseudonyms? My imaginary “sensitivity” to being associated with Heartland Institute is based on the fact I have no direct contact with them and have only participated in a single event of theirs in the past 20 years. Now you associate me, somehow, with tobacco and cancer, too! Nice trolling, “Rich!”

  6. avatar James says:

    I put this article into the category of ones that sensationalize their words instead of using a scholarly approach. The words voodoo and phrenology were used totally without context and meaning.

    To be consistent with the philosophy of science you would have to include medicine, psychiatry and forest “science” of the time in the very same pseudo science category.

    Phrenological physicians were the first ones to categorically say thought comes from the brain and different parts of the brain control different functions. Neurosurgery has been based on their work.

    When you said :
    “The only problem was the flawed assumption there existed a correlation between skull size and intelligence.” lets look at flawed assumptions. I would like to refer to for example Scientific American article that says:

    “With structural MRI imaging of brain anatomy, such measurements are now routine. In healthy volunteers, total brain volume weakly correlates with intelligence, with a correlation value between 0.3 and 0.4 out of a possible 1.0. In other words, brain size accounts for between 9 and 16 percent of the overall variability in general intelligence.”


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December 2018
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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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