Subsidized logging in the name of fuel reductions on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. Logging accounts for 35% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Congress just passed the big infrastructure bill, and I expect President Biden will sign it—maybe before you read this commentary.

Funding is for numerous projects including upgrading bridges, highway construction, expanding broadband in rural communities to environmental restoration like reclaiming abandoned mines.

As with any broad legislation, there is probably a lot of “pork” as well as likely improvements that ultimately are necessary to the country’s infrastructure. I will leave the judgment of these things to others.

Power lines are one of the main sources of ignitions for wildfire. Thirteen of the large 2020 Labor Day Fires that charred the western Cascades of Oregon were ignited by trees falling on power lines. Photo George Wuerthner 

However, the bill does deal with wildfire issues. Some of which are positive, such as providing funds to bury powerlines (which are common ignition sources for wildfires) to funding to reduce the flammability of homes.

Nevertheless, the main thrust of the legislation continues to promote the idea that “fuels” are the problem and logging is the primary way to deal with climate-induced wildfire.

Among other provisions, the Infrastructure Bill includes a legislative mandate for 30 million acres of additional logging on federal public lands over the next 15 years. Thirty million acres are nearly equal to the area of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined!

The emphasis on fuel reductions is misguided. Camp Fire which destroyed 19,000 structures in Paradise, California burned through clearcuts, hazardous fuel reductions, prescribed burning sits, and even two previous wildfires–all of which “reduced” fuels. Photo George Wuerthner

The legislation provides $3.3 billion for wildfire risk reduction efforts, including hazardous fuels reduction (a euphemism for logging), controlled burns, community wildfire defense grants, collaborative landscape forest restoration projects (another name for logging), and firefighting resources.

The emphasis on “fuel reductions” has several immediate problems.

Ironically, logging will only exacerbate CO2 emissions driving climate warming and make it far more challenging to meet the Biden administration’s 50% reduction in climate warming.  As noted in a recent letter to Congress signed by more than 200 scientists logging in U.S. forests emits 723 million tons of uncounted CO2 into our atmosphere each year—more than ten times the amount emitted by wildfires and tree mortality from insects combined.

Logging in Oregon accounts for 35% of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  Photo George Wuerthner

Although the burning of fossil fuels for transportation accounts for the greatest percentage of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the emissions from logging in U.S. forests are now comparable to the annual CO2 emissions from U.S. coal-burning and annual emissions from the building sector. For example, logging accounts for 35% of Oregon’s annual CO2 emissions, more than all the state’s cars, trucks, and airplanes!

Besides the fact that logging contributes to climate warming, we have studies and numerous examples across the West where fuel reduction does not work in the face of extreme fire weather.

The area with blackened stumps was previously thinned while the area just beyond the standing trees had been clearcut prior to the Dixie Fire, neither fuel reduction effectively changed the spread of the blaze. Photo George Wuerthner 

For instance, two of the largest fires this past summer, the 900,000 acres plus Dixie Fire in California and the 400,000 acres plus Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, occurred where most of the land had been previously logged/thinned. A rough estimate suggests that 75% of the Bootleg Fire area had experienced fuel reduction, including logging/thinning and prescribed burning.

This map of the Dixie Fire perimeter in August shows how ineffective logging/fuel reductions were in controlling the blaze. All the brightly colored portions of the map were previously logged and thinned. The blue is Lake Almanor near Chester, California. Map by Bryant Baker. 

I visited both burns and found where even large clearcuts with almost no fuel failed to halt the spread of these wind-driven blazes.

Clearcut in the foreground and burnt trees beyond from the Dixie Fire. Obviously even significant fuel reductions like a recent clearcut didn’t slow fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner 

Yet despite these failures, the Forest Service, timber industry, and its allies like the Nature Conservancy, Conservation Northwest, California Wilderness Coalition, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and other so-called “conservation organizations” continue to support fuel reductions, despite their apparent inability to preclude large blazes.

Worse for our communities is that logging/thinning by opening the canopy logging can hasten the drying of fuels and increase wind penetration—both major factors in fire spread. The irony seen in numerous fires across the West is that wildfire severity and spread are typically proportionally lower in areas where logging/thinning is prohibited, like wilderness areas and national parks where presumably fuel biomass is higher.

Oregon’s Eagle Creek blaze jumped the Columbia River where there is absolutely no fuel and ignited fires on the Washington side of the river. Photo George Wuerthner 

Wildfires burn through previously “thinned and logged” areas, especially when high winds push fires through and over such projects. For example, the 48,000 acre Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 that burned some of the forestlands within the Columbia River Gorge jumped the mile and half wide Columbia River (with no fuel) to ignite blazes on the Washington side of the river.

The legislation undermines environmental protection by weakening current laws to create a broad exemption for logging projects on federal lands.

The infrastructure bill language will permit the continued use of “Categorical Exclusions,” which eliminates environmental analysis under NEPA for an unlimited number of logging projects on federal lands. According to the legislation CEs projects up to 1,000 feet wide and 3,000 acres in size are permitted. CEs were initially designed to allow the Forest Service to do small tasks like constructing an outhouse in a campground without bothering with an Environmental Impact Statement or other burdensome paperwork. Instead, CEs provisions are regularly exploited to facilitate logging.

For comparison, a football field is approximately 1 acre in size. Therefore, every CE can impact an area the size of 3000 football fields.

Logging roads are a chronic source of sedimentation into aquatic ecosystems, and one of the many unaccounted costs of “fuel reduction projects.” Thinning project along Rock Creek, Lolo National Forest, Montana Photo George Wuerthner 

The emphasis on fuel reductions is misguided. Logging is not benign. It significantly contributes to GHG emissions, the spread of weeds, displaces wildlife, causes sedimentation that compromises aquatic ecosystems, and much more. Moreover, since one can’t predict where a fire might occur, most of these “fuel reductions” never encounter a fire during a time when they might be effective. So we suffer these negatives now and gain few if any benefits in wildfire reduction and increase climate warming that is ultimately the source of growing wildfire size and spread.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

10 Responses to Infrastructure Bill Promotes Subsidized Logging

  1. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    “Among other provisions, the Infrastructure Bill includes a legislative mandate for 30 million acres of additional logging on federal public lands over the next 15 years. Thirty million acres are nearly equal to the area of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined!”

    I was curious to see just exactly what was in this bill for the betterment of climate and the environment.

    This certainly doesn’t bode well for the future! 🙁

  2. avatar Dan Lynch says:

    Thanks for saying this, George.

  3. avatar rastadoggie says:

    Ugh, my local Watershed Groups that love logging will be even richer. Hey George, how about an article on how Collaborative “Restoration” Groups(CFLRP)get paid by the Forest Service that I learned about from the exemplary book This Land by Christopher Ketcham. I don’t think many people get this. The pro-cut Nature Conservancy was a big driver. The news is bad but thanks for all you do.

  4. avatar Beeline says:

    If the populous cannot get together in mind and spirit and throw both the democratic and republican parties in the trash can and build a third party not run by big money we are done for. Desertification and great suffering are on the way and intensifying, as corporate power squeezes the last drops of blood out of our planet.

  5. avatar Linda says:

    TY for the report although it’s not good news. Didn’t they just agree in Glasgow at the Climate Summit NOT to continue cutting down the Amazon forests for the same reason (climate)?? Seems a bit ironic or hypocritical to me.
    Why do these so called conservation groups even call themselves environmentalists? Like the Nature Conservancy whom my husband has given a lot of money to.

  6. avatar Martha S Bibb says:

    Myth busters! Thank you for this information.How do we inform more people about the myths like “fuel reduction”, health logging, healthy prescribed fire smoke, cattle ranchers as “steward” of the land.

  7. avatar Don Johnson says:

    Every voice counts; yours more than most. Thanks to you and “rastadoggie”for pointing out that Collaborative “Restoration” Groups(CFLRP)get paid by the Forest Service Your persistence is greatly appreciated.

  8. avatar Charles Fox says:

    Forest “thinning” reminds me of what the soldiers said about that village in Viet Nam: “The only way to save it is to destroy it”.

  9. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/biden-deforestation-old-growth-forests-cop26_n_61841ea9e4b06de3eb726e8a

    There was a piece on the evening news last night about the Tongass in Alaska, where I understand they do not protect old growth forest from logging? And to see those beautiful old-growth, moss-covered trees reduced to timbers was painful to see. 🙁

  10. avatar Jerry Freilich says:

    I recently spoke to several of the “Major Authorities” on forestry and logging practices… all of them explaining to me how fuel reductions and thinning will keep us safe. I was astonished that these folks identified opposing viewpoints as “biased,” “paid by special interests” and “people with an agenda.” It apparently never occurred to them that the Forest Service, the forest industry, and loggers might just slightly match that description. I am very fond of the quote attributed to Upton Sinclair (and often quoted by George W) that, “It’s very hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on his not understanding it.” We owe you a great debt George… keep speaking truth to power.

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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."

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