New Paradigm for Forests that embraces wildfire and beetles
We need a new paradigm for our forests and natural ecological agents like wildfire, beetles, and other factors which influence forest ecosystems.
Unfortunately, far too many forest managers still display a lack of ecological understanding and a hostile attitude towards natural forest processes like beetle kill or wildfire. Dead trees do not indicate an “unhealthy” forest. Indeed, dead trees are critical to future forest ecosystems and a sign that our forests are actually ecologically healthy because the natural ecological processes that work to maintain forest integrity like beetles and wildfire are intact.
What we see today is an expansion of the acreage of trees killed by either pine beetle and/or wildfire. Both of these factors are native components of our forest ecosystems and a natural response to changing climatic conditions. And indeed, our forests are adapted to them. They are compensatory sources of mortality that bring forests back into alignment with the available moisture, nutrients and other limiting resources.
These changes in forest response are at least partially symptomatic of human-caused climatic change. In other words, we are treating the symptoms instead of treating the ultimate cause of these changes.
That the acreage affected is larger than in the recent past does not necessarily mean our forests are unnatural, out of balance or, dare I use the term, “sick.” These ecological processes can be thought of like wolves to a deer herd. They are thinning our forests, bringing them into balance with the available nutrients, moisture and space now dictated by a warming climate. (Bear in mind that we don’t have to spend money to fight fires or beetle outbreaks—that is a mistaken effort to thwart natural thinning processes). These ecological processes are restoring our forests—and doing the restoration at absolutely no cost to taxpayers.
It’s important to point out that even in the more severe beetle events, many trees survive to go on to form the next generation of forest. And even though the acreage of forest burned has expanded, the percentage of stand replacement blazes is still a small. For instance, one recent analysis of the 2012 fires in Idaho that charred 1.75 million acres of the state’s forests found only 13 percent of the tree-covered lands was severely burned. The vast majority of acreage burned were classified as low severity.
Indeed, there are some ecologists who insist we do not have enough large stand replacement blazes or what are called severe fires. The snag forests that result from such forests are temporally rare and spatially infrequent and critical to many wildlife species. We may need more of them.
We have seen these kinds of episodic natural forest thinning events in the past. If you review paleo ecology of forests in the Rockies, there are many examples of warmer climatic periods where conditions were as warm as or even warmer than at present. It was during the Medieval Warm Spell when the Anasazi Indians abandoned their pueblos in the Southwest due to massive drought and the Vikings were able to colonize Greenland due to High Arctic Warming.
During this warm spell, large wildfires and beetle expansion occurred throughout the West. And contrary to popular myth that ponderosa pine never experience stand replacement burns, during this warm period, even low elevation ponderosa pine forests experienced significant stand replacement blazes. The forests of this period were “restored” by these natural thinning agents to the carrying capacity dictated by the new climatic conditions.
Since that time, cooler, moister climatic conditions combined with forest mismanagement (logging of large fire resistant trees, overgrazing of vegetation, fire suppression, forest fragmentation, etc.) have allowed forest density to increase. Despite these human-caused issues, the forests are perfectly capable of restoration without more human interference.
Our forests are now responding to human-caused climatic change, which is creating warmer, drier conditions. These conditions are promoting expansion of natural thinning agents like beetles and wildfires. However, instead of viewing these as “negative” factors that we must “save” the forest from, we should see them as critical to forest ecosystem integrity. Fires and beetles are far superior at “restoring” forests than foresters and loggers. They, like wolves do to deer, pick the most vulnerable individuals and remove them from the population. The end result is a stronger, healthier forest (or deer herd).
Furthermore, logging is not benign. Logging creates “unhealthy” forests. It is virtually impossible to log without significant ecological impacts. For one thing, logging removes biomass—the live and dead trees which are the biological legacy or biological capital that is invested in the next generation of forests. Dead trees are also important for many wildlife species with one estimate suggesting that two-thirds of all vertebrate wildlife species rely upon dead trees/down wood at some point in their lives. Dead trees are also critical to aquatic ecosystems, providing both structures to streams as well as nutrients.
Suggesting that we need to log our forests to fix them is both self-serving to the timber industry as well as the federal land management agencies whose budgets depend on getting the cut out. Be wary of any prescriptions that suggest we need to log our forests to “restore” them.
What we need to do is leave our forests alone to self-restore and self-regenerate themselves. To make human communities comfortable with such a prescription the Forest Service should emphasize reducing the flammability of homes and removal of flammable materials, including trees near homes.
When I see the dead trees from beetle kill or wildfires I’m thankful that our forests are still healthy and actively being restored by natural processes. It’s time for our federal agencies to adopt a similar viewpoint.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
6 Responses to New Paradigm for Forests that embraces wildfire and beetles
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I LOVE this article and the ideology. This is right in time what I have always felt.
Thank you! Well done.
My nearby beetle killed forest is now opening up everywhere with new meadows and a lot of choke cherry bushes, dogwood, and other edibles. This area used to be full of aspens. I can tell because the dead timber on the forest floor is old, maybe 200 year old, aspen. Aspens are now regenerating. I’ve found wikiups around here that were made of 400 year old aspen where there are now no aspens, just doug firs. These less dense forests will be good for wildlife, and for grizzly bears who are adapted to foraging in open meadow areas. A lot of the logged open areas are filling in with more invasives than the areas with left downed timber. From my observations over these last years, I’d have to agree with the article.
The way I see it, Mother Nature finally lost her patience with us humans going about forest management the wrong way , and She sent in the bugs and fires to remedy that. Next comes the scolding, if we will only listen.
Great Article! How much have our forests evolved with both the Fires and the Pine Beetles! Do Soooo Agree!
A welcome broadening of the dialogue about the nature and nurture of healthy forests. Unfortunately, you neglected to mention pathogens, which are at least as numerous as insects, and contribute significantly to the processes of change that insects promote, though usually (though not always) far less dramatically.
The sound of sanity. Thanks George.