Resilient Federal Forest Act will diminish resilience of forests
By George Wuerthner On August 20, 2015 · 9 Comments · In Activism, B.L.M., Forest Service, Public Land Management, Public Lands, Wildfire
Oregon Congressman’s Greg Walden’s (other western legislators also are sponsors) support of the so-called Resilient Federal Forests Act is based on faulty assumptions. The Resilient Federal Forests Act will actually decrease forest resilience. Here’s a link to Walden’s position on the Act.
Here’s just a few of the problems.
Walden asserts that if beetles, and disease along with lack of management are creating fuels that are contributing to large wildfires.
Large fires are driven by weather/climate not fuels. You cannot put them out until the weather changes. Thus additional fire fighting funds will do little to actually stop these blazes.
Furthermore, from an ecological perspective you would not want to stop them. They are one of the most important ways that forests get an input of dead trees.
In reality, dead trees are less likely to burn than live trees under severe fire weather conditions. That is because wildfires are driven by fine fuels–needles, cones, and small branches. That is why after a fire you have the snags–the large boles do not readily burn. Dead trees do not have fine fuels and are far more resistant to burning. In reality nearly all of the acreage burned is green forests. And a number of studies have concluded that things like beetle kill actually reduces the chance of a wildfire.
Second, this bill advocates post-fire logging after a blaze so they can replant forests. Most forests do not need to be replanted after a fire–they are perfectly capable of restocking on their own. In fact, as was the case shown in the Biscuit Fire, post fire logging or salvage logging kills more of the young trees than can be planted. Not to mention that post fire logging always loses money.
Walden’s bill also ignores the ecological value of dead trees. Many ecologists believe that dead trees are critical for “healthy forests” since so many species are dependent on them. For instance, 45% of bird species depend on dead trees at some point in their life cycle. And 50% of the fish habitat in small to medium sized streams is from dead wood–i.e. logs that fall into the creek. Removal of dead trees impoverishes the forest ecosystem.
Another assumption in Walden’s bill is that logging/thinning can reduce wildfires. if this were true, we would not be having many fires in Oregon given how much of the landscape is chopped up and has been previously logged. In reality all of the large wildfires are climate/weather driven events, not dependent on fuels. Drought combined with low humidity and particularly high winds leads to big fires. Under these conditions fires (because of wind blown fire brands) blow through, around, and over “fuel reduction projects”.
Plus fuel reduction projects decline in their effectiveness over time and any project must be retreated over and over again–something that Walden and others do not mention. So you will have repeated entries into the forest. The reason Walden wants to get rid of the eastside 21 inch limits on trees is to make logging more profitable. But it is exactly the largest trees you want to keep on the landscape since they are the most ecologically valuable and also the ones most resistant to fires.
The effectiveness of fuel reductions is ambiguous at best. I am aware of at least four reviews that have looked at the effectiveness of fuel reduction projects that have concluded that under severe fire weather, they simply do not work. So all the money we are spending (not to mention the ecological harm we are doing) on thinning projects has little impact on fires.
In fact some studies have found that thinning can exacerbate fire spread because they open the forest to faster drying of fuels and allow greater wind penetration. Ironically it is the areas with the densest forests that tend to burn the least in major fires because wind can’t penetrate and the heavy shade tends to keep fuels moister.
Listen to news reports and you’ll hear that fires “exploded” with winds etc.
I don’t need to tell you that Walden’s claim about putting people back to work means using tax payer money to subsidize timber sales since nearly all timber sales lose money, and that does not count the environmental costs like loss of fisheries due to sediment from logging roads, spread of weeds, soil compaction, loss of carbon storage, etc. if these environmental costs were added to the simple monetary losses, we could not justify logging any public lands.
Finally all of this is driven by the urge to protect homes and communities. Again the research is clear. The best way to protect homes and communities is not by logging the forest, but to keep people from building in the woods, and by reducing the flammability of areas immediately around homes. Most studies suggest fuel reductions anymore than 200 feet from a home provides no added benefit. So logging the forest in the hinterlands does not increase home or community safety. This is by far and away the most effective means of protecting communities. We can’t predict where a fire might ignite, but we can say we don’t want homes to be threatened, so focus on the homes, not the forest. You can’t fire proof the forest.
Here’s a link to a story on my fire presentation in Jackson a few days ago that summarizes many of these concepts.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
9 Responses to Resilient Federal Forest Act will diminish resilience of forests
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Thank you for caring George
I just sent this to my representative in Congress:
I am opposed to the Resilient Federal Forests Act because I don’t think it will protect forests in the long run. The money would be better used in close proximity to houses and structures in danger from wild fires – grass, brush, or forest. Building more roads, then logging in remote areas will not accomplish this.
Most buildings are not located in the national forests but in closer proximity to towns and farmlands. As an example I have four relative families, my brother’s, daughter’s, grand-daughter’s, and cousin’s all several miles apart but in the Lawyer Complex of fires in Idaho. My daughter watched the lightning storm that ignited these fires a day or so before the weather changed to favorable conditions for rapid fire spread – low humidity, high temperatures and high wind speeds. The people in charge of the fires concentrated on saving threatened buildings, not on putting out the fire. It worked for my relatives but unfortunately not for all in the area.
I also think it is a reasonable idea to not cut the large, more mature trees on the East side especially as the recent trend is to draughtier conditions and it is questionable if young trees planted to replace those cut will receive enough moisture to survive. It might not be a bad idea on the West side either. Man does not know all.
Total garbage, George. Totally contrary to our scientific sustainable fire approach in the West.
Your negative comment needs to have some reasons. Why is it “total garbage?”
What is “your” “scientific sustainable fire approach in the West?”
This is a complicated and complex issue, but I will point out a few comments of Mr. Wuerthener that I find to be partially accurate or misleading.
1.”Large fires are driven by weather/climate not fuels. You cannot put them out until the weather changes”.
Sorry for the above post, I must have hit a wrong key.
1.”Large fires are driven by weather/climate not fuels. You cannot put them out until the weather changes”. Fire needs three elements to burn; heat, fuel and air. Of those three elements wind is certainly the most influential, however, fuels play an important factor as they provide the means to sustain the heat and produce the flames and embers that spread fire. The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 burned through forests that had large amounts of dead and dying standing trees and large quantities of down wood (from previous dead trees falling to the ground).
“In reality, dead trees are less likely to burn than live trees under severe fire weather conditions. That is because wildfires are driven by fine fuels–needles, cones, and small branches”. Although technically standing dead trees are less likely to burn than live trees, in actuality as trees die and fall to the ground, large amounts of down wood, (bole, needles and branches) can accumulate creating a potential for extreme fire conditions. Combined with high temperatures, low fuel moisture, and strong winds, these are the conditions that typically result in large fires.
“Most forests do not need to be replanted after a fire–they are perfectly capable of restocking on their own”. Douglas-fir and true firs typically produce a “good” cone crop every 5-7 years generally resulting in poor regeneration. Conversely, pine dominated species open their cones through heat and are thus more able to re-stock on their own. One such case is a large fire (Douglas-fir and true fir dominated) that burned near the authors home ~15 years ago and today the vast majority of the burn is not re-stocked. I do not know the average amount of fir dominated vs pine dominated forests that burn each year, but clearly many forests take many decades to re-stock. If one of the main goals is to produce timber, to depict that forests are re-stocking themselves and do not need to be planted will not adequately achieve that objective. In addition, according to the Forest Service only 3% of the burned areas are planted each.
“45% of bird species depend on dead trees at some point in their life cycle. And 50% of the fish habitat in small to medium sized streams is from dead wood–i.e. logs that fall into the creek. Removal of dead trees impoverishes the forest ecosystem”. Federal agencies are well aware of the importance of snags and down logs to wildlife and aquatic species and after a thorough analysis, determine how many must be left on site following harvest operations. Read a Forest Service salvage EA and I think you will be pleasantly surprised as to the large amount of snags and down logs are to be left.
“Fuel reduction projects decline in their effectiveness over time and any project must be retreated over and over again”. True and that’s why these projects should be concentrated in rural interface areas. They should generally not be implemented in remote areas.
“Some studies have found that thinning can exacerbate fire spread because they open the forest to faster drying of fuels and allow greater wind penetration. Ironically it is the areas with the densest forests that tend to burn the least in major fires because wind can’t penetrate and the heavy shade tends to keep fuels moister”. True, thinning can allow greater wind penetration thus drying out fuels faster, however, thinning generally removes the smaller trees and increases the spacing between trees which reduces the ladder fuels and ultimately the potential for crowning fires. Under normal conditions, fuel moistures would be higher in unthinned stands, however under the present drought conditions in the west, fuel moistures are already extremely low.
“putting people back to work means using tax payer money to subsidize timber sales since nearly all timber sales lose money, and that does not count the environmental costs like loss of fisheries due to sediment from logging roads, spread of weeds, soil compaction, loss of carbon storage, etc. if these environmental costs were added to the simple monetary losses, we could not justify logging any public lands”. Although I do not know how many federal timber sales “lose money”, I do know that 50% of the BLM and 25% of Forest Service sale revenue goes toward local schools, and county governments which rely heavily on this income and that federal timber must be processed in the US creating American jobs (vs private and state land timber which can and typically is exported as raw logs). Considering the demand for forest products is only increasing, the resource is renewable, federal timber sales are the “gold standard” regarding environmental protection and are subject to public lawsuits and the minimal amount of total federal land that is subject to yearly harvesting and the alternative impacts (intensive harvesting on private and state lands), to prohibit harvesting on all public lands is a bad idea.
One issue that is not complicated is to increase restrictions on where homes are allowed to be built. If you factor in the billions of dollars spent on wildfire fighting with the number of homes being threatened, I would presume the cost per structure is extremely high.
Spoke to a neighbor earlier today and the fire at that time was about 10 acres. (He was waiting to be called out) Judging by the high winds this afternoon and the multiple planes (carrying fire retardant) passing over my cabin in the last hour, its probably much, much larger than 200 acres by now.
Lots of cows up there this time of year (re: the reference to a rider’s camp)
Why are politicians so afraid to listen to the science of environmental issues? Are they afraid they are wrong? Really Science is fact based not feeling based!
Thanks for the posting George! Note how the language used for this proposed legislative folly relies heavily on the recent PR campaign from the so called ecomodernist-neoconservationsts and their corporate masters. As they like to claim in broad brush hyperbole, “Earth is a resilient basket of resources, here strictly for us, and no matter what we humans do, Earth is resilient.” Beware the neocon PR because as the fact-free language seeps deeper into the discussion, the more the entire framework of the debate is essentially captured. As previously posted in this site and blog there is plenty of work to do to call the neocons on their intellectually weak arguments.