Wilderness Advocates Must Address Wildfire Misinformation

Conservationists, if they wish to succeed in legislating more wilderness and parks in the West, must actively counter the misinformation and flawed logic surrounding forest health, thinning and wildfires. It may seem counter-intuitive, but fighting the fear of fire is, often, the best way to promote new wilderness/park designation.

There is an on-going effort by some in Congress to attach riders to exempt thinning proposals from environmental analysis which will threaten existing proposed wilderness with new logging. Again these efforts are based on faulty understanding of forest ecology and wildfire behavior.

For example, recently a spade of county commissions in Oregon passed resolutions opposing the proposed Crater Lake Wilderness that would protect 500,000 acres of mostly high elevation forests surrounding, and north of Crater Lake National Park.

One of the common justifications given for opposition by these largely rural county commissioners is that wilderness designation will prevent forest thinning, and by their way of thinking, contribute to large wildfires.  And in their world view, unmanaged forests are “unhealthy” forests.

The problem is two-fold. First, most of our forests around the West are not “unhealthy” as suggested, and second, thinning/logging can’t and won’t preclude large fires. Beyond these initial problems is the fact that occasional large blazes contributes to forest ecosystem health.


For instance, the Klamath County Oregon Commissioners recently passed a resolution opposing the Crater Lake Wilderness proposal based in part on their misperception of fire and forest issues.


“Much of the forest within the proposed area is categorized as high risk for catastrophic fire,” the resolution reads. “We the Klamath County commissioners support and continue to enjoy Crater Lake National Park, but strongly oppose Oregon Wild’s proposal to designate a 500,000 acre ‘Crater Lake Wilderness Area.’ ”

“I’m really concerned about forest health. We have not done a good job as a country, and certainly as a state, of really having proper forest management,” said commissioner Kelley Minty Morris. “Our forests are susceptible to fire much more than they should be.”

In the above quotes, characterizing the forests at “high risk” of “catastrophic fire” demonstrates a failure to understand the normal fire ecology of the region’s forests which naturally burn at mixed to high severity. They are not at “risk” from fire—they require large stand replacement fires to maintain healthy forest ecosystems.


The opposition to wilderness based on fears of wildfire is becoming more and more frequent around the West, and is, in my view, a direct consequence of the timber industry and in some cases, state and federal agencies that are promoting logging as a panacea to fires. The thinking goes if we only “managed” (read log) more forests, we could prevent large wildfires.

On the surface this fits nicely in the “fire suppression has led to fuel buildups” story line that is commonly repeated by agency folks, timber industry, and politicians. The idea that we need to manage our forests due to forest “health” and wildfire issues is also a common starting assumption of most forest collaboratives around the West, thus indirectly also feeding the fear of fire.

And unfortunately conservation organizations have not invested enough time and energy in countering the misinformation and educating the public about what constitutes a healthy forest ecosystem (hint: a healthy forest ecosystem has lots of bugs, disease and fire) and why common prescriptions like thinning are unlikely to preclude large fires.


Most of the proposed wilderness around the West, for better or worse, are the “rocks and ice” lands that were not suitable for forest exploitation. These forests are found in steeper terrain and often are moister and lie at higher elevation areas. They are dominated by spruce, lodgepole pine, aspen, various fir species, in some places larch, hemlock, and other species. The common denominator of all of these forests is their typically long fire intervals, often in the hundreds of years between major blazes

In between these periodic blazes, the forests are accumulating snags and down wood which foresters in particular due to their bias towards wood production try to portray as “unhealthy” characteristics.

However, the ecological perspective is to see these dead trees as important components of a healthy forest ecosystem and critical wildlife habitat. Bark beetles, disease (like root rots), mistletoe, as well as large stand replacement blazes are all a normal part of a healthy forest. Periodic mortality from these factors is actually critical to maintaining the forest ecosystem. They are not indications of “unhealthy” forests, rather the prevailing view is what is unhealthy.

When they do burn the fires tend to have mixed to high severity where-by a substantial percentage of trees are killed. (Though it is important to note that in nearly all of the large fires in the West, the bulk of the area in the fire perimeter does not burn at high severity).


Notwithstanding the fact that trying to preclude large fires leads to degraded forest ecosystems, due to the long rotation between fires that are the normal situation in these forest types, and that climate/weather is the driving force in fires, the assumption that reducing fuels will preclude such fires is flawed.

There are three major points to consider.

First, the science demonstrating that fuel reductions are effective at alternating fire spread and behavior in high elevation forests is ambiguous at best. There are plenty of examples around the West where large fires have burned through previously logged forests, even clearcuts. The reason has to do with the weather variables that create large fires, which includes extended drought, low humidity, high temperatures and high winds. In particular, the high winds blow burning embers over, thorough, and around any fuel reductions, making them ineffective.

Second, thinning effectiveness is quickly negated by rapid regrowth of vegetation and trees. Thinning can also open the forest to greater wind and solar penetration that dry fuels.

Third, due to the long intervals between fires and the unpredictable nature of fire ignition, the chance that any blaze will actually encounter a fuel reduction project is extremely small.

Most review articles that have looked at fuel reduction effectiveness have concluded that under severe fire weather conditions, fuel reductions do not work.

For these reasons it is questionable whether widespread thinning is a wise strategy from an economic and ecological perspective.

The only way to protect homes and communities is to reduce the flammability of the home site or what is called the home ignition zone. That is the key to making citizens safe from wildfire.


What is needed is a major education effort on the part of conservation organizations countering the starting assumptions driving resistant to the designation of wilderness areas. Unless conservation organizations repeatedly counter the assumption there are “unhealthy forests” that “need” restoration, and that thinning/logging cannot prevent large fires, we will likely find more and more opposition to wilderness proposals.

In essence fighting this misinformation is a critical part of any wilderness advocacy effort.

We need to inform the public that long intervals between fires in most ecosystems is the standard fire frequency, thus fuel built up as well as the resulting mixed to high severity fires are the “norm.” We need to question whether fuel reductions (with the exception of in the immediate area around homes and communities) are an effective strategy for ensuring citizen safety or even to prevent large blazes. Finally we must always assert that bark beetles, mistletoe, wildfire, and other ecological processes are what maintains healthy forest ecosystems.



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  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    There is hardly any office holder class more stupid and insular than rural county commissioners, except maybe certain state legislators.

  2. Matthew Koehler Avatar
    Matthew Koehler

    Another great piece George.

    RE: “Unfortunately conservation organizations have not invested enough time and energy in countering the misinformation and educating the public about what constitutes a healthy forest ecosystem (hint: a healthy forest ecosystem has lots of bugs, disease and fire) and why common prescriptions like thinning are unlikely to preclude large fires.)”

    It’s worth remembering that many conservation organization have invested lots of time, energy and effort in educating the public about all of this, and have done so for a few decades now.

    One of the big problems is that a handful of ‘collaborating’ conservation organizations have run interference and have essentially either trumpeted timber industry talking points or promoted wildfire hysteria in an effort to promote their Quid Pro Quo Wilderness and Logging bills.

    Multi-million groups like the Montana Wilderness Association have abandoned any public education efforts tied to forest ecology or wildfires since it doesn’t sit well with their timber industry ‘partners’ or the politicians they hope to court.

    Of course, George and others know this all too well. Thanks again!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      The Montana Wilderness Association has really turned out to be an awful group. I remember how in 1980 I was extremely pleased to join them.

      Sad . . . and infuriating!

      1. wag Avatar

        I was active in MWA when I lived in Dillon in the late 70s and early 80s, but dropped out for a variety of personal reasons, none of which ad to do with MWA. I agree with Ralph that it was a good outfit then.

        What happened to it ? How was it compromised ?
        Very discouraging !

  3. Jim Bouldin Avatar

    I see a lot of unsupported and biased or misleading assertions here, and some just plain wrong statements, and little else. I don’t think you understand the nature of the variation in historical fire regimes, nor the extreme effects of 100-150 years of fire reduction and fuel buildup. Most of the west is not even-aged lodgepole pine and very much of it burned at a high temporal frequency at low intensity.

    Fighting propaganda with opposing propaganda is a losing proposition in the end.

  4. Angela Avatar

    I am constantly telling people that one of the most important habitat elements in forests are those associated with dead, decaying, and downed wood. It is largely gone from forests where there are roads facilitating “management.” Wind and bark beetles may also cause areas of blowdown that are targeted for timber extraction. A forest without downed wood is absent a lot of species that otherwise would be there, especially species that depend on the moisture retained by large downed wood through our dry summers, but also as cover for species used as prey by other species–the entire food web! It is so hard to fight conservation battles when greed and profit energize the other side. We do have a precedent in salmonid ecology and conservation–it used to be believed that wood in streams blocked salmon migrations as well as “navigation,” and entire watersheds were cleared of instream wood over decades, with the result that coho salmon disappeared from many watersheds. Other streams were used by early loggers as channels to transport logs and were scoured of any instream wood jams in the process. But now “everyone” knows that healthy functioning streams and salmon require downed wood, as well as riparian buffers that can provide it into the future. We are putting old-growth trees back into streams at huge expense. However, restoring stream health is tied to restoring salmon populations, which are of high economic and public interest in themselves, so there is that. Can we appeal to chipmunk lovers?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner