Forest myths drives bad legislation
The timber industry and its advocates continue to promote a number of myths designed to garner public support for increased logging. These myths are being repeated by many in Congress, including all western Republicans and some western Democrats who are advocating new legislation that would weaken environmental protections, reduce public review of the Forest Service timber sales (called variously vegetation management, restoration, fuels reduction) and significantly increase money-losing logging on public lands.
Myth: Restoration of our forests is needed to recreate historic conditions
Truth: There is growing debate about whether most forest ecosystems need any restoration. First nearly all higher elevation mixed conifer and subalpine forests grew in dense stands that tended to burn at medium to long intervals (often at intervals of hundreds of years) with large patches of mixed to high severity mortality so they are well within historic conditions.
Low elevation ponderosa pine forests were considered different from the moister, higher elevation forests and characterized as open and park-like, burned by frequent low severity surface fires. However, new science is questioning this long held perspective, demonstrating that many pine stands historically experienced occasional high severity stand replacement blazes. As result, even our low elevation pine forests may not be significantly outside of their historic condition.
For instance, one recent review paper concluded: “whereas current attempts to ‘‘restore’’ forests to open, low-severity fire conditions may not align with historical reference conditions in most ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America.”
Myth: Logging reduces large wildfires.
Truth: Large wildfires burn under extreme weather conditions. Under extreme weather, wildfires burn through, over and around clearcuts, thinned forests, and areas that have been prescribed burned. Such fires are “controlled” when the weather changes to more moderate conditions.
Logging may even increase fire spread and fire severity.
The conclusion of the Sierra Nevada report to Congress had this to say: “Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity”
“Logged areas generally showed a strong association with increased rate of spread and flame length, thereby suggesting that tree harvesting could affect the potential fire behavior within landscapes. In general, rate of spread and flame length were positively correlated with the proportion of area logged in the sample watersheds.”
Another study done by fire ecologists at the Missoula Fire Lab concluded:” Even extensive fuel treatments may not reduce the amount of area burned over the long-term and furthermore, reduction of area burned may actually be an undesirable outcome.”
They go on to conclude: “Treating fuels to reduce fire occurrence, fire size, or amount of
burned area is ultimately both futile and counter-productive.”
A new study soon to be published found that reviewed 1500 wildfires between 1984 and 2014 found that actively managed forests had the highest level of fire severity. While those forests in protected areas burned, on average, had the lowest level of fire severity. In other words, the best way to reduce severe fires is to protect the land as wilderness, not “manage” it.
Myth; Thinning national forest lands will protect homes.
Truth: One only needs to reduce the flammability within 100 feet of homes to protect them. Reducing fuels more than 100 feet beyond the home confers no additional protection. As one study concluded: “It may not be necessary or effective to treat fuels in adjacent areas in order to suppress fires before they reach homes; rather, it is the treatment of the fuels immediately proximate to the residences, and the degree to which the residential structures themselves can ignite that determine if the residences are vulnerable.”
Myth: Beetle outbreaks increases the chances of wildfire.
Truth: Any number of research studies has documented that beetle outbreaks has little effect or even reduces the chance of large wildfire for a period of years. Dead trees do not burn as well as live trees with flammable resins. For example, one study concluded “we found no detectable increase in the occurrence of high-severity fires following MPB outbreaks. Dry conditions, rather than changes in fuels associated with outbreak, appear to be most limiting to the occurrence of severe fires in these forests”
Myth: Large wildfires have increased.
Truth: If you start with the middle of last century when the climate was cooler and moister—a climatic condition that reduces fire spread—one might conclude there are more large fires, but if your starting point is earlier in the century or even over the last thousand years, there is no increase in large fires. Any number of studies have concluded we have a deficit of large fires, and as a result of the snag forest and dead wood habitat that such fires creates. For instance, a 2016 study concluded that “area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement.”
Myth: Dead trees are a sign of a forest health problem.
Truth: Dead trees are critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Some 250 scientists recently sent a letter to Congress affirming “snag forest habitat” are “ecological treasures comparable to old growth forests. Many species depend on dead trees. Some 45% of birds rely on dead trees for food, nesting/cavities and roosting. Mammals from mice to bears use dead trees for hiding cover or feeding sites. When dead trees fall into creeks, they provide habitat for aquatic insects to fish.
Unfortunately, as result of logging and other forest management, we have a deficit of dead trees in our forest ecosystems. Episodic input of dead woods results from wildfire, beetles, and disease. These natural processes help maintain ecosystem health.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
2 Responses to Forest myths drives bad legislation
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It seems that myths drive quite a bit of bad legislature into Congress,from the forests right down to the animals,such wolves. Behind every diseased, highly flammable,bug ridden forests,lurks one of those Canadian wolves,ready to pounce on every little child or dog that strays by:and lets not forget those defenseless forest creatures such as those unattended cows and sheep that mingle with the deer and elk. Thank you, Mr.Wuerthner, nice article and I enjoyed reading it.
I am involved in a challenge to the state of N.H. to return a large property, Pisgah State Park, to it’s original purpose, a state park with it’s wilderness character being it’s defining value. One of the statements made back in the ’80’s in an attempt to define the property was,”a place where nature, not the hand of man is in evidence.” SadlY, since 2008, the state has been doing commercial timber harvesting, “helping to create a healthier forest with a greater diversity of wildlife.” Or so they tell the public…The property was funded in part with Land and Water Conservation Funds, specifically for the purpose of creating a state park in the south west corner of the state. We are being told Pisgah was never zoned as a park but is a state reservation where forestry is allowed. There are now signs at some of the trail heads that inform you, “You Are Now Enterning a Working Forest”. We believe the state is abusing the original agreement and intent for the property. It is also my understanding that there have been many such abuses of LWCF properties around the country. Are there others out there who are fighting similar battles with LWCF properties? I would also greatly appreciate any voices of support for preserving a forest wilderness. The timber industry is drowning everybody else out. We need people in the field of study to speak out in their support. Any thoughts, ideas would be greatly appreciated.
You can learn more about us and our cause at Pisgahdefenders.org