House Natural Resources and Ag Sec. promote more logging to reduce wildfires

The House Subcommittee on Natural Resources chaired by Tom McClintock (R) of California is advocating more active management of our national forests based on the presumption that logging/thinning will reduce large wildfires.

A clear indication of McClintock’s perspective is found in the title of a recent hearing he chaired called “Oversight Hearing on Burdensome Litigation and Federal Bureaucratic Roadblocks to Manage Our Nation’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appears to hold similar viewpoints as McClintock. He vowed to boost timber harvests by lowering legal or government hurdles for the forest products industry by reducing public oversite.

“We need to get the litigation off their backs as well,” Perdue said at the Montana Ag Summit in Great Falls, Montana.

Neither McClintock or Perdue are scientists, so it’s not surprising that they don’t understand forest ecology, nor what drives large wildfires. But it is not due to fuels. Rather climate and weather drive all large wildfires.

The very fires we seek to control with logging/thinning are driven by extensive drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. In particular, high winds are a major element of all large fires. When you have these conditions with an ignition, you get wildfires you can’t control, regardless of fuels.

That is one reason why California has recently experienced some large wildfires—precisely because it has experienced the most severe drought in historic times, and indeed, some say the worse drought in the last thousand years.

The correlation between drought and large fires is well established in the scientific literature, but it appears that the timber industry and the Forest Service wish to steer the issue away from climate towards fuels.

When there are the “right” conditions for a major fire, you cannot halt or significantly alter the outcome until the climate/weather changes.

Numerous studies have concluded that thinning forests won’t work to reduce large wildfires under extreme fire weather.  For example, a 2005 paper concluded: “fuel treatments cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.

In their another paper Objectives and considerations for wildland fuel treatment in forested ecosystems of the interior western United States, the authors remarked: “Extreme environmental conditions….overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. . . This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning. . .. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.

The researchers went on to say: “The majority of acreage burned by wildfire in the US occurs in a very few wildfires under extreme conditions. Under these extreme conditions suppression efforts are largely ineffective

And the U of California Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project found that “Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity.”(pg.62)

This was collaborated by the Congressional Research Service which found: “From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires. … the data indicate that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”

And just this spring, a new paper “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?” found that logging actually increased fire severity.

After looking at 1500 fires between 2000 and 2014 the authors concluded… We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”

This gets to the heart of the issue. Logging/thinning is not the way to protect communities. FS researcher Jack Cohen has noted, Wildland fuel reduction may be inefficient and ineffective for reducing home losses, for extensive wildland fuel reduction on public lands does not effectively reduce home ignitability on private lands.”

Rather as Cohen has repeatedly said: “…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.”






  1. Bob Spertus Avatar
    Bob Spertus

    Excellent research, George. Now if only the GOP had a modicum of respect for science and understood the concept of incontrovertible facts . . . .

    McClintock’s committee hearing, imaginatively entitled “Oversight Hearing on Burdensome Litigation and Federal Bureaucratic Roadblocks to Manage Our Nation’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests” would affront any judicial official — even a kangaroo.


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George Wuerthner