Daines and Gianforte mislead on wildfire and forest health

Senator Daines and Congressman Gianforte recently published an editorial in many Montana newspapers dealing with forest management that was full of misleading and often false statements.


First, Daines and Gianforte repeat the flawed idea that management results in a “healthy forest.”  In fact, active management impoverishes forest ecosystems by removing carbon stored in trees, spreading weeds and sending sedimentation into streams through logging roads, displacing sensitive wildlife, damaging the genetics of forest stand, and removing dead wood which is critical to functioning forest ecosystem.

Second, they repeat the old saw that dead trees will increase fire hazard. Recent studies have refuted that assertion, finding instead that green live trees are far more flammable than dead trees under extreme fire weather conditions. That’s because green trees have fine fuels like needles and cones that contain flammable resins. When they dry out during drought conditions, the green trees burn like they are soaked in gasoline.

Third, Daines and Gianforte suggest that logging/ thinning will protect communities from wildfire. Again, the research shows that thinning/logging typically does not halt wildfires burning under extreme fire weather. And that qualifier is important because all large wildfires including such recent burns as the Rice Ridge blaze by Seeley Lake or the Lodgepole Complex in Central Montana were ignited under “extreme fire weather” characterized by wind-driven blazes.

Furthermore, the Lodgepole Fire burned primarily in rangelands. This is consistent with research that shows that about half of all home losses around the West are due to wildfire are in non-forested landscapes where logging/thinning would have no effect.

But the bigger problem with Daines and Gianforte assertions that thinning will save communities and preclude large fires is that research suggests it does not work.

First, the probability that a fire will encounter a thinned area is rare. Thus, most logging projects have no influence on fires even if they worked.

However, the reality is that under extreme fire weather conditions, thinning and other “treatments” simply fail. For instance, fire researchers at the Missoula Fire Lab concluded: “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.”

Even the Congressional Research Service concluded: “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.”

Another study looking at 1500 wildfires across the West found that high-severity fires were greater in “managed” forests, while protected areas (like wilderness) had a lower percentage of high-severity acres burned, even though they are presumed to have greater biomass (i.e. wood) than managed landscapes..

If we want to protect Montana communities than we need to restrict home construction in the Wildlands Urban Interface and reduce the flammability of all homes. Thinning to the degree it is done, should be focused on the immediate area around homes.



  1. Mary Katherine Ray Avatar
    Mary Katherine Ray

    Do you have links for the studies cited? I’m especially interested in the one that examined the 1500 fires. thank you!

  2. stan sheggeby Avatar
    stan sheggeby

    If we want to protect Montana communities than we need to restrict home construction in the Wildlands Urban Interface and reduce the flammability of all homes.

  3. Patrick Avatar

    As the adage goes, if you keep parroting a lie often enough folks will begin to believe it is true. Well two can play that game, except we will continue to parrot the facts! Keep it up!

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Exactly right! These two hardly seem experts.

  4. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    On a micro level to support George’s contention, spruce budworm in my area of northern Minnesota has ravaged the Balsam Fir stands. So, the chainsaw gets a workout clearing out some areas, and in others, let the dead trees stand for woodpeckers. The dead trees have very few needles compared to healthy balsam. Starting one pile of cut and stacked balsam on fire, near other standing balsam a few years back would have been unthinkable. Granted there still exists over a foot of snow on the ground, with the chainsaw at the ready, once the pile is ignited, little to nothing happens to the dead standing balsam as they have no fuel load. The green needles of healthy trees are like solid gasoline.

  5. Natalie Riehl Avatar
    Natalie Riehl

    I’d like to know what Daines and Gianforte are going to do about temperatures which go into the mid- to high- 90s in June and continue for four or five months, accompanied by virtually zero rainfall. In Western Montana, real thunderstorms seem to be phenomena of the past.


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