Forest Health Myths

We often hear that our forests are “unhealthy” and among the indicators of forest ill-health are large acreages burning in wildfires. However, if you look back a few centuries or more, you find that we have a fire deficit.

Many paleoclimate studies document major wildfires long before there was “fire suppression”.

Indeed, one study by Martin and Stephens estimated that in pre-contact days, between 5.5-19 million acres burned annually in California alone. That is more acreage than typically burns in the entire United States, except for particularly dry years.

Or how about the 1910 Big Burn that charred 3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana, long before there was any effective firefighting ability.

The very time when many suggest we had “successful” fire suppression is also a period between the late 1930s and 1980 when the climate was cooler and moister. What happens when you have cooler, moister conditions? Well you have fewer ignitions and less fire spread


Basically, when the climate is cool and moist, Nature puts out fires and we take credit for the deed. When the climate is dry, hot, and windy, Nature defeats our best efforts to control blazes.

Any fire scientist will tell you that major factors in large fires include major drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. These factors are driving large wildfires, not fuels.

The same factors are also responsible for the beetle kill and other natural agents of change.

Furthermore, dead trees are less flammable than live trees. Most of the acreage burned annually occurs in green forests which have an abundance of fine burnable materials like needles, cones, grass and shrubs. The bole of trees does not readily burn which is why you have snags left after a fire. So, a forest of dead snags is less combustible than a green, drought-stressed forest.

Another misleading idea conveyed by proponents of logging is that fire suppression has affected all forest stands. To degree that fire suppression has played any role in expanding fire acreage burned, it only applies to the lowest, driest ponderosa pine forests. All other plant communities including lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, even juniper and sagebrush naturally have long intervals between blazes, often running into the hundreds of years. Therefore, even if fire suppression were effective—an increasingly contested assumption—most forest types are well within their historic fire regimes and do not need “restoration.”

Finally, logging the forests does not restore our forest ecosystems. Forest ecosystems depend on episodic and periodic high mortality from wildfire, bugs, drought and other factors. Many plants and animals depend on the dead logs and down wood for their survival and live in mortal fear of “green” forests. A healthy forest ecosystem is one dominated by occasional large high severity fires, major beetle outbreaks and high mortality from occasional severe drought. Assertions to the contrary demonstrate a failure to understand evolution and ecology.



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  1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    A basic understanding of the physical sciences, including evolution and ecology, is all one needs to be able to see that what George says is true. It is a coherent story that fits many basic facts together within the framework of contemporary science. Thank you, George.

  2. Hiker Avatar

    Typical, make something as simple as possible. This is a complex situation. Many Americans believe what they are told. We see reports about how fire is bad and a problem. George is saying that fires were more severe in the distant past, they weren’t as severe for awhile because of the climate, now they are severe again. However, he also says that fire management is making mistakes, they are making decisions that are not backed up by current science. They are doing things that damage the ecosystems they are supposed to protect. But, at least they are managing according to Federal guidelines where we all can contribute. Just research how, despite overwhelming comments against it, Wyoming is going to allow the hunting of Grizzly Bears for the first time since they were listed as endangered! Tell me the state of Wyoming is doing a better job with this than the Feds would.

    1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
      Kirk Robinson

      How much ecological damage fire suppression policies of various kinds cause when implemented is one question. But equally important, if not more important, is whether the alleged science offered as a justification for the policy has false premises. For example, a lot of people seem to just assume, for no conscious reason, that a forest stand of dead trees is more susceptible to fire than a stand of mostly living trees. This is an assumption that seems to me to warrant conscious consideration. When I was a boy scout, we always tried to find dry kindling for a fire, because we knew that wet kindling would not ignite. And then perhaps we unconsciously equated dry kindling with dry forest stands, i.e., dead ones. And frankly, I think that is just about all there is to the alleged science supporting the view that beetle killed forests are a fire hazard, so we might as well salvage it. The premise is never so much as questioned, partly because it just seems so obvious (until you think about it as applied to entire forests), and partly, I believe, because it supports a policy that purports to address a problem while at the same time providing some jobs.

  3. Michael A. Lewis Avatar

    It’s always good to read George’s common sense explanations of the myths propounded by the timber industry and Chamber of Commerce park development proponents.

    How in the world did forests survive and thrive before Smokey Bear?

  4. RedTachyon Avatar

    Yesterday NPS released a report on the Glacier NP Sprague fire and Sperry Chalet review with this quote from Sec. Zinke: “Still, the size and scope of the Sprague fire reminds us that aggressive fuels management is necessary to keep Americans safe from wildfires, particularly in the West. We need to continue removing the dead and dying timber from our forests so that we can truly address this problem.” And so the nonsense continues from this Administration.

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