Removing 21-inch Protection For Large Trees Isn’t Restoration

Large old growth grand fir like this pictured could be cut if the 21-inch rule is discarded. Photo by George Wuerthner

Old-growth fir trees in the Lookout Mountain Proposed Wilderness, Ochoco National Forest, Photo by George Wuerthner

The Forest Service is proposing to remove the prohibition against logging trees larger than 21 inches that grow in national forests on the eastside of the Cascades in Oregon. The probation was put into place when ecological studies demonstrated the critical importance of large-diameter old-growth trees to overall forest ecosystem function.

The Forest Service argues that it needs the flexibility to cut larger fir and other tree species competing with ponderosa pine to “restore” forest health. The agency suggests thinning the forests will enhance the resilience of the forest against the “ravages” of wildfire, bark beetles, and other sources of tree mortality.

The so-called need for “restoration” to what ails the forest by chainsaws medicine reflects the agency’s Industrial Forestry Paradigm. By happy coincidence, such “restoration” happens to provide wood fiber to the timber industry, and typically at a loss to taxpayers.

The Forest Service argues that historically the forests in eastern Oregon were shaped by frequent low severity fires that did not kill trees but produced open park-like stands. Relying on limited fire scar studies (which some ecologists assert have methodological problems) which are then extrapolated to the entire eastside forests, the agency claims the denser stands, in particular, grand fir stands we find today in some places, are abnormal and a consequence of fire suppression.

But the idea that fir trees were rare, and forests were open and park-like is disputed by other researchers. In a study that looked at dry conifer forests including in the Blue Mountains, the researchers concluded that “reconstructed tree density shows that dry forests commonly thought to have been open and park-like instead had higher historical mean tree densities and large areas of dense trees.

Second, shade-tolerant firs, considered historically uncommon in dry forests were common in some landscapes.”  They go on to conclude: “the actual condition of the forest on the ground found that only 23% of the Blue Mountains had open forests and that large expanses of high density stands occurred.”

This is nearly the opposite condition of the Forest Service’s assertions and this undercuts the Forest Service’s justification for eliminating the 21-inch rule. Of course, the agency ignores research that does not support its inherent Industrial Forestry bias.

One might assume that green and fast-growing trees are more desirable than dead or slow-growing trees. What the agency doesn’t acknowledge due to its inherent Industrial Forestry bias is that healthy forest ecosystems require significant sources of tree mortality. The healthy forest that the Forest Service promotes is a degraded forest ecosystem.

Dead trees provide food and shelter to many plants and animals. By some estimates, more species depend on dead trees than live trees. These species live in mortal fear of “green” forests, which is the ultimate expression of the Industrial Forestry Paradigm.

Indeed, the second-highest biodiversity in forest ecosystems occurs after high severity wildfires kill most of all living trees.

However, due to the Industrial Forestry worldview bias of foresters and the Forest Service, that views any source of tree mortality as antithetical to forest “health.” Forest “health” is not the same as forest ecosystem health.

Logging does not “restore” forest ecosystems. It removes the snags and down wood that is critical wildlife habitat for many species of animals and plants. It removes carbon that is stored in those trees. It compacts soils and spread weeds. Logging roads fragment forest habitat and provide access for ORVs, hunters, and just more human disturbance for wildlife.

Worse for our forest ecosystems, thinning/logging can reduce the genetic diversity of our forest, eliminating, rather than enhancing, forest resilience. We know that some individual trees possess genetic traits that allow them to endure drought or resist bark beetles, and even some ability to survive some wildfires.

If foresters were concerned about forest ecosystem health, not just whether trees remained green until they were cut for lumber, they would welcome the wildfires, bark beetles, drought, and all the other sources of mortality that maintain healthy functioning forest ecosystems.

Yet the Forest Service continuously justifies timber cutting to “restore” forest health and resilience to the forest by trying to limit or exclude the very ecological processes like high severity wildfire, bark beetles, mistletoe, and other agents that sustain healthy forest ecosystems.

Allowing natural processes to thin the forest or select which trees have the best attributes to survive is how you preserve healthy forest ecosystems. Chainsaw medicine, the favored response of the timber industry for restoration, is not the solution; it is the problem.


  1. rastadoggie Avatar

    Here’s what went down in CO. This was after worthless “public participation” (scoping, heart felt letters, passionate meetings)that were subsequently ignored. They’re poised to gut what’s left of NEPA, in favor of “Task Orders” not requiring any input from those pesky public land owners. Note the FS pathetic response. Thanks to the artists who posted this. In memory of those awesome trees.


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