Yosemite National Park, California. Photo George Wuerthner 

The New York Times recently published an article titled At Yosemite, A Preservation Plan That Calls For Chainsaws. The idea that we need to log the forest to create healthy forests in a national park is a major threat to the management policies of the National Park Service which generally promotes natural ecological and evolutionary processes.

Logging in Yosemite National Park is justified by flawed assumptions of historic forest conditions. Photo George Wuerthner 

The article states without qualification, “many experts say there is a consensus among scientists and political leaders on the need to thin and burn forests more proactively.”

The article suggests that humans always managed the landscapes in Yosemite and elsewhere. And that there is consensus that Indian burning kept the forests open. This view has been challenged but is not acknowledged in the NYT piece.

Fire mosaic in a burn within Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

Never mind that several scientific studies in Yosemite concluded that pre-European burning was primarily localized and had little influence on the forests.

For instance, a recent 2019 study in Yosemite concluded what is now Yosemite National Park, where historically, large Indigenous communities resided, was primarily influenced by climate, not human ignitions.

The study authors conclude: “We analyzed charcoal preserved in lake sediments from Yosemite National Park and spanning the last 1400 years to reconstruct local and regional area burned. Warm and dry climates promoted burning at both local and regional scales…

The regional area burned peaked during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and declined during the last millennium, as the climate became cooler and wetter and Native American burning declined.

Our record indicates that (1) climate changes influenced burning at all spatial scales, (2) Native American influences appear to have been limited to local scales, but (3) high Miwok populations resulted in fire even during periods of climate conditions unfavorable to fires. However, at the regional scale (< 150 km from the lake), fire was generally controlled by the top-down influence of climate.”

Pacific dogwood in bloom. Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

Numerous studies have looked at Indian burning and its influence on fire regimes. Most work done by fire ecologists focusing on large landscape fires does not find any additive effect from Indigenous burning. Instead, climate/weather controls periods of significant wildfire activity (Baker W.L. 2002 Indians and fire in the U.S. Rocky Mountains: the wilderness hypothesis renewed. In Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape, ed. T.R. Vale. pp. 41–76. Covelo, CA: Island Press. https://terkko.helsinki.fi/booknavigator/fire-native-peoples-and-the-natural-landscape)

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common premise of journalists who are not trained in ecology nor aware that there is an ongoing scientific debate about how essential fuels are in the creation of large fires and how effective thinning and burning fuel reductions may be.

Giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

These issues are central to the issue of national park management. Nothing is more at cross purposes with the values of national parks than manipulating the landscape to stop natural evolutionary processes. And indeed, that is precisely what logging Yosemite’s forests will do.

The idea that forests had to be less dense historically is based on fire scars. In fire scar studies, scientists wander through the forest looking for previously burnt trees. Often, the tree will heal after being burned, and that burn is recorded in tree rings as a scar. Scientists believe they can calculate past fire history by counting the fire-free intervals between scars.

Black oak in Yosemite Valley below Half Dome. Photo George Wuerthner 

However, there are many methodological problems with fire scar accuracy, which tend to shorten the interval between fires. In reality, the natural fire intervals in many areas may be far longer than commonly assumed, and thus the assumption that frequent fires kept forests less dense and more open could be inaccurate.

The article repeats the idea that fire suppression has created “unnaturally” dense forests. This premise is challenged by some researchers who suggest that Sierra Forests were always a mosaic of dense and open forests. However, this is not mentioned at all.

In an attempt to panic readers, the article notes that “more than 140 million trees killed” in California Sierra Nevada by drought and plagues of beetles over the past decade — 2.4 million of them in Yosemite alone.  The article suggests that “forestry experts describe the state’s forests as wounded and extremely vulnerable.”

So let me get this straight. The Sierra Nevada forests, according to the advocates of logging/thinning, are too dense. Still, they lament that natural evolutionary selection by drought and insects, which has thinned the forest, has “wounded” the forest ecosystem.

Red fir forest, Yosemite NP. Photo George Wuerthner

A further problem with thinning to “restore” forests is that a logger cutting trees indiscriminately with a chain saw may be removing the trees most resilient to drought, insects, and other sources of mortality.

There are genetic differences among trees not visible by walking through a forest. For instance, some trees can expel bark beetles, and others are better able to cope with drought. Allowing natural processes to determine which trees are “winners” or “losers” is how you build resiliency into the forest ecosystem. Logging degrades the forest and may make the forest more vulnerable to future drought and insects.

Even the number of 140 million trees dead, which sounds like a huge number, lacks context. The Sierra Nevada forests cover 30 million or more acres. A typical lightly stocked forest stand will have 60-100 mature trees. So divide 140 million into 30 million means maybe 4-5 trees an acre, on average, have died, leaving behind dozens of other trees.

Of course, those alarmists who advocate for intervention will say the mortality is not evenly distributed, but that is irrelevant.

What we are seeing is the vegetation adapting to the new climate regime.

Yosemite has been experimenting with prescribe burning for decades and has been a leader in promoting the natural role of wildfire in forest ecosystems.  Photo George Wuerthner 

Garrett Dickman, a forest ecologist at the park, is leading an effort to “restore” the area to what it looked like more than a century ago when he asserts native burning practices sculpted it. However, this ignores that the climate that created the “historic” Yosemite Forests no longer exists. The forests people see in Yosemite were primarily established during the Little Ice Age when the climate was moister and cooler.

Today’s climate resembles the Medieval Warm Spell of 800-1300 AD. During this hot, dry period, there were massive forest fires all along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The study author Thomas Swetnam concluded: “This is one line of evidence that it was very fiery on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and there’s a very strong relationship between drought and fire.”

It is also worth mentioning that the Sierra Nevada forests evolved over millions of years without any human influence, so the assumption that they require human manipulation to be “healthy” is another example of human hubris.

Giant sequoia in Maripose Grove, Yosemite NP. Photo George Wuerthner 

The giant sequoia groves now gracing the western slope of the Sierra Nevada likely got their start after high severity blazes that occurred during the Medieval Warm Spell. Sequoia cones open during heat, and most regeneration of the trees appears in the aftermath of a high severity fire.

Low severity fire does not sufficiently support sequoia regeneration, which is more evidence that Indian burning, typically characterized as “low severity,” could not have created the historic sequoia forest stands in Yosemite. Rather periodic high severity burns, promoted by severe drought, are the primary ecological agent for sequoia regeneration.

Dr. Chad Hanson stands in a clearcut on national forest lands which was “salvage logged” in the aftermath of the Rim Fire which burned both on national forest and Yosemite NP lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

The NYT article does give a small amount of column space to Dr. Chad Hanson, who opposes the Yosemite logging proposals. His and other scientist’s research find that a heavily thinned forest is more vulnerable to fire, not less, because the cooling shade of the canopy is reduced, as is its effect as a windbreak. Many studies show that under extreme fire, weather, temperature, and wind are significant drivers of wildfire. Thinning increases the influence of temperature and wind on vegetation and wildfire spread.

We are in the worse drought in over a thousand years. We are seeing record high temperatures. Average wind speeds are increasing. These factors are responsible for the increase in wildfire spread and severity. For instance, for every 1-degree rise in temperature, fire risk is increased by up to 25%. Wind impact is also exponential, with high winds responsible for every large fire across the West.

The NYT did a disserve to the understanding of wildfire influences and is helping to promote the unnatural modification of Yosemite’s forests.  Promoting logging/thinning in national parks under the presumed assumption that one is “saving” them is yet another example of human hubris and will result in the domestication of our wildlands.

 
About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

10 Responses to NYT Promotes Logging in Yosemite NP

  1. lou says:

    I hope you and others commented on that NYT article online. We can’t keep talking to ourselves and letting one sided articles get a big audience.

    And if the Supt and regional director do not hear from other voices, then Dickman will be unopposed and let loose on the park.

    • Ida Lupine says:

      Yes, totally agree. That’s one of the ways to combat this misguided thinking.

      I can’t believe it.

  2. Lisa G LeBlanc says:

    ‘Evolution’ of a forest community seems to be anathema to public lands agencies that have other, more important concerns.
    In the Nevada deserts, pinyon pines & juniper are evolving among their sagebrush companions; the crawl down the desert hills has been going on considerably longer than the pioneer’s presence here yet BLM insists on calling it ‘encroachment’- perhaps in an effort to vilify trees daring to grow in an environment which should be destroyed & terraformed into grasslands (for grazing, of course).
    I’ve seen the ancient burn scars on the Big Trees of Calaveras & the Sequoia of the Avenue of the Giants – fires that occurred centuries past. If anything could survive & thrive after a wildfire, it’s them.
    I have no solutions to offer. I just find the subject of murdering old trees for profit (under the guise of environmental concern), particularly by those who DON’T live among them, reprehensible.

  3. Mike Higgins says:

    Thanks, George, for analyzing – then explaining in laymans’ terms – the issue of logging as a way to reduce the effects of wildfire on mature/ancient forests. As one who has been engaged with the various agencies (for over 35 years) re the misguided policies for protecting our forests from the ravages of human influences, I’m always encouraged by your well-thought-out responses, especially when they address uninformed and extremely harmful “solutions”.

    Mike Higgins
    Halfway, OR

    • Makuye says:

      Then you will be encouraged by my puerile response below, as I recommend chainsawing the authors of the article and videoing it.
      Lived over the hill and knew Yosemite top to bottom, feeling the privilege and beauty of life.

      There is no place for New York, or “we had to kill the world to save it” humans.
      I really am over the excesses of the human population.

      • Maggie Frazier says:

        I completely agree regarding “killing the world to save it” attitude. BUT as someone who lives in NYS – remember not everyone in a particular area is in agreement. People who live in cities really cant have the same understanding of nature & wildlife that those who live in the country – even tho “my country” is not as huge & wonderful as the Western states. As long as I can manage to stay on my little 4 acres with the wildlife that lives around me – my life will be darn near perfect.

  4. Makuye says:

    New York TImes also promoted Ukraine surrender. New York Times is a known right wing newspaper, and should be ignored completely.
    Since NP mandate is to allow natural processes to occur without human interference – barring the failure to aggressively prosecute wolf and bison killers, whether of necessarily seasonally migrating Yellowstone fauna or of the Yukon Charlie killing ground, ,all there is left to say is “Monkeypox onya, and your entire staff and publishhers & investors, NYT.”

  5. Chris Zinda says:

    Well, eastern elites always saw Yosemite and the Valley as Central Park. After all, Olmstead designed both.

    Lived and worked in Yose for over a decade. The RM staff has believed in chainsaw/biomass medicine for decades – accelerated after the Foresta fire, Joe Meyer leading the charge.

    • Maggie Frazier says:

      Sorry Chris – but the old “Eastern elites” title really stings. Not all of us on the East coast belong – you know?? Many care about nature & wildlife – wherever it exists – even here.

    • lou says:

      Olmstead Report was foundational for the national park system, which at the time did not exist. This was a good thing considering the state of the few existing parks. Elite is a negative word in this context it seems to me.

      But I agree that the solutions being proposed for climate changed ecosystems is misguided in too many working professionals in the field. This is heartbreaking to see old sequoias and redwoods killed by fire that in the end is human caused. Old solutions for a new and destructive climate.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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