This “thinning” is a clearcut all but in name. Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

I recently gave a talk on wildfire issues in Baker City, a small town in Eastern Oregon. On my way home, I drove the Elkhorn Scenic By-way, traversing the Wallowa Whitman National Forest (WWNF), and encountered shocking evidence of agency malfeasance. The WWNF is engaging in massive new logging projects suggesting they are “restoring” the forests and reducing large blazes through “fuel reductions” and they are certainly not improving the “scenery” of the landscape.

HOW THE FS MISREPRESENTS WILDFIRE SCIENCE

I have written numerous articles on why such ideas misrepresent science.

Forest malfacience on the Wallowa Whitman NF. This kind of “thinning extended for miles along the Elkhorn Scenic Bi-way. Photo George Wuerthner 

First, climate/weather drive all large wildfires. I know of no exceptions. You will not have large blazes if you don’t have the right climate/weather conditions. The agency claims that fire suppression between the 1940s and 1980s led to increased fuel “loading” and forests that deviated from the historical past. During this period, fires were typically small, burning little of the landscape, and were quickly suppressed. Most went out without any suppression at all.

Photo George Wuerthner 

However, this was a period of cool and moist conditions due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, among other factors. During these years, glaciers were growing in the PNW due to the unusually wet weather. Indeed, Nature did a fine job of limiting fire spread and even ignitions.

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Note the reduction in acreage burned during the wet, cool period between the 1940s and 1980s. 

Then beginning in the late 1980s, these natural climate trends were overridden by climate warming due to human CO2 emissions. We are now at over 400 ppm carbon, and not surprisingly; we are experiencing extensive drought, higher temperatures, lower humidity, and higher average wind speeds, all of which promote extreme fire weather conditions.

Lodgepole pine is one of many tree species characterized by long fire-free intervals. However, when it does burn, it tends to burn at high severity. Yet much of the logging I witness was in lodgepole pine based on the idea that thinning would “restore” the natural condition. Photo George Wuerthner 

A further problem with the WWNF’s simplistic suggestion that the forest has deviated from its historical condition of open park-like forests. However, the majority of tree communities in the forest, including larch, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, Douglas fir, sagebrush, among others, naturally have long fire-free intervals and were seldom open and park-like.. None of these plant communities have “suffered” from the presumed fire suppression. I will come back to this point in a bit.

The idea that all forests were open and park like due to frequent low-severity blazes primarily applied to ponderosa pine seen here,but much of the forest consists of tree species whose normal fire interval is decades to century. Photo George Wuerthner 

Finally, the WWNF suggests logging the forest to “restore” it to the presumed historical condition that existed several hundred years ago. The problem with this goal is that climate ultimately determines which trees grow where and in what abundance, and the climate is no longer the same as 200 years ago when the continent was under the influence of the cooler and moister conditions of the Little Ice Age.

COMPETING SCIENCE

A further problem with the entire WWNF logging program is that the forest stands that they are logging consist of fir, larch, and other species that typically have long fire-free intervals. They were never “open” and “park-like” until the agency got done logging them. Photo George Wuerthner 

The WWNF relies on the work of Oregon State forestry researchers who claim the regional forests historically were characterized by low severity frequent fires that kept fuel loads low and woods open and park-like. By contrast, the WWNF today has more shade-tolerant trees like grand fir and is denser than they suggest the historical conditions were. These more luxuriant forests, it is asserted, are contributing to large wildfires. All of this is based on extrapolation from limited studies of fire scars.

However, there are numerous problems with fire scar studies. Other methods used to reconstruct the historic fire conditions argue that mixed to high severity blazes dominated most western forest communities including the WWNF tree stand composition,

For instance, Government Land Office (GLO) surveyors recorded the actual condition and species composition of the forest they encountered on their surveys. Furthermore, these surveys were done in the 1800s before “fire suppression” or other factors could be used to explain forest composition.

A study by William Baker using Government Land Office (GLO) surveys concluded that eastern Oregon forests were historically denser than presumed by OSU researchers, and low severity blazes only dominated approximately 23% of the landscape. Mixed to high-severity blazes were the norm on much of the region’s forests.

CARBON STORAGE

Even burnt forests store significant amounts of carbon in snags, soil, and down wood. Photo George Wuerthner 

Indeed, intact forest ecosystems play a massive role in carbon storage. Soils stored most of the ecosystem carbon (63 percent), followed by live vegetation (26 percent) and dead organic matter (11 percent).  Even heavily burnt forests maintain most of their carbon for decades to centuries as snags, soil carbon, and down wood. Large trees, in particular, are critical for carbon storage.

WHAT I FOUND

Forest “restoration” WWNF style. Photo George Wuerthner 

The WWNF uses the above misinterpretation of the historical forest conditions to rationalize massive deforestation. In the region between Granite and Sumpter, Oregon, the agency is logging lodgepole pine forests to “restore” the historical situation that never existed.

Lodgepole pine typically has long fire-free intervals, but when it burns, it is often at high severity, where most trees are killed. However, lodgepole pine quickly reseeds after a blaze, constantly creating dense (doghair) stands. This is the natural condition, not some aberration. Yet, the WWNF is “thinning” to such a degree as to create what are clearcuts in all but in name in the effort to “restore” the forest.

DEGRADING THE FOREST

Deforestation on the WWNF. Photo George Wuerthner 

While the WWNF asserts it is “improving” forest health by removing the majority of existing trees from the sites, it is degrading the forest ecosystem.

First and most apparent, removing such a large amount of biomass significantly reduces the carbon storage on the site. Given the need to keep carbon in the forest, such removal is counterproductive for reducing climate warming.

Second, the indiscriminate removal of trees eliminates the very trees which may have genetic resistance to drought, insects, and other usual sources of mortality. Studies have shown that individual trees can vary in their susceptibility to these natural agents.

Logging removes carbon that would otherwise be stored on site. Photo George Wuerthner 

Third, thinning typically puts more fine fuels like small branches, needles, and other materials on the ground. It is fine fuels that sustain and drive fire spread. In addition, thinning opens the forest to greater wind penetration and drying. The wind has been demonstrated to be responsible for most of all large blazes and home loss due to embers that can travel as much as 1-2 miles ahead of the fire front.

Fourth, logging disturbs sensitive wildlife and removes wildlife habitat.

Feller buncher logging the forest. Photo George Wuerthner 

Fifth, wood products production releases a tremendous amount of CO2 emissions. Indeed, 66% of the carbon losses across the West were due to logging, while only 15% was due to wildfire.

Thinning in lodgepole pine forest that naturally grows in dense stands does not ‘restore” the forest ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner 

Sixth, thinning s not effective at stopping and even slowing fires during extreme fire weather conditions. Since all large high-severity blazes only occur during such extreme weather situations where high winds toss embers miles ahead of any fire front, the idea that thinning will preclude large blazes is fallacious. Studies have shown that lands protected from logging, like wilderness and parks tend to have fewer acres burning at high severity compared to areas with “active forest management”.

Thinning puts more fine fuels on the forest floor which contributes to fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner 

Seventh, the likelihood that any fuel reduction will encounter a fire is typically less than 1%. So given the numerous ecological impacts of thinning, and the cost to taxpayers, it simply doesn’t make any rationale sense.

The brush piles will likely be burned in the fall, but in the meantime, they are real source of fuel for blazes. Photo George Wuerthner 

The photos speak for themselves, but the WWNF is embarked on numerous misguided forest degradation and deforestation projects.

I encourage anyone who doubts my interpretation to review these photos and get involved in the WWNF. The WWNF is proposing a massive deforestation project called the Morgan Nesbit Forest Resiliency Project near Joseph, Oregon. Note the euphemism that logging will result in “resiliency,” as if the forest can’t survive without human intervention and “active forest management.”

About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

12 Responses to Wallowa Whitman National Forest Deforestation Projects

  1. anonymous FS employee says:

    Wow – that sure doesn’t look like thinning to me. The piles are troublesome too – I hope they at least make biochar – otherwise the burn pile scars invite invasive plants and may cause heat-related soil damage. I used to work there and guess I will have to ask some questions.

  2. David Johns says:

    “Firth” should be “Fifth”

  3. rastadoggie says:

    This is just another excuse to get out the cut and an injustice to the land and the people who care about it.
    Withdraw your support for the legislators who grabbed this big money for unnecessary and ineffective “restoration”, just another scorched earth exercise, while all other Forest Service duties – like addressing ever growing unsustainable recreation – fall by the wayside. By all means necessary, give them hell.

  4. Monica Siegel says:

    My comment is we are killing the nature and beauty of the mountains and trees we need trees for clean air and us people is true are killing wildlife it’s sickening what the government is allowing to happen. I don’t agree what the government and authorities are doing this need to stop. We al need to fight this situation please for our sake we are polluting the planet killing wildlife.

  5. Harry Statter says:

    George, in the context of wildfire, your articles are predicated on how land managers are interpreting the exposure from wildfire. Wildfire exposure to people, homes, and communities has not been clearly defined, and as a result the proposed solutions are not only insufficient, but clearly damaging. Burning embers cause 90% of structure ignitions during wildfire, and embers can travel up to 24 miles outside a wildfire perimeter. A 24 mile radius can encompass hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses; way too many for firefighters to scale and protect. Additionally, mechanical treatments to plant communities do not remove fire, but rather fire is a part of that mechanically treated geography whether it is forested or covered with grasses and forbs…kind of like oxygen and air. Mechanical treatments are in part intended to adjust fire regimes so that firefighters can occupy those areas, but once again the treatment is predicated on the availability of firefighters to occupy these areas during a wildfire, which we know is not realistic given the ember exposure. In the simplest form of a question, do we really think we can manage nature’s carbon cycle? Or would we be better served to focus our attention on developing and incorporating tools that allow us to live with the natural process of fire? Conceding this folly of control over nature is the first step; the second step is to practically define the values at risk from wildfire (ie people, structures, and communities) and work concentrically outwards from those values at risk to balance colonization with fire. It’s not like we have a choice anyway….

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      And the logical conclusion to what you wrote is that people shouldn’t live in or near these forests unless they’re willing to risk wildfires. It’s beyond disgusting that people move to areas like this, then demand that the government destroy the natural environment to suit them.

      • Harry Statter says:

        Jeff, it is worth noting that 2/3rds of fires are burning in non-forested plant communities. Fire is a central component to all plant communities in the US, and managing fire as a natural process is just as difficult as creating a natural process. To think we are going to somehow “help” restore plant communities by proactively managing them follows a similar illogical path. Learning to live with a natural process is a lot easier than trying to control it.

        • Ida Lupine says:

          Thank you! We do need to learn to live with a lot of natural processes instead of always trying to control them.

          What they’re doing is just another human-centric process. And with a creative name!

          We need our trees more than ever now. And those brush piles, as was mentioned, are what people living near forests and fire-prone areas are advised not to do!

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          I agree with one exception: Where humans have damaged an ecosystem or habitat, then humans need to attempt to restore it to its pre-human condition as much as possible. The Rewilding Institute has done excellent work on this, you should check them out.

  6. Martha S Bibb says:

    These “thinned” forests are very hot and dry. This can’t be good.
    Burning of slash piles pours more fire smoke pollutants into the air, extending the “smoke season” to 11 MONTHS A YEAR! The health cost of this is not even fully studied at this time but we do know for certain that fire smoke is toxic to all breathing things.
    How can we counter the mis-information, ie lies about logging(thinning)and slash burning?

  7. Jeff Hoffman says:

    I generally agree with what George wrote, but it’s undeniable that the U.S. government had unnaturally suppressed wildfires for decades. We need studies to determine whether some forests are unnaturally overgrown because of this suppression, or whether the suppression made no substantial difference as George seems to claim. If the former, then the forests need to be thinned to what the natural level would be. If the latter, then all this about overgrowth due to fire suppression is just more BS from the logging industry and their lackeys in the Deforest Service.

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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."

~ Edward Abbey