“Thinning” project on the Wallowa Whitman NF in Oregon. The removal of trees by chainsaw medicine eliminates evolutionary agents that would otherwise naturally “thin” the forest. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Forest Service and Forestry School researchers (funded by the Forest Service) continue to promote the idea that our forests are “unhealthy.” It is an example of the “Father Knows Best” philosophy that the agency and its researchers understand how to mend the forest. And, of course, it also assumes that the forest needs repairing.

Feller buncher cutting trees which the Forest Service asserts “improves forest resilency” while it ignores all the negatives of logging including spread of weeds, loss of biomass, loss of store carbon, disturbance to wildlife, and loss of genetic diversity, and other impacts. Photo George Wuerthner

The problem with the Forest Service’s current love affair with chainsaw medicine is that it assumes that anything that kills a tree (except a chainsaw) is undesirable.

The agency and its lackeys are like the snake oil salesman of old, promising that their magic elixir (logging) can cure whatever ails the forest, whether it is sick or not.

This Google photo shows the clearcuts that failed to stop the Holiday Farm Fire along the McKenzie River in Oregon  that burned under extreme fire weather with 50 mph or greater winds. The second photo is the same area showing the clearcuts in the background–all of which burned. If a massive deforestation such as this did not stop the wildfire spread, how can anyone believe that thinning will achieve positive results. 

We are told that chainsaw medicine treatments aim to reduce large, high-severity wildfires and enable trees to survive insects, drought, and disease.

The problem is that the above are the evolutionary factors that have maintained “healthy” forest communities for millennia. In a sense, these evolutionary agents select which trees are best adapted to current conditions (not some past historical situation that no longer exists).

Natural evolutionary agents like insects, disease, wildfire and drought are as the wolf to the deer or elk. They  naturally thin the forest and create resielency. Photo George Wuerthner 

To quote the poet, Robinson Jeffers, “What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine. The fleet limbs of the antelope?”

It is the same for our forests—wildfire, drought, insects, and disease are whittling the woodlands to withstand present and future challenges just as wolves select the least fit elk or deer for their prey, improving the species’ overall genetic health.
However, the Forest Service and OSU researchers have no idea which trees may have a genetic or physical trait that allows them to survive things like drought, wildfire, insects, and disease.

They are, in effect, with their chainsaw medicine interfering with evolution. That is a dangerous game to play.

Many genetic studies have shown that rare genetic alleles provide resilience to any population—including forests. Only one in a hundred or more individuals may possess these genetic features, and yet by removing a significant amount of the trees, the agency is degrading the forest’s resilience.

The snags that remain after a high severity fire creates habitat for numerous species and new ecological opportunities. Logging is no subsitute for natural evolutionary agents like wildfire. Photo George Wuerthner 

A second problem with the current mantra to log our way to forest health is that large, high-severity wildfires provide the habitat for numerous other species. Some biologists estimate that at least half of all wildlife depend on the snags that result from large blazes for their homes. The snags that fall into streams supply the bulk of the habitat for fish. The snags and downwood that remain after a wildfire, drought, insect, or disease outbreak store carbon for centuries.

In short, the Forest Service cannot see the forest ecosystem through the trees due to its Industrial Forestry bias. The focus on individual trees fails to see the long-term consequences of its chainsaw medicine program.

Given the climate changes we are experiencing, the way to increase resilience in our forests is to allow evolution to operate. Our forest communities will change and adapt to the current climate, and part of this adaptation may be the loss of some trees, but in the end, our forest communities will be stronger.

Here’s an example of a home that is vulnerable to wildfire. Home hardening includes removal of debris from roof and gutters (like the pine needles in this photo), screening vents, removal of flammable materials adjacent to exterior walls, and install non-flammable roofing material. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the meantime, the best way to protect communities is home hardening, not chainsaw medicine.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

4 Responses to Logging Creates “Unhealthy” Forests With Less Resilence

  1. lou says:

    Very convincing. I just got an email from a national forest where this exact thing is proposed. Whenever logging is suggested by the Forest Service in relation to climate change, I smell a rat. And an ignorant rat at that.

    On another subject, I read two pieces in print in two different places: one excellent about native knowledge of resource management by George, and then one by a native american who was allegedly responding to it. And answered none of his points, was just another white man bash. I have grown tired of the conservation organizations and NPS offices and parks who have swallowed this whole and are giving rights to people who have no better qualifications than the average person, and certainly none that culturally can stop climate changing events.

    If you want to see how some native groups are wanting it both ways, just look at the oil and gas leases by Alaska native corporations and the Navajo objection to a large industry exclusion area to protect Chaco. It will prevent them from having more oil and gas wells there! Then there are the native supporters of the Ambler Road. They will sell out the environment just like the white guys.

    I was astonished to read the comments by native workers at a new nationally protected area with native ruins. These young guys hired there to protect them said their culture told them when old things are no longer useful, you let them go. And he was referring to those in the park…what their future should be!

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      You have to differentiate between TRADITIONAL Natives and “progressive” Natives. Only the traditional ones have anything to add regarding environmental concerns. The so-called “progressive” Natives are just like everyone else in society, in a society that is very anti-natural environment.

      Also understand that tribal governments were set up by the colonizers, not the Natives, and don’t represent the traditional Natives. Many if not most traditional Natives don’t even participate in tribal elections or in anything else to do with these colonizer governments.

      Giving privileges to or discriminating against people because of their genes or ancestry are just different types of racism. It’s where one is AT, not where one is from, that matters. Genetically I’m 100% white, but inside I’m far more Native than the “progressives” when it comes to conservation & wildlife issues, just like inside I’m far more Black than Clarence Thomas, for example.

  2. Mike Higgins says:

    Amen, George! Since I’ve been beating this drum for the past 40+ years – with very little lasting effect – where and how is the most effective venue/method to turn this massive ship so the log-it-no-matter-what-the-long-term-consequences are replaced by a holistic approach in which the highest priority is the long-term sustainability of our forests?

  3. Jeff Hoffman says:

    I’m so beyond sick of the selfish, self-centered, and self-entitled attitude of humans that they can just live wherever they want, and destroy ecosystems & habitats in order to do so. If you’re that scared of forest fires, don’t live in a forest or close enough to one that you’re in danger! Period, end of discussion.

    STOP KILLING TREES!!!

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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