Now or Never Logging Video: Timber Industry Propaganda

A previously thinned portion of the area charred by the Dixie Fire, which despite active forest management across much of the burn area, became one of California’s largest blazes. Photo George Wuerthner

The Wilderness Society (TWS), founded to promote wildland preservation, has shifted its mission and focus to promoting logging and other activities that destroy natural ecological processes that drive wildland ecosystems.

A good example is their promotion of a recent YouTube video, “Now or Never,” produced by the Washington Dept of Natural Resources. The video vilifies the high-severity wildfires and promotes logging to reduce such blazes. The participants featured in this video have the best intensions–to save large old growth pine–but in doing so, they ignore the role of high-severity blazes in ecosystem function.

Nowhere in the video do the “experts,” all of whom work for the Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), or forestry schools (all of whom are funded by logging receipts), acknowledge that high severity has a significant ecological role to play in forest ecosystems.

A large old growth ponderosa pine, Shasa Trinity NF, CA.  Photo George Wuerthner

For instance, a representative of the WDNR suggests that wildfire is “contributing to the loss of the big old-growth ponderosa pine.” I can understand why anyone would feel that the death of a sizeable old-growth pine is a “loss” since, in many areas, due to past logging, such giants are now relatively rare in the landscape.

Nevertheless, from an ecological perspective, a tree killed by wildfire is not a “loss.” Snag forests resulting from large, high-severity fires have an exceptional role in ecosystem function.

Ponderosa pine. Photo George Wuerthner 

Wildfire disturbance is a natural event, yet these foresters continuously use value-laden pejorative terms like “loss,” “damage,” and other terms to describe high-severity events.

High-severity blazes are a unique disturbance agent not emulated by other natural processes. It can stimulate succession and create physical habitats like snags and, ultimately, downed wood used by numerous species. A forest of blackened, standing-dead trees supports a unique diversity of living organisms dependent on high-severity disturbance.

The snag forest is a gift to natural ecosystems. Photo George Wuerthner

What these foresters fail to appreciate is the gift of the snag forest. These snag forests create a unique ecological condition and biological legacy seldom emulated by other natural phenomena.

Large, high-severity fires that influence an extensive forest area provide a pathway for rare species in undisturbed forests.

For instance, more than 60 bird species, including woodpeckers, bluebirds, house wrens, tree swallows, white-breasted nuthatches, western wood-pewee, and Townsend solitaire, among others, are more abundant in severely burned forests than in other forest types. Ironically, some of these bird species can be heard in the video singing in the background as the foresters bemoan how the high-severity blazes have led to the “loss” of the forest.

And as the shrub layer regrowth progresses in the aftermath of a high-severity fire, you will see MacGillivray’s warblers and orange-crowned warblers and lazuli buntings, and even a species as unexpected as this kind of habitat favors the calliope hummingbird.

Many ecologists suggest that biodversity is often higher in the snag forests that result from high severity blazes. Los Conchos Fire, Bandelier NM, New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

Many ecologists believe there is incredible biodiversity in the aftermath of a high-severity blaze than in green forests. Indeed, many species live in “mortal” fear of green forests because they depend on snag forests and downed wood from high-severity blazes.

Snags that fall into streams create habitat for aquatic insects and fish. Photo George Wuerthner

After a high-severity blaze, there are more wildflowers, bees, mushrooms, and even fish in streams where dead trees create aquatic habitats. The regrowth of grass and shrubs also favors larger mammals like elk, moose, and deer, which flock to such sites to feed on the new growth.

The burnt forest stage is a relatively rare habitat type. Hermosa Creek Fire, Colorado. Photo George Wuerthner 

Furthermore, this ecological stage (snag forest) is relatively rare. Within a few decades, the snags tend to fall over slowly, and new growth begins to change the composition of the forest with small trees.

Even the way a tree dies influences its future condition. Charred trees killed by wildfires are more resistant to decay because charcoal is resistant to rot, compared to a tree killed by insects or fungi, which decompose faster.

None of this is acknowledged in the video. Instead, these foresters all portray high-severity blazes as natural disasters. Their solution is to promote thinning (euphemism for logging) and burning. The idea is to reduce fuels and thus prevent large high severity blazes.

Burnt forest along the Entiat River, Wenatche National Forest, WA. High severity fires only occur when you have extreme fire weather conditions. Photo George Wuerthner

However, what is not acknowledged in the video is that nearly all large, high-severity blazes are driven by extreme fire weather. Under such conditions, prescriptions like burning and logging fail to alter the spread of fires.

The Jocko Lake Fire tore through these thinned and clearcut forests, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

I can point to dozens of wildfires I’ve visited that had previously been “treated” and still burned under extreme wildfire conditions. Among the wildfires that burned through heavily logged areas that I have personally visited are the Dixie Fire (CA), Holiday Farm Fire (OR), Rim Fire (CA), King Fire (CA), Bootleg Fire (OR), Biscuit Fire (OR), Jocko Lake Fire (MT), Rice Ridge Fire (MT) and numerous other examples that I could name.

While viewing a high severity fire patch, one of the people voiced that it might be decades before trees regrew in the area. Such charred sites may be converted to shrubs or grasslands. However, that is a perfectly natural outcome of high-severity blazes. And indeed, given climate change, we may see more of this in the future. But this is the ecosystem adapting to CURRENT climatic conditions.

Snags can store carbon for decades. Photo George Wuerthner

One of the authorities notes that old-growth trees store most of the carbon in the forest—a true statement, but stored carbon isn’t lost immediately just because the tree dies. Dead trees store carbon for centuries in one form or another, as snags and later when they fall to the ground to become “down woody debris.”

The way to “save” the forest, we are told, is by logging the forest. However, these chainsaw medicine logging advocates never count the trees they have removed as a loss to the forest. Logging removes the carbon.

Erosion from logging road, thinning project,Rock Creek, Beaverhead Deerlodge NF, Montana Photo George Wuerthner 

Logging often requires roads, the primary vector for weed spread, and, incidentally, where most human ignitions start. Logging disturbs wildlife. Logging reduces the downwood. In effect, logging “sanitizes” the forest ecosystem.

The entire message is that our forests are “unhealthy” without human intervention. Of course, the forestry schools, timber industry, and agencies like the Forest Service that advocate logging determine this definition. As we often see, the cure for this situation is chainsaw medicine. Natural mortality from wildfire, insects, or disease leads to “unhealthy” forests by the definition of the logging industry.

A central theme of the video is that high-severity fires are” unnatural” in ponderosa pine forests. However, this does not comport with numerous studies showing that high-severity fires occur in such ecosystems under extreme drought, low humidity, and high winds.

Yet repeatedly in the video, the foresters imply that we must “restore” the forest to its original physical appearance, indicating that high-severity blazes are somehow “unnatural.”

High-severity fires and low severity blazes in the same forest type are not mutually exclusive.   In other words, even in forest types like ponderosa pine, you may have numerous small and frequent blazes punctured by episodic high-severity wildfire events. Such blazes may only occur every 200-400 years apart.

The Derby Fire was a high-severity blaze that burn through savanna-like stands of ponderosa pine, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the video, they show an area where the understory of large ponderosa pine consists of Douglas fir and other species that prefer slightly moister conditions. Fire growth is not abnormal but rather a natural succession in forest ecosystems. Yet, the proponents of logging tend to dismiss succession.

Over and over if there are older ponderosa pine, the FS assumes it is a pine site instead of seeing that succession over time would favor growth of fir trees as seen here. Photo George Wuerthner 

I have visited numerous plots on Forest Service field trips like those in the video. Almost always, if there are large ponderosa pines, the agency folks deem it a “pine” site. However, the story may be that after some severe disturbance event, such as a high-severity blaze in the past, the dry open terrain was first colonized by ponderosa pine. Then, as the forest canopy closed in, other species favored by higher moisture tolerant of shade, such as fir species, grow in the understory.

In the video, these foresters stand in front of large Douglas fir (two feet in diameter and more), discussing how these trees should be removed to favor the ponderosa pine.

During the middle of the last century glaciers grew on Mount Hood due to cooler and moister climate. This also favored the survival of tree seedlings. Photo George Wuerthner

The logging proponents in the video also suggest there are “too many trees” in the forest. They attribute this to fire suppression but ignore the role of climate in such matters. For instance, during the late 1930s through the late 1980s, the West experienced moister and cooler conditions. Glaciers grew in the Pacific Northwest Mountains during this period.

Cooler and moist conditions reduce fire ignitions and fire spread. But they also favor seedling survival, which leads to “denser” forests. This is not unhealthy or abnormal; it is a natural consequence of climate conditions.

With the warming temperatures and severe drought accompanying climate change today, the forest ecosystems naturally adjust tree densities through processes like wildfire, insect, and disease. What logging advocates see as “unhealthy” forests are forest ecosystems functioning properly.

Feller Buncher logging the forest, Wallowa Whitman NF, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

As a segment showing a logging operation is shown, we are told by these logging advocates that to have “healthy” forests, by happy coincidence, we need to do “regular” management as if these forests can’t survive without human intervention. They are managing the forest to be “resistant” to wildfire.

The Camp Fire that destroyed 19,000 homes in Paradise CA had burned through numerous clearcuts, hazardous fuel reductions, and even previous fires, demonstrating that fuel reduction are often not effective when extreme fire weather conditions prevail. Photo George Wuerthner 

Towards the end of the video, one of the people interviewed proclaims that “Scientists overwhelmingly agree, and there is no debate here, that fuel treatments” work.

Such a statement ignores that over 200 scientists sent a letter to Congress in 2001 stating, among other things, that fuel treatments can enhance fire spread by opening the land to greater sun and drying and making it easier for wind to penetrate and have not precluded large wildfires.

Severe forest thinning on the Wallowa Whitman NF, Oregon. The cult mentality of the FS suggests this is a “healthy” forest.  Photo George Wuerthner

The final issue with logging proponents’ prescription for more logging is that the probability that a fire will encounter a thinned forest when fuel is reduced is minuscule—often less than 1%. So, you get all the negatives that come with logging, like loss of carbon storage, loss of biomass, the spread of weeds, and more sedimentation in streams, but none of the presumed benefits of preventing large wildfires.

This site on the Deschutes NF, Oregon was thinned and burned three years previously. The growth of fine fuels like grasses seen here, make this far more flammable than the forest prior to “treatment.” 

Over time, the degree to which a “treated” forest can prevent large blazes declines as vegetation regrows. Worse, if your goal is to avoid such blazes, the regrowth is dominated by fine fuels like grass, shrubs, and small trees, which enhances the spread of fire.

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Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo George Wuerthner

Since nearly all large blazes are driven by extreme fire weather conditions of high winds, thinning forests seldom preclude large burns. The best way to protect homes and communities is through home hardening and limited treatment of the fuels immediately adjacent to the home.

 

Comments

  1. Jerry Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry Thiessen

    Amen George. How could any of these so called unhealthy forests survived for millions of years without chainsaw medicine?

    1. Wayne Tyson Avatar
      Wayne Tyson

      As a tree surveyor for the USFS in the northern Sierra Nevada about 1960, I worked right next to such virgin forests. They seemed “healthy” to me–until that huge logging company traded the cutover White Pine Timber Company land to the Farce Service at a 4:1 ratio. There was a fire last year. Twenty-five years later, there was little new recruitment–they didn’t leave a stick standing. But all the decks burned at the mill that year, leaving ashes four feet deep. First time I ever figured Thor must have been a God after all . . .

  2. Deane Rimerman Avatar

    The science keeps rolling in that wildfire is weather-driven, not fuels driven and that climate change is making fire severity more common. Here’s the latest paper I found a couple of days ago in that regard: Drought triggers and sustains overnight fires in North America: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-024-07028-5

  3. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    The Wilderness Society has always been problematic, despite its original ideology to preserve wilderness. It just kept getting worse, to the point where it’s now an anti-environmental group.

    1. Wayne Tyson Avatar
      Wayne Tyson

      I “coincidentally” had my consulting contract dropped after writing Op-Eds about the California condor captive breeding controversy for The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and other publications (e.g. The Rocky Mountain News) via the wire, back in the 1980’s. Watch out, George!

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