The Growing Chainsaw Epidemic

A chainsaw epidemic poses the biggest threat to long term forest health. Photo George Wuerthner

 A national chainsaw epidemic exists in America’s woodlands. A recent article in the New York Times titled “Plans for an Ailing Forest Include Logging” exemplifies this trend.

In the article, officials in Oregon say that we must cut down the forests—including green trees to arrest the forest health crisis. Conveniently, precisely what constitutes a forest “health” crisis is defined by the timber industry, forestry schools and public management agencies like the Forest Service and BLM.

Mountain pine beetles thinning the forest density. Photo George Wuerthner

According to officials interviewed in the article, the problem is that trees are dying from natural causes—drought, beetles, wildfire, and disease. However, officials have a solution—kill the trees with chainsaws before any natural source of mortality can occur.

The article states that trees are dying at alarming rates and blames the same cause—decades of fire suppression have exacerbated problems by increasing the density of trees.” However, some contest this interpretation and suggest decade-long climate variation has more to do with changes in forest density than fire suppression.

Nevertheless from the Forest Service perspective,  natural mortality events like drought, disease, high temperatures, and other processes are an unacceptable way to thin the forest. They assert we need chainsaw medicine to cure what “ails” the forest.

Foresters focus on trees, not ecosystems. Snags, down wood, and liter are all critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Photo George Wuerthner

But here’s the issue. First, foresters define the problem. To most foresters, trees dying from anything other than a chainsaw is a forest ‘health” problem.

I do not dispute that more trees may be dying than in the past—this is to be expected given we are experiencing some of the worst droughts and highest temperatures in over a thousand years.  

Drought, wildfires, disease, higher temperatures, and insects are nature’s way of adjusting forest growth to match today’s climate regime.

In all these cases, natural thinning agents can reduce tree density more efficiently than logging for several reasons.

First, dead trees are critical to “healthy forest ecosystems.” Most foresters cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees.

Wildfire and other natural mortality enhances forest ecosystem resilience Photo George Wuerthner

Numerous studies have demonstrated that dead trees are critical components of the forest used by everything from insects to fungi to fish, birds, mammals, and even geological processes—for example, dead trees falling into a river creates the aquatic habitat for salmon and trout. Many species live in “mortal fear” of green trees for their very existence depends on a generous supply of snags, down wood, and the gradual physical decay of tree boles and litter.

A second issue is that no forester with a paint gun marking trees knows which individual trees have a genetic adaptation for tolerating drought that can kick out bark beetles or are even more resistant to wildfire.

One adaptation to bark beetle attack is for a tree to push out the beetles and eggs with sap. Photo George Wuerthner

We know these genetic differences do exist and confer greater survivorship. For instance, among some lodgepole pine, individual trees that are better adapted to drought are also more resistant to bark beetles. The reason has to do with how a tree responds to bark beetle attacks. When a beetle tries to find its way into the tree bole, the trees respond by flooding the site with sap that pushes the beetle and its eggs out. Trees better adapted to drought also have more sap reserves. But not all pine has this ability.

When loggers use chainsaws to cut out, say, half of the trees on a site to “reduce” the density, they may be removing the very trees with these kinds of adaptations or other traits that permit survival of high temperatures, wildfires, diseases, and so forth.

When trees are cut and removed from the forests, they release more carbon into the atmosphere exacerbating climate change, remove biomass, and, in essence, destroy the home and food for countless species.

Hunters tend to kill the healthier members of the herd, while native predators like wolves select those animals which are more vulnerable, maintaining herd health. Photo George Wuerthner

This is no different than how wolves and other predators affect elk or deer herds. Predators can sense which deer or elk are vulnerable. By removing the weaker animals, the overall health of the deer or elk herd is increased. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that hunters with guns tend to kill the healthier animals in a herd, so they have the exact opposite effect on herd health.

Green trees are more likely to ignite due to preponderance of needles and other “fine” fuels, combined with flammable resins. Photo George Wuerthner

Foresters in the NYT article suggested that dead trees will increase fire risk, however, that is a false conclusion. First, green trees under drought, temperature and other trees are more likely to burn due to the abundance of fine fuels like needles, cones, and small branches on living trees. Plus they contain flammable resins in their needles. By contrast, dead trees over time lose needles, and other fine fuels and are more resistance to fire.

Logs stacked after thinning logging sale. Photo George Wuerthner

The other issue is that the probability that a fire will actually occur in an area with dead trees is very low. The majority of all wildfires burn in green forests.

Chainsaw medicine decreases the forest stand’s overall natural resistance and degrades forest health.

Natural mortality agents maintain overall forest ecosystem health, while the chainsaw epidemic is the biggest threat to our ecosystem’s resistance and stability.






  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It doesn’t make sense at all! Especially with climate change.

  2. Anotherview Avatar

    Agreed. I think you could make the case to NYT that articles like this need to be “fair and balanced”. But, IMO, publishing here doesn’t do much good getting this message out to a broader audience, does it?

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      The New York Times, like all corporate/mainstream/establishment media, is propaganda, not real news. Doesn’t matter whether it’s supposedly “left” (none of them are actually left) or right. Making a case to the New York Times will likely fall on deaf ears, though I would encourage George to try that. Just keep your expectations realistic. Maybe if this issue doesn’t affect any of the Times’s advertisers, there’s a chance.

      Modern propaganda has gotten so sophisticated that they come up with BS arguments like this that are very effective and take a lot of effort to debunk, as George has done here. We face this on the grazing issue, where all sorts of lies about how the land is better with cattle grazing have been published, and from supposedly knowledgeable sources no less. Modern propaganda started around 100 years ago, and it’s “evolved” quite a bit since then. Read about what Edward Bernays did and what Burson-Marsteller does.

    2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      The Times is propaganda, don’t expect them to be honest nor fair & balanced. Can’t hurt to try, but keep your expectations realistic.

  3. Michael Lewis Avatar

    Thank you for continuing to counter forest fire myths with scientific reality.

    Forests everywhere are suffering from the ministrations of the prescribed burn/forest thinning myth, even here in Santa Cruz County CA, where local forests were completely logged over in the past and are only now recovering.

    Because the Santa Cruz Mountains were a cool place to escape Bay Area summer heat, there are now too many year round homes in the forest that have burned in recent forest fires.

    No matter the question, the answer is always “Cut more trees!”

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      In the Bay Area we suffer from never-ending development. Whether it’s in urban areas making the ridiculous claim that we need more housing, or people with the attitude that they can do whatever they want to natural areas in order to be comfortable living there, it’s all about the human supremacist (anthropocentric) attitude. THAT’s what has to change.

  4. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    The propagandists for the corporations just keep coming up with new lies and excuses to support the environmentally and ecologically destructive actions of the corporations so they can continue to make a lot of money. It’s outrageous t that we have to spend so much time and effort debunking this illegitimate BS, but here we are. Makes you wonder if there’s too much free speech in this country.

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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