Misguided forest policy

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Mike Lewelling/Wikimedia Commons

When running for President, Bill Clinton’s political adviser, James Carville, famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Clinton listened to Carville and focused on the economy — and won the election.

Today, with regards to wildfire, we should be saying over and over: It’s the climate stupid! The heat, drought and other variables caused by human climate warming is super-charging wildfires. Yet the response of most agencies and politicians is to suggest more logging/thinning as a panacea.

Congressman Joe Neguse’s legislation, the Landscape Restoration Partnership Act, is an example of this misguided forest policy. It emphasizes more logging/thinning/prescribed burning under the assumption such “active forest management” will preclude large fires.

However, fuel reductions do not change the climate or weather. And most of the scientific support for thinning/logging is based on modeling of fuel loading, not real-life experiences.

The amount of fuel is often the least important factor in fire spread when you have extreme fire weather — as we are experiencing now. What drives large fires is drought, low humidity, high temperatures and, last and most importantly, wind — all exacerbated by climate change. When a forest is thinned/logged, there is greater wind penetration, and the wind is the most crucial factor in wildfire spread.

Thinning also results in more fine fuels on the ground that will carry a fire. Opening up the canopy allows greater solar penetration, meaning fuels and soils dry out quicker. What burns in a forest fire is primarily “fine fuels” like grass, shrubs and small trees.

Forest Service “thinning projects” remove the larger trees, which typically do not burn, which is why you have snags after a high-severity blaze. As most of us know from our camping experiences, often a large log placed on a fire doesn’t really burn up and requires constant heating from coals beneath it to keep it ignited.

Under the extreme conditions that drive all large wildfires, the wind effectively negates thinning benefits by blowing embers miles ahead of a fire front. Thus, embers are tossed over and around any fuel breaks or thinned stands.

The Bootleg Fire currently raging in Oregon is charring tens of thousands of acres that were previously logged or thinned. The Camp Fire that consumed 19,000 structures in Paradise, California was also surrounded by massive clearcuts, thinning and fuel reduction projects — none of which precluded the loss of homes. Similar examples of the failure of thinning or logging to halt climate/weather driven fires are abundant around the West.

Added to all these factors is the very low probability that any thinned forest stand will encounter a fire. The likelihood is around 1-2%. The majority of thinned areas are never burned during the period when they “might” be somewhat “effective.”

Thinning and logging by reducing competition for water and sun promotes the rapid growth of more fine fuels — so in 5-10 years, you have more grass, shrubs and small trees, which are the very things that burn readily in a forest fire.

However, thinning is not benign. Thinning removes carbon stored in trees. The disturbance from logging roads and activities spreads weeds, including cheatgrass, which is highly flammable. Logging can displace sensitive wildlife like elk. Sediment from logging roads can fill streams harming aquatic life.

By promoting “active forest management” as a panacea for wildfire, we trade inevitable negative consequences of logging/thinning that occur today and get only a tiny chance that any fuel reduction will influence a wildfire.

We should refocus federal funding and policy toward hardening homes and communities to resist blazes, create evacuation plans, bury power lines, and otherwise prepare for inevitable fires.

Finally, we must get serious about reducing climate warming that is driving these blazes. “It’s the climate, stupid” should be the mantra heard around the West. 

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has studied wildfire for decades. He has published two books on fire ecology including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.