Logging makes forests and homes more vulnerable to wildfires

California Interagency Willow Fire Incident via Associated Press

The West has seen some really big forest fires recently, particularly in California’s Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Naturally, everyone is concerned and elected officials are eager to be seen as advancing solutions. The U.S. Senate is negotiating over the Build Back Better bill, which currently contains nearly $20 billion in logging subsidies for “hazardous fuel reduction” in forests. This term contains no clear definition but is typically employed as a euphemism for “thinning”, which usually includes commercial logging of mature and old-growth trees on public lands. It often includes clearcut logging that harms forests and streams and intensifies wildfires. 

Logging interests stand poised to profit, as they tell the public and Congress that our forests are overgrown from years of neglect. Chainsaws and bulldozers are their remedy. Among these interests are agencies like the U.S. Forest Service that financially benefits from selling public timber to private logging companies. 

In this fraught context, filled with a swirling admixture of panic, confusion, and opportunism, the truth and scientific evidence are all too often casualties. This, unfortunately, can lead to regressive policies that will only exacerbate the climate crisis and increase threats to communities from wildfire. We can no longer afford either outcome.

Many of the nation’s top climate scientists and ecologists recently urged Congress to remove the logging subsidies from the Build Back Better bill. Scientists noted that logging now emits about as much carbon dioxide each year as does burning coal. They also noted that logging conducted under the guise of “forest thinning” does not stop large wildfires that are driven mainly by extreme fire-weather caused primarily by climate change. In fact, it can often make fires burn faster and more intensely toward vulnerable homes. Unprepared towns like Paradise and Grizzly Flats, Calif., unfortunately burned to the ground as fires raced through heavily logged surroundings.

Nature prepares older forests and large trees for wildfires. As trees age, they develop thick impenetrable bark and drop their lower limbs, making it difficult for fire to climb into the tree crowns. Older, dense forests used by the imperiled spotted owl burn in mixed intensities that is good for the owl and hundreds of species that depend on these forests for survival. Our national parks and wilderness areas also burn in lower fire intensities compared to heavily logged areas. 

Occasionally even some of the largest trees will succumb to a severe fire but their progeny are born again to rapidly colonize the largest and most severe burn patches. Dozens of cavity-nesting birds and small mammals make their homes in the fire-killed trees. Soon after fire in these forests, nature regenerates, reminiscent of the mythical phoenix, aided by scores of pollinating insects and seed carrying birds and mammals. 

Wildfires are highly variable, often depending on what a gust of wind does at a given moment, and even the biggest fires are primarily comprised of lightly and moderately-burned areas where most mature trees survive. By chance, in any large fire there will always be some areas that were thinned by loggers that burned less intense compared to unthinned areas. Before the smoke fully clears, logging interests find those locations and take journalists and politicians to promote their agenda. What they fail to disclose are the many examples where managed forests burned hotter while older, unmanaged forests did the opposite.

This sort of self-serving show boating occurred after the 2020 Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest in California, as news stories echoed the logging industry’s “overgrown forests” narrative based on a single low-intensity burn area. When all of the data across the entire fire were analyzed, it turned out that logged forests, including commercial “thinning” areas, actually burned the most intensely. 

In Oregon, The Nature Conservancy has been conducting intensive commercial thinning on its Sycan Marsh Preserve. Based on satellite imagery, the northern portion of the 414,000-acre Bootleg Fire of 2021 swept through these lands. Within days, TNC began promoting its logging program, focusing on a single location around Coyote Creek, where a “thinned” unit burned lightly. They failed to mention that nearly all of the dense, unmanaged forests burned lightly too in that area. Well-intentioned environmental reporters were misled by a carefully picked example. 

Billions of dollars are being wasted to further this false logging industry narrative—funds that instead should be used to prepare communities for more climate-driven wildfires. Congress can instead redirect much needed support to damaged communities so they can build back better and adopt proven fire safety measures that harden homes and clear flammable vegetation nearest structures. 

The path forward is simple, with two proven remedies that work. Protect forests from logging so they can absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and moderate fire behavior, and adapt communities to the new climate-driven wildfire era.

Chad Hanson, Ph.D., is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project and is the author of the 2021 book, “Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate.” Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D., is chief scientist with Wild Heritage and the author of Conservation Science and Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power. 

Tags forest fire

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