“Logging is Not the Answer”: But No One Said It Was

Fig. 9. Left photo shows surviving trees in the half of Unit 46 that was thinned and burned. Right photo shows dead burned trees in the untreated area immediately adjacent to Unit 46. Both photos were taken back-to-back from same location on the treatment boundary. Photos: C.N. Skinner, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

(photo from J.K. Agee, C.N. Skinner / Forest Ecology and Management 211 (2005) 83–96)

Everyone is entitled to their opinions. However, my concern is that when folks wrap their opinions in the cloak of “science”, especially when more than one scientific discipline is involved, we need to be especially careful. It’s often helpful to trace the claims made in the scientific paper, the conclusions of the scientific paper, the press releases related to the scientific paper, and the interviews with the authors of the scientific paper. Sometimes we see an observation mutate into a global pronouncement of what should be or should not be done.

I picked this E&E news report on the recent Schoennagel et al. paper. (Note that I posted on this, almost exactly the same topic (“logging in the backcountry”), on this blog here in 2010 called “Sleight of Science” in which people claim that folks are doing something they aren’t doing, and then say it won’t work- sort of a straw person argument.) Below are my italics and boldface.

But logging forests in an effort to reduce hazardous fuel loads is not the answer, the study says.

Between 2001 and 2015, these so-called mechanical fuels treatments have been applied across millions of acres of forestlands and rangelands, the study notes. And yet “the annual area burned [in the West] has continued to set records.”

The effort to reduce fuel loads on federal lands by “thinning” trees has value, but is expensive and does not do enough to reduce wildfire risks.

The study suggests using more prescribed fires as a way to reduce fuel loads, but also to help dry forests adapt to the warmer climate.

“We need adaptive approaches to wildfire now that will yield tremendous benefits later,” Schoennagel said. “Preparing now for adaptation to wildfire and climate change is a valuable investment in America’s residential communities and natural ecosystems.”

So this appears to be claiming that these scientists argue that the evidence for “mechanical fuel treatments not working” is that there are more acres burned in the West- not the sum of all the studies of fuel treatment effectiveness that we have seen here or can easily be googled. As these authors would be first to point out, there are a number of other reasons for acreage to increase (if it actually has), including people in forests, climate change, weather and so on. They also claim that it “does not do enough to reduce wildfire risks”- but to communities it certainly can- so why would a value judgment by scientists be more valuable than one by involved communities?

Oddly, according to this article, they suggest using more prescribed fires- which is of course exactly what you are supposed to do, if you can, following thinning to finish the task of “fuels treatment.” In fact, many use thinning to prepare a stand for prescribed burning. It seems kind of odd that that linkage isn’t made. Also not mentioned is mastication, another mechanical fuel treatment which is used with or without prescribed fire. But I haven’t gone back to the original article to check, so my quibbles might be with the writer of the article and not with the scientists at all.

Anyone can google “mastication effectiveness fuels” and get a variety of effectiveness papers. Having read a bunch of these, I have to say that I am impressed by the field knowledge and experience of the fuels folks involved..”this works in these conditions, but not so well under these conditions, has a good effect on helping suppression, but may increase intensity.”

Maybe the author of this article shaded the findings in the paper (and maybe didn’t or couldn’t read them with the keen eye that we would, knowing what we know?) Maybe the researchers who wrote the PNAS paper weren’t familiar with the effectiveness literature due to the proliferation of different scientific field and subfields? Or maybe fuels science and practice is not something they think they need to examine to make conclusions? Or are fuels practitioners’ experiences and reports, and fuels scientists’ findings – are they somehow invisible to some folks in the public/scientists? And why would that be?

It all seems a bit mysterious to me. I have no trouble saying “fuels, suppression, and affected communities need to work together for protection against negative environmental and social impacts of wildfires, and we should also all work together to get more prescribed burning on the landscape”. So who is doing what wrong, again?

6 Comments

  1. Excellent post, in my opinion. I find that it is very important to read published papers carefully and see if I can trace the “logic path” used to make a specific statement. The “discussion” section of papers often includes statements that are not supported by any data or evidence or they are lacking the context of how the Forest Service is charged with implementing Land Management Plans that have specific objectives. These unattributed or context-free statements often are used to challenge natural resource management activities. These types of things have made me redouble my efforts as a peer reviewer to ensure that I flag these and propose how they might be put into context. I found it interesting a few months ago to participate in a discussion with a scientist who had been very critical of Forest Service post-fire management – they basically advocate a “hands-off” approach. They became rather flustered when several of us asked them to help us take what they have learned in their research and use it in a real-life management context – they were unable to help us put their work in that context.

    • One of my favorite “helping scientist” stories is when Jerry Franklin came out to the Ochoco (central Oregon) to help us, sometime in the 80’s. All the forest and district specialists were there. He engaged with all of us, telling us what he knew from the W side and how he though that might or might not be relevant, and engaging in back and forth with us all. I remember him being highly impressed with our fuel loadings (by walking through downed logs, etc.). At the end of the day, he knew more about our challenges and we knew more about what he thought- more so than reading a paper. Presence is also a powerful symbolic act, and helps build trust for individual scientists and what they know.

      Good on you for being a thorough peer reviewer and good on the journals who ask you to review!

  2. Pingback: “Lemons Cure Cancer” and Other Hazards of Scientific Communication – A New Century of Forest Planning

  3. Just so you know that Tania started out as a wilderness trail crew volunteer on the Seeley Lake Ranger District in the 1990’s. Her bias was against harvest of trees on National Forest system lands when I knew her.

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