(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?