WILDFIRES: Politicians out of step with science, serve up myths promoted by commercial interests

I’ve been a contributor on this blog for a long time, and if there are two people and/or organizations that some folks on this blog love to hate more then the rest it’s the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Dr. Chad Hanson.

So, how cool is it that AWR’s director Mike Garrity and Dr. Hanson, research ecologist with the John Muir Project, have this opinion piece in today’s Washington Post?!?

The American West is burning, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) tells us in his recent Post op-ed. He and officials in the Trump administration have described Western forest fires as catastrophes, promoting congressional action ostensibly to save our National Forests from fire by allowing widespread commercial logging on public lands. This, they claim, will reduce forest density and the fuel for wildfires.

But this position is out of step with current science and is based on several myths promoted by commercial interests.

The first myth is the notion that fire destroys our forests and that we currently have an unnatural excess of fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a broad consensus among scientists that we have considerably less fire of all intensities in our Western U.S. forests compared with natural, historical levels, when lightning-caused fires burned without humans trying to put them out.

There is an equally strong consensus among scientists that fire is essential to maintain ecologically healthy forests and native biodiversity. This includes large fires and patches of intense fire, which create an abundance of biologically essential standing dead trees (known as snags) and naturally stimulate regeneration of vigorous new stands of forest. These areas of “snag forest habitat” are ecological treasures, not catastrophes, and many native wildlife species, such as the rare black-backed woodpecker, depend on this habitat to survive.

Fire or drought kills trees, which attracts native beetle species that depend on dead or dying trees. Woodpeckers eat the larvae of the beetles and then create nest cavities in the dead trees, because snags are softer than live trees. The male woodpecker creates two or three nest cavities each year, and the female picks the one she likes the best, which creates homes for dozens of other forest wildlife species that need cavities to survive but cannot create their own, such as bluebirds, chickadees, chipmunks, flying squirrels and many others.

More than 260 scientists wrote to Congress in 2015 opposing legislative proposals that would weaken environmental laws and increase logging on National Forests under the guise of curbing wildfires, noting that snag forests are “quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests.”

That brings us to myth No. 2: that eliminating or weakening environmental laws — and increasing logging — will somehow curb or halt forest fires. In 2016, in the largest analysis ever on this question, scientists found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging had the highest — not the lowest — levels of fire intensity. Logging removes relatively noncombustible tree trunks and leaves behind flammable “slash debris,” consisting of kindling-like branches and treetops.

This is closely related to myth No. 3: that dead trees, usually removed during logging projects, increase fire intensity in our forests. A comprehensive study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences thoroughly debunked this notion by showing that outbreaks of pine beetles, which can create patches of snag forest habitat, didn’t lead to more intense fires in the area. A more recent study found that forests with high levels of snags actually burn less intensely. This is because flames spread primarily through pine needles and small twigs, which fall to the ground and soon decay into soil shortly after trees die.

Finally, myth No. 4: that we can stop weather-driven forest fires. We can no more suppress forest fires during extreme fire weather than we can stand on a ridgetop and fight the wind. It is hubris and folly to even try. Fires slow and stop when the weather changes. It makes far more sense to focus our resources on protecting rural homes and other structures from fire by creating “defensible space” of about 100 feet between houses and forests. This allows fire to serve its essential ecological role while keeping it away from our communities.

Lawmakers in Congress are promoting legislation based on the mythology of catastrophic wildfires that would largely eliminate environmental analysis and public participation for logging projects in our National Forests. This would include removing all or most trees in both mature forests and in ecologically vital post-wildfire habitats — all of which is cynically packaged as “fuel reduction” measures.

The logging industry’s political allies have fully embraced the deceptive “catastrophic wildfire” narrative to promote this giveaway of our National Forests to timber corporations. But this narrative is a scientifically bankrupt smoke screen for rampant commercial logging on our public lands. The American people should not fall for it.

Chad Hanson is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project and is co-editor and co-author of “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.” Mike Garrity is executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

11 Comments

  1. It’s a good thing that Ecology doesn’t control everything, and that Ecologists don’t make decisions that directly impact humans. There’s so many assumptions and a lack of talk about impacts on humans. We’ve seen this crud before, embracing wildfires and their extreme impacts, pretending they are ‘natural’.

    Yep, I think Hanson made a mistake wanting “larger and more intense wildfires”. I think people will look at that quote and tune out anything else he has to say.

    • Have a feeling that more people read Dr. Hanson’s ‘crud’ in the Washington Post than read your stuff here Larry. Do you care to point out, specifically, what Dr. Hanson has so terribly wrong here?

      • I’ve done this so often in the past. The audience here knows full-well what Hanson’s ultimate agenda is. Sorry, but the Forest Service will not be following the “Whatever Happens” mindset that Hanson so adores. However, I’d love to hear what he has to say when Congress acts and Trump signs. *smirk*

  2. Op-eds in the WaPo are not where I would look for accurate info.

    “will somehow curb or halt forest fires. In 2016, in the largest analysis ever on this question, scientists found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging had the highest — not the lowest — levels of fire intensity. Logging removes relatively noncombustible tree trunks and leaves behind flammable “slash debris,” consisting of kindling-like branches and treetops.”

    So there is a group of “scientists” who all agree that mechanical fuel treatments (with or without PB ??) don’t have desirable effects on fire behavior? As we have seen here, through looking at the work of other scientists, that’s simply not true. No matter who says so, it in what context.

      • How anyone can determine what is accurate info is a great question and one that deserves a whole post.- I’ll write one when I get back from vacation. My comments were about the WaPo oped specifically, not about linked studies. I used the quote “scientists,” not saying that Hanson and other folks were not scientists. I used the quote to denote specific group of scientists, as in “some scientists”.
        I will use quote marks more carefully when I address it next time.

    • Again we see examples of logging on private lands used in studies, then the studies are cited to say that Forest Service logging projects are bad. Here in California, over 90% of all logging slash is removed to the log landing, then piled and burned. All of those bullet points make no mention of site-specific conditions. Hanson has always wanted “Ecology At All Costs”, ignoring human suffering, and human impacts. Pretending that today’s forests are ‘natural’, or that today’s wildfires are ‘natural’, just isn’t a rational way of thinking. THAT is the biggest myth of all. The myth is that today’s forests and today’s wildfires are perfectly fine and dandy, and nothing needs to be done, as millions of acres and billions of dollars burn.

  3. I am just starting to look at some of this year’s fires. I am coming to the conclusion that we have to change the way we fight fires.
    I have heard stories about some of the fires that had not a single person from the FS district in which the fire was in, on the fire.
    It’s kind of like, some kind of military industrial complex, spending billions burning up our forests.
    Miles of fire line torching thousands of acres of forest.
    These “scientists” who are promoting these “wildfires” obviously don’t care about the forest we have.

  4. “Myth 1”:
    The first myth is the notion that fire destroys our forests and that we currently have an unnatural excess of fire… There is a broad consensus among scientists that we have considerably less fire of all intensities in our Western U.S. forests compared with natural, historical levels, when lightning-caused fires burned without humans trying to put them out.

    Response: I would push back very strongly against the notion that there is “strong consensus” that we do not have enough wildfire disturbance of all intensities. That may be true if you only talk to Bill Baker and similar folks who pollute the literature with papers with dubious methods. There has been considerable research that has shown that the frequency of large high severity wildfire events is out of line with historical disturbance regimes and that we are currently losing more old growth Ponderosa pine from wildfire mortality in the last 15 years than from logging and wildfire combined in the 80s + 90s. There is however consensus (for the most part), that we need to have more wildfire and prescribed fire disturbance under moderate weather conditions. The ability to manage those prescribed and wildfires events both safely and effectively, can be greatly improved with the use of well thought out and strategically placed fuel reduction and timber management treatments.

    “Myth 2”:
    eliminating or weakening environmental laws — and increasing logging — will somehow curb or halt forest fires

    Response: First I think it is cute that they refer here to “scientists found” instead of admitting that they are citing themselves. I don’t know who is claiming that logging will stop wildfire occurrence. It won’t. Logging can however reduce future wildfire severity levels at the stand scale and allow for National Forests to ramp up their prescribed and managed wildfire programs which I think the authors claim to want to see happen in “Myth 1” (more disturbance).

    “Myth 3”:
    that dead trees, usually removed during logging projects, increase fire intensity in our forests..

    Response: I am not sure where to start here, no one is logging snags to reduce fire intensity. If they say they are they are lying. Logging snags in a salvage sale can generate money for other restoration work and can allow for areas where wildland firefighters can actively engage with future wildfires with reduced risk of getting killed. I have yet to see any literature that shows that the small percentage of wildfire perimeters that are proposed in salvage sales would lead to a habitat shortage for cavity nesters and other obligate species.

    “Myth 4”:
    that we can stop weather-driven forest fires.

    Response: Again, I don’t know who is claiming that we can stop wildfires that are burning under 97th percentile conditions. Active fuel programs that can allow for more managed wildfire under 80th percentile conditions which can impact the way that we manage and respond to subsequent weather driven fires under more extreme conditions.

    Finally, the authors comments about what they view as timber industry fat cats I think are misguided. Long haul distances and the small low valued timber removed during fuel treatments make for very thin profit margins. We should never go back to the land management practices of the 80s but the use of strategically placed timber and fuel projects can help in changing the way we deal with future wildfire disturbances (e.g. not as a completely unpredictable disaster). We need to pull the throttle back on environmental regulations that have swung too far the other way before we lose all of the timber infrastructure. Once it is gone it is never coming back (millions have been flushed chastising it in AZ/4FRI).

    • Thank you for that well-written response. We see things alike, as the realities that they are. Hanson, and others, like to exclude humans from discussion, even though people are both past and future members of the forest environment. Reality says we MUST address those impacts and effects, in ANY forest management decision.

      Studies that don’t address human impacts and effects just aren’t worth very much, IMHO.

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