New Study Shows the Value of Active Forest Management

Yes, we have already seen what happens with a hands-off, “whatever happens” strategy.


I haven’t read the article all the way through but, this appears to solidify the importance of managing our forests, and the fire dangers within. The are four entire pages of citations, plenty of pictures and some very convincing common sense recommendations that use site-specific science. The picture above is from a roadside treatment along the local Highway 4 corridor. This treatment extends for many miles along the highway, making this “ignition zone” much more fire resistant than it was. Also evident in this picture is the lack of old growth beyond the “Roadside Zone”, a remnant of logging practices in the last millennium.

Let us hope that the warnings are heeded and solutions are implemented with site-specific science. However, I would VERY much like to see a current view of that picture of fire intensities near Alpine, Arizona. I’m sure it would show increased amounts of bug trees outside of the firelines. Certainly, wildfire effects persist for MANY years, even outside of the firelines. I have seen it happen multiple times, in multiple places.

6 thoughts on “New Study Shows the Value of Active Forest Management”

  1. Hello Larry, Could you please explain to us what you mean, exactly, when you state, “Yes, we have already seen what happens with a hands-off, “whatever happens” strategy.”

    What are you specifically referring to? Thanks.

  2. Sure, such thinning can work well to reduce fire severity and protect some structures but as usual,l see them close to roads and on flatter areas that already have a useable road system. Getting onto steeper ground where it really needs it is a whole other can of worms and often too expensive to accomplish. Dense, mixed species and size class forest is hard to deal with, and little of that material may be merchantable.

    And despite the success of such treatments in reducing fire severity and protecting larger trees, in Tahoe, although the forest made it fine, the dense housing developments still lit off like a row of match boxes while the treated park area inside the development did fine with an understory burn..

    I am not sure of the forest conditions around the recent home losses outside colorado springs but even the better treatments might not prevent houses from torching.

    • Tahoe is a perfect example of how inaction is impacting the forest up there, for the last 20 years. The late 80’s/early 90’s die-off is still laying on the forest floor, where salvage efforts didn’t touch. The Eldorado NF reacted quickly to the bark beetle infestation, initiated by the 200,000+ acre wildfire complex on the Stanislaus, during “The Siege of 1987”. As the bark beetles arrived in Tahoe, “widespread public beliefs” didn’t want logging. They went with the “whatever happens” strategy, hoping for the best. When vast numbers of trees started turning brown, controversy tied up the Forest Service into inaction. When the public clamored for the Forest Service to “do something”, the commercial value of the dead trees had vanished. Remember, a local anti-erosion agency had a LOT of power during those days. Compared to pre-European days, both live and dead fuels are currently WAY beyond historical conditions.

      Regarding steeper ground and high fuels buildups, new roadbuilding is a “poison pill”. Options become extremely limited when fuels have no value. Yes, I have seen unmerchantable fuels flown out of steep ground, on the San Bernardino NF but, the extra expense was paid for by stealing funds from other National Forests. It is effective to hand-fell and hand pile smaller dense stands. That includes pile burning, as well. However, it has to be bundled with merchantable timber, or put into a service contract.

      The Lake Tahoe Basin is a prime example of a hands-off “whatever happens” strategy. Clearly, the are more large and intense wildfires in store for “The Jewel of the Sierra Nevada”.

      • My impression was that the forest areas immediately adjacent to the Tahoe housing were treated and did fine except for those few areas where the slash had not yet been burned. The point i was making was that even with such aggressive and successful treatments housing can still torch. Once one lights off from the heat, the others seem to go next to it. And those houses did not seem to have much fuel around them.

        Here is link to thing I wrote to counter some ill informed anti thinning screeds. I can take disagreements but really detest it when someone from either side completely misrepresents scientific studies. I have come to expect this but also expect that many people do not read carefully. The Biscuit study on thinning mentioned below is a case in point. It sure seemed to help in the north sector of the burn.

        Avoiding Crown Fires
        Fuels reduction thinning can help

        We have serious disagreements with the Viewpoint (11/1) by Tim Hermach on fire ecology and fuels reduction with thinning. We recognize that protection of old-growth forests is necessary, since enough old growth has been clearcut — too much, in fact. Given the fact that logging reduced Oregon’s old forests by approximately 80 percent over the 20th century, people are justifiably skeptical about yet more logging in these forests.
        An untouched pine forest (above) and a thinned and treated pine forest (below)

        However we also fear that we may lose much of our remaining old growth to fires, especially in the mid- and low-elevation ponderosa pine zone of Eastern Oregon. With early high-grade logging and many decades in which wildfires were suppressed, forest canopies and fuel loads have changed drastically in those low- and mixed-severity fire regime areas, even in wilderness areas that have had no cutting.

        In the most extreme weather conditions, little will change fire behavior, and it is likely futile to attempt large-scale fuels treatments in moister coastal and high elevation “stand replacement fire regimes” where very infrequent natural fires tend to burn everything. However, in Oregon’s drier forests with historically mixed- and low-severity regimes, fuels treatments and thinning can have a significant impact on fire behavior.

        It doesn’t follow that thinning and fuels treatments guarantee a crown fire will be stopped; under severe weather conditions, almost anything will burn. The objective of such treatments is to lower the probability that a surface fire will turn into a crown fire; in other words, they are a form of insurance. There are other values at stake — water, soils, habitat — and the challenge is to reduce fire risk without compromising these.

        In his column, Hermach said, “In fact, recent science demonstrates that forests that were thinned before a wildfire, including the Biscuit Fire, ended up with more dead trees than the forests that were left to nature. Not surprisingly, many of the forests around Lake Tahoe had already been ‘thinned,’ some of them up to six months before the fire, which — at best — did next to nothing to prevent the fire, and — at worst — intensified the blaze.”

        The published scientific study on the Biscuit thinning Hermach talks about actually said this: “The thinned and underburned treatment was burned in fall 2001 (one year before the Biscuit Fire). The Biscuit Fire burned all around it, but stopped at the edge of the treatment.”

        In fact, thinning and slash treatment have been successful in reducing severe fire in eastern Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Tahoe, the Biscuit Fire and parts of northern California. Studies show that when the slash from thinning is treated by burning or crushing into small pieces, fires stay mostly on the ground with canopy fire reduced considerably, but without such slash treatment, fires can indeed burn hotter. Thinning opponents have sometimes singled out areas without treated slash to support their case. For example, ignoring the full range of treatment effects at Tahoe, one of Hermach’s colleagues widely distributed pictures of the one treatment area that had not had thinning slash treated, and consequently burned severely, using it to argue that thinning didn’t work.

        Tahoe illustrates some of the complexities and the dangers of drawing conclusions without all the facts. There, heavy thinning treatments were less effective on very steep slopes because fire is more easily carried from the ground into canopies. In some forests, treating thinning slash alone may not be sufficient; we might also need prescribed burns to reduce small surface fuels.

        Even when we disagree, we respect opponents who present evidence soberly and accurately, but we cringe when scientific literature is ignored or misrepresented. We are not contending that thinning in all locations is advised, helpful or even economical, but Hermach and others have blatantly misrepresented studies of wildfire behavior in stands thinned for fuels treatments. Whether due to sloppiness or purposeful cherry-picking to support a point of view, such distortions do a disservice to those trying to understand how to best protect our forests and rural communities.

        Greg Nagle has a Ph.D. in forest science, learned field forestry as a former president of Hoedads Cooperative and works as a teacher and research scientist at Cornell University. Dave Perry is OSU professor emeritus of ecosystem studies and ecosystem management. Rich Fairbanks is the California/Nevada forest and fire program associate for The Wilderness Society.

  3. Interesting that much, if not most of the study’s conclusions are based on modeling. And I recall some recent, very negative comments about the unreliability of modeling and the assumptions that are built into the models by the authors of the model.
    Do we know what assumptions or “givens” these models contained?
    They may be good, they may be questionable, they may be based on previous modeling. Can’t help but wonder how many study results reflect modeling linked to modeling based on earlier modeling!! Get the picture?
    Interesting discussions in spite of it all.


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