Wuerthner: Revisiting Fire History Studies

(The following piece was written by George Wuerthner, an ecologist, professional photographer and writer who has published over 30 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. – mk)

One of the cornerstones of current forest policy is the assumption that western forests are outside of their “normal” density and appearance or what is termed “historic variability” due a hundred years of mismanagement that included logging of old growth, fire suppression, and livestock grazing. This idea has been used to justify logging public lands to “restore” forests to their pre-management era appearance and resiliency. Due to this past mismanagement we are told that forests are “overgrown” “decadent” and ready to burn.

Not to dismiss effects of the kind of management that largely continues unabated today, including on-going logging, grazing and fire suppression, but whether the current forest stand condition is that far from conditions that have occurred infrequently in the past is a matter of increasing debate.  This is especially important because public land management agencies feel the pressure to DO something beyond waiting for nature to do what it always does to “restore” forest conditions.

Timber harvesting is no longer done just to provide timber companies with profits or consumers with wood. Now lumber companies are involved in a much more noble enterprise—they are logging the trees to “restore” the presumed forest “health.”

The scientific basis for “restoration” is based to a large extent on fire scar studies. These studies suggest that the drier forests composed of lower elevation ponderosa pine and Douglas fir burned frequently and thus kept density low with “park-like” open stands of mostly larger trees. Keep in mind the discussion is focused on lower elevation forests since higher elevation forests like lodgepole pine, fir and spruce are characterized by much longer fire intervals, which have not experienced fuel buildups to any significant degree due to fire suppression, grazing, or timber harvesting.

So we often hear how such low elevation dry forests burned regularly at frequent intervals in “light, cool” blazes that removed the litter and killed the small trees, but did little harm to the larger trees.

Like a lot of myths, there is some truth to this generalization, and no doubt in some areas this characterization is accurate. But more recent studies using different methods have started to question this well-established story-line. These studies are finding that the intervals between fires is much longer than previously suspected, and that stand-replacement blazes (where most of the trees are killed) were likely common even in the lower elevation dry forests.

The major method for determining the fire history of an area is to find trees with scars created by fires. If the tree is not killed by the blaze, it will develop a scar that can be counted in the tree rings. This record of past fires is then used to determine the “fire rotation” or the time it takes to burn an area equivalent to one’s study area.

There are four major flaws associated with traditional fire scar studies. These methodological flaws contribute to a bias toward shorter fire rotations—in other words, they tend to overstate the effect of fire suppression on forests because it appears that we are seeing more years between successive fires than we did in the past. If the fire rotation were judged to be longer, however, then much of what is being characterized as unhealthy forest may actually be perfectly normal and healthy.

The first flaw is targeted sampling. A researcher walks through the forest looking for areas with an abundance of fire scarred trees. The trees in this area are then sampled and used to determine the fire history for the area.  In the 1930s the bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. Sutton is reputed to have replied with the self evident “because that is where the money is.” In a sense that is how fire researchers have gathered their data on fires—they sample in places with a lot of fire scars.

The problem with targeted sampling is that it’s non random. It’s like going into a brewery to poll people about whether they like beer. Places with an abundance of fire scars tend to have naturally low fuel loadings and frequent fires. But these sites may not be representative of the surrounding landscape such as north facing slopes or valley bottoms which may be wetter or have higher productivity and, thus, longer intervals between blazes. In fact, the reason non-sampled areas lack significant numbers of fire scarred trees is often because all trees were killed in a stand-replacement fire, but the omission of such areas from fire history studies leads to the false conclusion that stand-replacement blazes are unusual in dry low-elevation forests.

The second flaw is composite fire scars. Most fire studies add up all the fire scars recorded into a “composite” timeline. The problem with this technique is that the more scars you find and count over bigger and bigger areas, the shorter the fire interval becomes and the more risky your assumption that any fire recorded by one tree burned throughout the entire study area, even though some trees didn’t scar in the fire event. Some fire researchers now try to support this assumption by only including fire scars recorded the same year on 3 or more trees, but the trees do not have to be positioned throughout the study area, so even this will not eliminate the upward bias in frequency of fire in a given study area.

In other words, your composite may suggest a fire burned within your study area once every 5 years or whatever, but if most of these blazes burned only a few trees, then it is not accurate to say that the fire burned the entire area.  How frequent are fires that burn most or all of a large study area? These larger blazes may be far less frequent and take 100 years to burn most or all of the study area. Since the critical issue for the forest is the occurrence of the occasional blaze that burns most, if not all, of the entire study area, the fire rotation for those fires in such an area may be closer to 100 years, not the 5 years you get if you include even the tiny 1-acre fires.

The third flaw is an emphasis on the AVERAGE fire interval rather than the DISTRIBUTION of fire intervals. If you read fire studies carefully they will usually note the longest interval without any recorded fire. Often this is a significant period of many decades. Why is this important? Because the average person hears that there were fires, ON AVERAGE, every 5 years and assumes that fires operate like clocks on a regular schedule. In reality, fires burn in episodic groups usually dictated by periodic droughts that are controlled by shifts in offshore currents like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, thus tend to be grouped together in certain drought prone decades.  The DISTRIBUTION of a fire interval shows clearly that there are always relatively long periods with little fire, even though the AVERAGE fire return interval might be 5 years.

Why is it important that we consider historic distributions of fire intervals rather than average fire intervals? Because the common assumption is that if the fire interval averages 5 years, fires would keep tree density low and reduce fuel build up. However, if it is also typical that there are also extremely long fire intervals of 80 years or more associated with the DISTRIBUTION of fire intervals, then there may not be an “abnormal” build up of fuel or increase in tree density, and nothing is out of the ordinary at all.

Finally the fourth major flaw is that traditional fire-scar studies have not been map based.  Why is a map of the distribution of trees with scars important?  It is only through such mapping that one can determine whether a scarred tree was in the middle of an extensive low-severity fire or at the edge of a high-severity patch.  One must look at the age distribution of the surrounding trees to gain real insight into the kind of fire that the scarred tree recorded.  This is what the more progressive fire ecologists are beginning to do, and they are finding that many fires in dry forest types are severe fires that burn relatively small areas within a larger fire perimeter, just like ALL fire we see burning in the same forest locations today.

Due to these flaws and errors in interpretation, many fire scar histories (but not all) misrepresent the fire regime associated with an area. If the period between fires was occasionally very long, then our forests may not be far out of their historic variability and may be well within that range of variation. If so, they do not require “restoration” because they are not out of balance.

The other major justification for logging is to reduce the chance that a community might be threatened but, as embarrassing as the facts are, there is no evidence that logging conducted miles from a town has anything at all to do with the probability that the nearest houses burn.

The fact that we are seeing more and larger fires fits perfectly with the pattern that is expected under current climatic conditions. In other words, if you have drier weather conditions, with high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, you will get more fires. You will get larger fires.

The prevailing climatic conditions are driving most of the apparent change in fire frequency and severity. For instance, the Southwest is in the grips of a drought that hasn’t been seen in five hundred years. Not surprisingly, there are fires now burning across the region bigger and more intense than any seen in the past.  However, Paleo fire studies confirm that such large fires may not be abnormal when compared to the fires that burned similar severe droughts occurred in the past centuries.

Finally there is too much emphasis on “restoring” stand structure (in other words the presumed appearance) of forests rather than allowing natural ecological processes to occur on the landscape. It is more critical to accept and promote natural processes like beetle outbreaks, wildfires (including stand replacement blazes), and other natural ecological agents than to try to create some presumed historic forest structure that never existed in a steady state (and at taxpayer expense)! If natural ecological processes are allowed to occur on our public lands, then the forest will sort out the kind of appearance and structure that is appropriate for current climatic conditions. Critics will claim that a do-nothing approach outside the WUI will only lead to conversions of our forests to some other vegetation type, but the evidence for widespread type conversions is entirely absent.  Severe fires will restore forest conditions just fine.

All this is not to suggest that all historical reconstructions from fire scar studies are wrong—but it does suggest that most outside the pure ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest (and that’s most conifer forests in the West) are probably biased to some degree. Many of the logging proposals in the West are likely based on flawed assumptions about fire ecology and historic conditions.  And before any “restoration” logging is accepted as necessarily, the underlying assumptions should be carefully evaluated to make sure they are not skewed towards fire rotations that do not characterize the area accurately.

41 thoughts on “Wuerthner: Revisiting Fire History Studies”

  1. Matt: If I recall correctly, Wuerthner isn’t really an ecologist at all (or even a scientist?) and has been called and that score in the past. I thought he’d stopped calling himself one, but am apparently mistaken.

    I am in full agreement with him regarding the fallacy of using tree ring interpretations as “fire history,” though. It’s not even history, much less the “primary” method for determining fire history. “History” is the study of the past via the use of historical documents, such as texts, maps, photographs, court proceedings, etc.

    I know Agee calls tree ring fire scar interpretation “fire history,” but it isn’t. Actual fire histories (Pyne is the master) tend to refute most of Agee’s assertions, which are based almost entirely upon statistical interpretations of fire-damaged growth rings and have very little to do with actual historical research. I think Arizona has done a remarkable job of advancing the science of such analyses, but they are still not “fire histories” — and for many of the reasons Wuerthner gives.

    Not surprisingly, I tend to reject most of his other conclusions and recommendations. I think it is disgraceful that the USFS continues touting “restoration” projects, yet avoids doing any of the actual (and cheap!) research needed to document the past — instead, accepting some of this type of modeling in lieu of actual facts.

  2. His piece is reasonable, I have heard the same from others who really are ecologists such as William Baker who has published a lot on this issue. A bit more from him would be useful here. Wuerthner has a masters in wildlife communications. He was in the geography dept at the UO in a phd program which he dropped out of but he is not an ecologist. I have a phd in forest science and know a lot of ecology but would not choose to call myself an ecologist, When George does that, a lot of scientists wince. And no way would my cohort of fellow scientists accept me calling myself an ecologist. I have enough real science pubs that i do not pretend to be somebody i am not.

    Sometimes i agree with George, at other times not. Although he presented this argument well enough here, at other times I would hardly call him a scientist. Sorry, but this has been an issue for me for a long time. And I do have many of his fine picture books although I have not seen him publish any actual science.

  3. I know that sounds churlish on my part, so I will put it another way. I know some really good ecologists, one of the best at my university was 2nd author on three of my pubs, if he heard me call myself an ecologist he would calmly rip my head off. I do crave his respect for what I can do so I do not make claims to be something I am not. Although many of us respect george for his activism, scientific capabilities have not been evident. The book he edited on wildfire was a good effort but it was not him writing the science in those pieces.

    • Greg: I am in complete agreement with what you are saying. When pressed to describe my discipline I say “historical ecologist,” because that is what I do: study the interrelationships of plants, animals, and people on a landscape-scale over time. But you would have a hard time finding many places where I’ve volunteered that description and, interestingly, it is most accepted by other ecologists who are, as you say, picky about their ologists. What George does is completely misleading and gives false weight to Matthew and others of his readers regarding his conclusions and recommendations. They are the thoughts and insights of a deeply biased photographer and journalist — not a scientist or a resource manager.

      I also purchased George’s Wildfire table piece when it first came out. I think I had already had a few letters and guest editorial debates with him through the Corvallis GT and/or Eugene RG by that time, but that is when I first became aware of his false advertising, made blatantly obvious by the contents of his book. 0 Science = 0 Ecologist. Of some interest was the 2012 Association of Fire Ecology 5th International Congress (every 3 years) in Portland, where I gave two presentations on fire. Conference organizers were stuck with piles of George’s hardbound Wildfire books (“$45 value”) which they were trying to give away for free to attendees, but couldn’t. Too big and heavy and anyone familiar with the contents (including Rich Fairbanks, who was stuck with trying to distribute them, and whom I think you know from the Biscuit), warned others about the lack of scientific content or practical use. Mostly, it was just because they were so big and heavy that I think people didn’t want them. They are now $4 at Amazon — I think I had to pay $30 or $40 for mine in 2006 dollars.

    • Hello Greg (and others): For the record I’m the one who wrote Wuerthner’s bio based on information I found on-line from other articles George had written, or articles he was in. Thanks.

  4. Methinks that there may be a basic misunderstanding here. Most logging (such as it is) on “suitable” N.F. lands is not done to “restore” some imagined past ideal condition. It’s done to promote growth of quality trees or regenerate the stand and produce a valuable forest product while yielding returns to the U.S. Treasury and forest-dependent schools and counties, creating jobs and community stability, reducing fire hazard and creating early succession habitat. In a few situations (e.g. planted slash pine on longleaf sites) the objective really is “restoration” but this is the exception, rather than the rule. I’m not sure what the point of Wuerthner’s discussion is but I,m pretty sure that the frequency of ancient fire scars has little or nothing to do with the treatment that a forester prescribed for a stand. He’s has no lofty ambitions to restore a long-lost ecosystem. He (or she) just wants to put the stand in good growing condition, help meet the ASQ and get back to the house in time for supper.

    I love the bland assertion that “Severe fires will restore forest conditions just fine”: Really!

    • At the risk of preempting Book Club topics…

      If natural ecological processes are allowed to occur on our public lands, then the forest will sort out the kind of appearance and structure that is appropriate for current climatic conditions

      Who decides what is “appropriate”? It sounds like “leave it alone is the best” but the best is not a human judgment call by me, telling you my values.. Trust me.. it’s been revealed. On blue-stained tablets.

      I know Bob disagrees, but I think we need to get our heads out of the past, and out of the climate-model future, look at the problems we have today and how we might go about improving things. If we removed scientists arguing about the past and the future, could we find useful information about and for today?

      • Sharon: I don’t disagree. But historical research is a whole lot cheaper (by several magnitudes) than the computerized modeling industry and remains the best (and cheapest) way to test such models. If they can’t predict the (actual) past, then they can’t predict the future. The end. All it takes is one hole in the balloon and the theories blow apart. Then they install of this “Restoration” government-speak that avoids the same factual basis for these approaches. 100 years ago cars had 4 tires, and they still have four tires today. I’m just thankful that the government didn’t mandate three-wheelers or ban the uses of rubber and nylon in tire construction, or require all roads to be planked. Those that ignore the lessons of the past, etc. . .

    • Mac

      I’m with you and support what what you say above. See post #1 on the discussion at http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/fighting-back-fire-from-the-denver-post/#comment-24283 – The two graphs at the top of the post distinctively show that Reducing Fire Hazard is significantly improved by sound forest management and adversely affected greatly by nature’s management by cataclysm.

      Matthew says: “Timber harvesting is no longer done just to provide timber companies with profits or consumers with wood. Now lumber companies are involved in a much more noble enterprise—they are logging the trees to “restore” the presumed forest “health.””

      –> That sure doesn’t ring true for federal forests at current harvest levels and it most certainly isn’t true for any timber company that I worked for. Two of them are the two largest private landowners in the US with significant holdings all across the country. Whether the company was big or small, the objective was and always will be to make a profit by harvesting at sustainable levels and subject to sound forest management as defined, at a bare minimum, by state BMPs and independent audits of the company’s forest management practices. Profit is a great incentive for taking care of one’s assets. The days of cut out and get out are long gone, it’s a dead horse and environmentalists need to quit beating it. Both PCL and WY have roots that go back over a century. It took a little while, but they learned long before the 60’s that forest health was the key to profitability. So there is no restoration required on industrial lands. If you want to see beautiful, vigorous, healthy forests go look at forest industry lands that have been audited. And anyone who knows. can easily see the difference between a vibrant healthy forest and a forest that needs some intervention.

      “Nature Only” is only an option when people don’t care whether or not forest ecosystems are healthy or not. If they don’t care about the health of the ecosystem then they don’t care about any of the components of a healthy ecosystem.

      “Nature Only” forest ecosystem management is kind of like saying plagues, famines, feudal systems, oppressive labor practices and wars are great ways to manage the earth’s human population. Ok, everyone back to your cave. OOpps you can’t do that you might disturb the bats.

      • Gil, I’d just like to point out that I never made this statement, which you are mistakenly attributing to me. Thanks.

        Matthew says: “Timber harvesting is no longer done just to provide timber companies with profits or consumers with wood. Now lumber companies are involved in a much more noble enterprise—they are logging the trees to “restore” the presumed forest “health.””

        • Matthew:

          If you disagree with the statement, why would you quote it without rejecting it? You will have my apology as soon as I hear your disavowal.

          Otherwise, if you quoted the statement because you espouse it, then I don’t see where it matters whether you said it or simply quoted it.

          • Sorry Gil, but I don’t understand what you are saying here, or asking of me. Did you not notice that you have, in your comment #9, attributed some words to me that I never said. I simply re-quoted the words to you in comment #10 so you knew the which words those were. I don’t need to disavowal anything….but you do need to stop attributing words and sentences to me that I never said. Thanks so much.

            • Matthew

              Do you believe the following quote or not?

              Re your quote: “Timber harvesting is no longer done just to provide timber companies with profits or consumers with wood. Now lumber companies are involved in a much more noble enterprise—they are logging the trees to “restore” the presumed forest “health.””

  5. Comments so far have been interesting, in that much of what George postulates seems to be reasonably accepted (at least in part) by some.
    I don’t know George W. except through some of his writings. Know nothing of his education or standing as an “ecologist”. If he claims to have a degree or formal training as such and it isn’t true, that is disturbing. But lets concentrate more on his ideas and comments. He makes sense in his analysis of tree fire scar science and how it might be used…honestly or otherwise.
    Why aren’t more of the comments on the substance of his arguments rather on his professional standing?
    I know it is common practice to doubt anyone who inflates his “credentials”. It makes sense to distrust such a person. But lets dialogue on the man’s premise, in spite of the veil of doubt concerning his academic history.

    • Well stated Ed. Welcome to the New, New Century of Forest Planning I guess. As I pointed out already, I’m the one who wrote George’s bio based on info I found on-line. If it makes people happy (and allows them to actually focus on the substance of George’s article) I’m happy to remove the word “ecologists” from his bio. Of course, then some people might call George’s photography skills into question.

      • Matthew: The reason you described Wuerthner as an “ecologist” is because that’s how he describes himself. See JZ’s links in that regard. He is an okay photographer, but seems to have some kind of vanity press link that allows him to get his stuff regularly published in expensive books.

        Summary: Wuerthner IS a photographer and gets paid to take photos; he is NOT an ecologist and should stop pretending to be an expert in the field. His credibility as a political analyst and as a science expert has been pretty much compromised for several years as a result. His “work” is mostly predictable nonsense and is hardly worth reading, much less seriously considering. At least that’s how I feel on the topic.

  6. Just finished a Google-search on George W and it seems that he has no formal degree as an ecologist, although he carried that title in one of his capacities with an environmental organization. Not sure why his introduction labeled him as such, but again, lets deal with the substance here.

    • Ed: For George Wuerthner to keep presenting himself as an ecologist is odd. I (and others) approached him on this very issue about four or five years ago and I thought he had stopped that charade. Maybe he has gotten an advanced science degree in the past few years, but I doubt it. I wonder what would happen if he began parading around as a lawyer, a (medical) doctor, or a policeman? Pretty odd. I think he has a sizable income via his sponsor, and uses that opportunity to publish coffee table travel books of his photographs. At best, he is a journalist with a blatant and self-acknowledged bias and a decent photographer. He is not a scientist by any stretch, and should stop claiming to be one.

  7. Matt wrote:

    “(The following piece was written by George Wuerthner, an ecologist, professional photographer and writer who has published over 30 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. – mk)”

    What happened to “former hunting guide” in his ever evolving accolades? Now photographer too!!! What about BOD for WWP, a very litigious organization (oh…they are only protecting water quality….)



    While you’re at it…be sure to google up John Marvel, ED for WWP. Fun reading! Lots of glowing reviews!

    Ed said:

    “I know it is common practice to doubt anyone who inflates his “credentials”. It makes sense to distrust such a person. But lets dialogue on the man’s premise, in spite of the veil of doubt concerning his academic history.”

    Howabout….NO. We shouldn’t “dialogue” on the premise of a charlatan. As a “fire ecologist” and “former hunting guide” myself (holding to the same standards of achievement as GW and his followers are willing to accept), I cannot subscribe to anything he’s ever written and read none of his “stuff”, including the above. I won’t bother to discuss, debate or refute anything he says either….just not worth it. He’s not only full of Sh*t, but he’s out to lunch as well. Enviro groups seem to be content to follow him as some sort of messiah or spokesperson to which i would say…”by all means!”. Makes it easier to respond to comments citing his “science”.

    Matt, go ahead with your response “in kind” and in defense of your friends. I won’t reply….you can have the last word. The above links speak for themselves.

  8. True that a focus on george’s credentials is tangential. Better now to take a look at the ideas he presents. As i noted, william baker from U of WY has presented much of the same views in numerous, well researched, peer reviewed studies. I do not have them immediately at hand since I am in Bangkok. There was intense discussions of his work in the comments section in high country news.

    • Why his background matters is not that it matters for his ideas. It matters that he says his claims are based on “science.” So if he makes that claim, then you tend to look at his “scientific” credentials.

      By saying you are thinning ponderosa pine to “restore” it.. you open up all kinds of (interminable) academic discussion about the past. If you say you are thinning ponderosa pine because competition from understory trees causes stress to the older trees that are important structures, or because you want to change the fuel loadings, that is much easier to measure today. Or because we are producing wood products which people use and people get from somewhere or some combination of the above.

      As I’ve said before “restoration” makes sense for planting longleaf pine, or restoring riparian habitat.. because everyone knows those are Generally Good Things.

      Since people disagree about how fire prone forests are to be managed, maybe using the term “restoration” sidetracks us. Because we are not moving everyone out of the west and letting lightning caused fires burn. So instead of having discussions of what our situation, current values, and possibilities are today, we have academic discussions of what the past was like.

      • Since the public doesn’t care about the nuances and complexities of “restoration”, I think it is OK to use that slant to convince the public we need to “do something” to make our forest more healthy and safe. Yes, we need to “restore” stocking levels to match annual precipitation levels, Yes, we need to “restore” species compositions to more drought, insect and wildfire resistance. Yes, we need to “restore” age classes to a more “natural” all-aged forests.

        • Larry: Despite what Franklin says, most of the forests in Oregon — lodgepole, alder, Douglas-fir, and spruce in particular — are even-aged. This circumstance is caused by stand replacement events such as wind, fire, bugs, and logging being followed by heavy tree seeding or planting by the same species. We can create multiple-aged (and multiple species) stands easy enough, and — given enough time without such an event taking place — those circumstances will often develop on their own as canopies break apart or shade tolerant invasives enter the stand. But what is so wrong about even-aged trees, corn, or lawns in the first place?

          • It is good to have trees which survive those events, providing superior seeds to the next generation. Of course, wherever p. pines grow to large sizes, it is best to have some understory. Certain trees make their own “natural” monocultures and even-aged stands. However, do we really want such flammable stands encroaching on communities? Take Bend, Oregon, for example. Do we want a pure even-aged lodgepole pine monoculture surrounding it? We do know that with lodgepoles invading p. pine stands, they are at-risk to a complete loss of p. pines, with pure lodgepoles growing back in doghair thickets. There are also benefits to having multi-staged mixed conifer stands, too. Many stands are sensitive to drought, and we have enhanced the effects of even mild drought through overstocking. We do need forests which can survive the effects of today’s humans.

            • I’m totally with you, Larry — I just get a little nervous when the topics of clearcuts and even-aged stands come up. A key we both definitely agree upon is the need for local scientific assessments during the development of forest management plans. By “local” I mean landscape scale, bounded by subbasin and/or basin watershed boundaries (and containing no acronyms).

    • greg: How about being operated on by a phony doctor, or pulled over for speeding by a phony cop, or being represented in court by a phony lawyer? Or be lectured to and given advice by a phony scientist? Credibility and competence are critical.

      I did, however, comment on the substance of what he was saying anyway: 1) I agree with his assessment of the inadequacy of tree ring analysis as a substitute for “fire history,” and 2) tree ring analysis is NOT “fire history.” Yes, I know it keeps advertising that it is, but that’s what happens when modelers start taking their own numbers too seriously. Welcome to Animal Farm, where preservationists are reborn as conservationists, wildfire is beneficial if it is caused by lightning but harmful if caused by people, and computer printouts are considered “history.”

  9. First of all, George mistakenly assumes that ALL of our forests are just Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. Secondly, he assumes no Indian burning. Of course, if an area is not hospitable to live in, you won’t see much Indian burning evidence. The historical records are excellent sources of evidence of how much burning was done, in which areas. George is obviously cherrypicking, if he doesn’t account for the lack of density described in letters, diaries, and even drawings and paintings. Regarding tree rings and fire scars, I have a lot of experience with this, and have seen where misreading them is VERY easy. Not every year has just one tree ring, and some years are so dry that the tree ring isn’t very visible. Which is more likely? A set of misread tree rings, or inconsistent and “wrong” data??

    Near Yosemite, tree ring data shows that some areas have had up to 13 fires in the last 100 years. Now, if the tree rings were misread, that might make 10 fires in the last 100 years. Surely that frequency is, indeed, still quite “frequent”! Certainly, well above the current frequency. Additionally, the pines around here can live for 200-400 years. Unfortunately, many of these pines are not surviving the intense wildfires of today.

    With the fire-adapted bear clover being so intensely flammable and widespread, around here, fires rarely stayed small. Once you add some slope, a cool and frequent fire can burn 1000’s of acres without killing many thick-barked pines. To debunk George’s third point, Indian burning was surely VERY cyclical, igniting new burns when the bear clover gets high enough to burn but, low enough to burn cooler. Of course, Indians were very intelligent, using the smartest of wise men to be entrusted with the burning responsibilities, and passing that knowledge to the next generation. It is very easy to see that old springs were suddenly producing water again, after one of their burning sessions. Personally, I noticed an old spring by identifying the old willow snag in an overgrown burned area.

    One other thing I have been noticing is that the eco-community always fails to correct a member’s incorrect statements. They are more than happy to let false statements stand, affecting other members’ opinions to the wrong side of the spectrum.

    Many areas still need prescribed fires, and many of those areas need fuels reduced before it is safe to ignite. Even if George were right, would that mean it is OK to light unsafe prescribed fires? George also doesn’t talk about re-burns and stand-replacing fires, and their effects on fire frequencies. George, like others, continue to want a pre-human landscape. However, today’s human effects cannot be removed from such a landscape. Certainly, we know very little about North American landscapes before humans arrived, here. However, that is what many preservationists want.

  10. Matt, I saw the same Wuerthner fire history article on another site which also described him as an ecologist so it was not just you who made that small error about him, As bob has described, he has presented himself as an ecologist for a long time and he has bothered me for just as long.

    But a focus on that is beside the point since others such as Baker have presented a similar view in respected journals. When able, i can ferret out several of his pubs to send to you. Of course, his ideas generated a lot of responses by other scientists who disagreed but there was no contention about his credentials.

    Do you have access to anybody but wuerthner who has written on this? His advantage is that he writes for a popular audience while i have not yet seen anything like that by baker.

    In retrospect, my focus on george’s credentials seems to have diverted the discussion a bit too much from the evidence he presents. Please note, these are not studies he did himself, he is just reporting the work of others which has to be judged on its own merits.

    I can see that I was perhaps mistaken in bringing up the point about george but we can move past that.

    • greg: No reason to apologize for bringing up George’s credentials — I plead guilty to doing that in the very first sentence in the first comment posted to this string. Considering the source is an important point, and maybe a few of us (who have some similar history with him?) drove it into the ground a little too far — BUT: it’s an important point! The man has helped make his career (“income”) by speaking and writing with the authority of an actual ecologist — by falsely and consistently claiming to be one! That type of history borders on fraud and/or impersonation, and is usually a good indicator not to do any further reading at all at that point, much less considering what the person has to say.

      Thanks for providing Matt (and the rest of us with an interest in the topic) with a better source for the same types of assertions — but from an actual authority. That is a good example of the kind of positive results these blog discussions produce, despite often polar opposite opinions and occasional rudeness.

      • Bob, I just wanted to point out that I’m quite familiar with Dr. William Baker’s work and research. In fact, Dr. Baker’s work/research has been featured on this blog on more than one occasion.

        Hey, I have a serious question. What’s an ecologist? Honestly, I can’t say I know for sure, so I looked on-line just now and while there are lots of definitions for “ecology” there really aren’t very many on-line for the word “ecologist.” Here are the only three I could find, and the first one was repeated in more than one spot:


        a biologist who studies the relation between organisms and their environment

        a scientist who studies the environment and the way that plants, animals, and humans live together and affect each other

        someone who believes that protecting the environment is important

        I also did a little more on-line research on George’s educational background and found that he has a BS in wildlife biology/zoology and a BS in botany. Looks like he got a Master’s degree from UC-Santa Cruz in science communication and spent 3 years in geography Ph.D. program (finishing all the course work, but not a dissertation) which included fire ecology work with well-known fire researcher Cathy Whitlock. Also looks like George has worked as a rare plant botanist, biologist and forest technician for various government agencies conducting field work and data collection.

        • Thanks, Matt: Still, I thought it was a nice gesture and didn’t recall the Baker posts, either. I tend to shy away from most tree ring studies because they are mostly irrelevant in the forested areas I usually work with and the methods I use.

          So far as the definitions are concerned, I would agree that the first two are the most commonly accepted (particularly in academia, where modern-day scientists are mostly spawned). In academia, a scientist (including biologists) usually requires a PhD to make such claims, with a few Masters degrees sprinkled in — particularly from the last century. Most Masters are considered “techs” at some level — qualified to assist in research, but not actually capable of designing (“getting the government to pay for”) research. A 4-year degree can be BS at best in today’s world.

          Definition 3 is what George apparently hangs his hat on, and it appears to be something he’d write himself. It’s like those old-time Vaudevillians that called themselves “Professor,” or “Doctor,” or “Reverend” — it’s a joke. Even the definition is based upon “belief” (which is hardly scientific), “protect” (which is mostly a political term or vague concept at best), and “important” (a personal value). I think they somehow covered almost every person on the planet with that approach.

          Summary: ecologists don’t have to be biologists (although they do have to study life at some level), and I have no idea (actually, I do) why humans are separated from other animals in the second definition. Given these options, I’d go with something like: “a scientist who studies the interrelationships between plants and animals on earth.” Maybe I’d throw in “biosphere” somewhere, if I wanted to lose a few readers.

          Other opinions?

          • RE:

            In academia, a scientist (including biologists) usually requires a PhD to make such claims, with a few Masters degrees sprinkled in — particularly from the last century.

  11. Awhile back, Baker and the crew from AZ state in Flagstaff really got into a hot and informative exchange on the high country news comments section on this issue of historical fires. Robust, both with accurate points to make. Can somebody do a search on HCN for that exchange. It would be informative to parse their comments. I know that this has also been thrashed out at conferences but I missed those.

    After baker published his things on the N grand canyon, there were replies made in the lit with his responses. Others have drunk deeply of these waters.
    Baker can be quite convincing, i have not been sure what to make of his assertions,

    I am sure his website at U of Wyoming has links to various sources on this.

    • Greg, The link I provided above, with previous posts on this blog related to Dr. Baker, includes that HCN exchange.

      Here’s a blog post I did about the HCN exchange last September.

      Also, regarding Dr. Baker publishing his stuff on the North Grand Canyon, that’s also been featured on this blog, back in February 2012. One of the highlights in the comment section, for me anyways, was Derek Weidensee poorly attempting to cast doubt on Dr. Baker’s credibility by stating, “Strange how a researcher from Wyoming ends up in Arizona. Who paid for this research? Who funded it? Can someone tell me that?”

      • Thanks for that, just what we needed when your key link got buried. And thanks even more for sticking with us here Matthew, you have a much thicker skin than me. Reading through this will take some time.
        Be nice to him or he might ignore us.

  12. Can we step back.. to our blog discussion on this here

    Of course, it’s a Science Situation That Shouts Watch Out when a scientist is quoted as extrapolating from a historic study in some western forests to changing management practices on “Western dry forests” (from New Mexico to the Wenatchee, and from the Nebraska to the Cleveland?).

    “If he’s right, he and others say it means fuel-reduction programs aimed at removing trees and shrubs in the name of easing fire threats are creating artificial conditions that likely make dry forests less resilient.

    “It means we need to rethink our management of Western dry forests,” said Baker, a member of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working group that is developing plans to help bolster northern spotted owl populations in dry forests.”

    My problem is that you can’t get there from here logically. The argument for fuels treatments are that they reduce fuels and thereby change fire behavior to a preferred form. You also can’t just use historical data (even if people agreed) to claim that “forests will be less resilient if they are thinned.” You need an actual physical mechanism from “thinned forest” to “less resilient.” Your logic path would have to be transparent, and based on the characteristics vegetation and fuels have today and what we want them to be resilient to in the future. Now who would know about that. people who watch vegetation grow and respond to treatments (silviculture folks) and folks who watch prescribed and wildfires do what they do.

    So the problem is not which technique tells us more about the “real” past. The problem is that we keep thinking that those patterns tell us what people should do today.

    • Sharon: Here is where you and I consistently disagree, and I’m not sure why. First, if we want to learn about the “real” past, then it is very important which research techniqueS we use to make such a determination. Second, those patterns don’t tell us what we SHOULD do today, rather they tell us what we CAN do in a particular area, based upon past successes and failures — compared with current conditions and desired future conditions. It’s why architects study Rome and mathematicians use Greek words and symbols.

      The clearer we understand the dynamics and conditions of the past, the better we can identify our best options for achieving our current objectives. I am amazed and a little jealous that Baker has been at the same University for 20 years and is being funded by the USFWS. Actually, I’m not amazed.

  13. I do not view a higher degree as necessary but what i need to see is clear history of accomplishing a program of objective data collection and analysis, an effort which often may take you to conclusions that you did not expect or welcome. Such went my own MS work, although the phd panned out better. Never did publish the MS work but I went down with dignity. That makes for good science, I did get to explain my way out of that swamp.

    Simply stated, i want to see scientific rigor and when i see it, i can talk with people I may disagree with heartily. Such are the underpinnings of civilization.

    I respect activists but too often find i have too little to talk with since they have already made up their minds. I know that such passion can keep people in the struggle for decades but it makes for lousy conversation. I do appreciate matthew’s even, informed tone.

  14. george wuerthner has never completed a scientific study on his own and course work for that does not equal a completed research thesis. Period. Whatever course work he did at UO he never even started actual phd research and I also know cathy whitlock. Before I started college at age 31, i had lots of experience with forest data collection but that does not make me a scientist, s not a capable scientist. Period.

    So please, lets talk about bakers work and focus on that.


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