Efficacy of Whole Tree Harvest Thinning in Reducing Fire Severity

Don’t ya love the black trunk scorching. Classic ponderosa. Color these photos black and white and you can step back in time 150 years ago. This was your pre-settlement forest. The Park retained a nice “clumpy” layout here.
A more traditional spacing of 25 feet between trees. The 25′ spacing is the minimum to stop a crown fire. Don’t ya love that grass!


The photos above were taken at Chadron State Park in the northwest corner of Nebraska. You couldn’t find a more warm/dry Ponderosa Pine habitat than this with annual precipitation of around 16 inches. As with most recreation areas in the West that sought to “preserve,” very little logging occurred in the last one hundred years (if any) and the average tree spacing was around 8-10’. I visited the park about 6 years ago right after the Park did a whole tree harvest thinning fuels treatment in anticipation of a wildfire just like the one that burned through last summer.

When looking at these photos, some would make the claim that this proves “fuels treatments don’t stop wildfires” and end their analysis there. But that ignores the fact that while 90% of the 1000 acre park burned, 80% of the forest is still green while 100% of the adjacent USFS lands is black having suffered a stand replacing crown fire. The “surface fire” in the Park was extinguished before it burned the 10% of the Park that contained 30 rental cabins, 80 camp sites, a lodge, picnic sites, and assorted infrastructure. Fuels treatments don’t stop fires, but that’s where firefighters stop them. The thinning in the park turned what would have been a stand replacing crown fire into nothing but an unscheduled prescribed fire. The thinning in the park turned what would have been a stand replacing crown fire into nothing but an unscheduled prescribed fire. But…but…but…of course, I suppose it “is” possible the Park survived because “the wind” just stopped blowing when the fire reached the section line dividing the Forest Service property from the Park.

Fuels treatments isn’t about “stopping the fire.” We’d have to pave it over to do that. Fuels treatments is about making it easier for firefighters to extinguish the fire but most importantly it’s about “what’s still green” after the fire. Because of the fuels treatments, a 70 year legacy of family reunions, weddings, and cool shady getaways on hot August weekends can now continue for generations to come. Every local, state, and federal recreation area in the West should be, and is, doing these kinds of fuels treatments. What better place to showcase the “efficacy of fuels treatment.” When the public sees these “green islands” in a sea of black untreated forests….they’re gonna wonder why the USFS didn’t do them everywhere.


The bottom two photos are examples of Whole Tree Harvesting. 

Whole tree harvesting one week after logging. Note the light on the land touch and total absence of any “slash.” The bottom photo is one “day” after logging. Absolutely no slash or surface fuels. This stand was pre-commercially thinned 30 years ago and had a tree every 8 feet.Image
The best kept secret of forestry is the “thinning release.” Thinning greatly increases the diameter growth rate of the remaining trees. This tree put on 7″ diameter growth in the 32 years since it was thinned in 1972, and about 10 times the cross section volume growth than in the first 46 years. In 20 years, the trees in Chadron Park will be 18-20″ diameter. A nice legacy for the next generation I’d say…considering the alternative.



26 thoughts on “Efficacy of Whole Tree Harvest Thinning in Reducing Fire Severity”

  1. Whole-tree logging also depletes the site of the mineral content of the foliage and branchwood. “No free lunch”, you know.
    And thinning has been a badly kept secret for two hundred years or so.

  2. Ron, welcome to our blog! How much foliage and branches do you think need to remain on the site to keep the “right amount” of minerals?

  3. Derek: Nice! I would argue, though, that the upper picture has a snag and large woody debris that likely was absent 150 years ago — either gathered for firewood or burned up in repeated ground fires. Good example and good points!

  4. Ron

    Re: “Whole-tree logging also depletes the site of the mineral content of the foliage and branchwood.”

    I don’t agree

    –> First let’s address the ridiculous even though it is certainly not what you were referring to:
    Whole tree logging does not remove (deplete) the “foliage and branchwood” from the site as you claim. If we consider the normal meaning of “site” that would mean that we were removing it from the acreage on which the logging job was being carried out. I have never seen a logging truck going down the highway with the tops still attached along with all of the branches and foliage still attached 🙂 They wouldn’t get very far before they were pulled over for endangering the public. 🙁 Only rarely have I seen a logging truck go down the road with more than one or two small branches still attached. So I am quite certain that this is not what you are referring to.

    –> Next let’s remember that true whole tree logging isn’t even feasible where tree height and load length limits exclude it. If the tree has to be bucked for products in the woods or to fit onto a log truck, it isn’t true whole tree logging as it was originally envisioned. True whole tree logging takes the whole tree to a mill where it is bucked into it’s products. The conceptual advantage being that bucking can be optimized better in a mill than in the woods. Unfortunately, dealing with the pulpwood in the tops at a mill is a very inefficient process so I believe that true whole tree logging is on its way out if not already out. So I will assume that you are talking about skidding whole trees to a logging/landing deck and then topping, limbing and merchandizing them there instead of where they are felled.

    –> Next let’s address normal whole tree skidding practices:
    Landing site management and skidding ease dictate that you keep all of the tops, branches, and foliage in the woods if there is any way possible.
    1) A lot of whole tree logging is done in such a way that a feller/delimber is used and the tops, limbs and foliage is dropped right where the tree is cut.
    2) Even when the tops, limbs and branches are left on the tree and skidded to the landing deck, they have to be cut off at the deck/landing and then removed from the deck to keep the deck functional. In that sort of “at the deck” operating environment, on the next round, the skidder hauls the tops, limbs and branches back and spreads them along the skid trail or near where they were cut.
    ——> In either case, the tops, limbs and foliage are left in the woods and their minerals are returned to the soil and available to the next generation of trees. If the removal of minerals was a significant issue it would be because of the removal of the bole not the removal of the foliage or the limbs. Boles have been removed in successive stands for centuries in places like the Black Forest in Germany (and maybe even limbs for fuel) and the forests are still going strong. If the mineral content available to grow trees was such a fine line that the balance between sufficient and insufficient minerals hung on leaving the tops, limbs, and foliage in the woods then it would seem logical that with significant variation around the mean for mineral content available and after four or more generations of plantation management in the US south, we should have many reported cases of decreasing productivity by now and those stands would be a common topic for discussion since they would be extremely important to anyone interested in or practicing forestry.
    What experience we do have with nutrient/mineral deficiencies was tied (in the south) to the very old post clearcut practice of bulldozing all of the stumps, residuals and a bunch of topsoil into a pile or windrow and burning the pile or windrow. It didn’t take many years or a rocket scientist to notice that the trees planted on both sides of the ashes and soil left in the old windrows grew fantastically while all of the other trees planted between the windrows looked pretty sad. The practice went out of fashion pretty quickly in forestry.

  5. Good morning
    We all want to stop forest fires and there are numerous ystems that help
    One question ¿Why do crown forest have. more fires comparared to those held in private ownership?
    Why dont we make a contest and determine which one is/are the best with a fat prize on it that incentivates participation.
    Whether the idea is accepted or not here is my proposal:
    Bamboo has gained many qualities as time passes by buy one that is seldom used is the capacity of bamboo of stopping fires if it sorrounds a forest.
    The advantage of this technology is that a lot of bamboo wouldbe planted
    and believe it or not you might be surprised that this system will enhace the properties
    and uses given by bamboo( when harvested) that we may end up discovering that
    bamboo is even a better,faster growing and more profitable than wood-
    Come on innovators, let us see that a simple and easy innovation this is?
    Of course it does not have the gleam that forest product innovation like using new equipment that is also used in MEDICAL CARE and uses open up the field of knowing in advance what is inside of the tree before sawing. There will be soon a SEMINAR ON THESE SUBJECTS and I bet therewill be a big media intervention and although I do not know
    the amounts of money invested in these innovations I can assure that the relationship
    of cost/benefit will favor will favor bamboo Remeber that we still have not solved a fast and efficient or artifitially drying firewood and last but not least is our lack of interest to innovate
    Technologies to increase the yield of lumber from a log? These two items ,that do not have
    the popularity of the innovations that I mentioned earlier
    Please let us wake up,and recover our prestige we had before the Spotter owl
    syndrome and tell the world that we contribute even more , TO THE WELLBEING OF OUR TREES..

    • Pablo- I don’t think bamboo is the answer as
      1) it doesn’t grow in all the places it would need to.. some places are too dry and others too cold.
      2) it’s a non-native. Generally we like native trees and would prefer them. I guess that makes us arbo-nativists.
      3) I’m sure bamboo has other unattractive properties. Where it used to grow in Virginia where i lived it was a big rat hang-out.

  6. If this is a pre-settlement forest where is the aspen? On FS it is returning but on state ground hardwood release is absent. I’ve explored the Nebraska Pine Ridge extensively and the state’s efforts prove nothing. Humans used fire as a weapon on these biomes for at least 10,000 years so until credible metrics determining why pre-European forests are the norm Derek’s observations look like logging wet dreams to me.


  7. Larry, I don’t understand what you are saying…are you saying there is aspen on the state lands but it’s not coming back?

    I also don’t understand this sentence

    Humans used fire as a weapon on these biomes for at least 10,000 years so until credible metrics determining why pre-European forests are the norm Derek’s observations look like logging wet dreams to me.

    • Sharon: all my theses on the human manipulation of western forests are posted at my website. Trying to get 400 pages through your spam filter would be crazy-making.

    • Looks like hawthorne and cheatgrass to me.

      Sharon: nobody knows what these forests looked like 10,000 years ago. ‘Restoring’ it to habitat pre-settlement is only part of the equation. Tribes used weaponized wildfire against one another and burned vast areas preemptively to prevent that as they also cleared pine forests for bison and wapiti.

      • Larry: If you are going to just start making things up, you will need to provide some references. A lot of people have a pretty good idea of what forests looked like 10,000 years ago. I’d start with Henry Hansen, a palynologist, and go from there. Where are you getting your “warfare” information? Why do you think Indians burned pine forests for elk and bison? By “pre-settlement” do you mean by white people or by Indians? I think you need to do a little more reading and reflection before making statements such as these — and please start referencing your statements if you think they are factual.

  8. Those stands look very simplified and sterile to me, just a tree farm with large trees. Natural forests have much more diversity and spatial complexity.

    Contrary to Bob Z’s unfounded views, natural forests have much more dead wood and snags. Frequent fires would have consumed a subset of the dead wood, but some would have persisted through several patchy fires. Plus fire (and other disturbances) caused mortality that recruited dead wood with each new fire (and other disturbance).

    • Tree: Contrary to your simplistic assertions, my perspective is founded on a significant amount of actual research by people with real names and actual credentials. The frequent fires were set by Indians and did not create the conditions you described. Most of what I have claimed can be readily documented with historical maps, photographs, eyewitness accounts, and field measurements. Your claims cannot be found in nature. That’s why we’re having so many wildfires these days — politically influential people (ones with names) spreading scenarios like you describe as if they were based on actual facts, not conjectural computer models and rationalizations.

    • Solid 40 year old brushfields (like the ones burning on the Rim Fire) are also quite sterile and dangerous to keep in that condition. Who knows what that thick brush hides underneath the thick layer of brush?

      “Natural” stands, around here, have very large ponderosa pines, very little understory, and a thick carpet of water-stealing bear clover, covered in flammable oils. When it burns, it burns cool and fast. Yes, it is the same stuff we used to use herbicides on. I believe that bear clover can play an important role in our forests’ future, aiding in “fuels management”.

    • Tree

      Get a silviculture book on Ponderosa Pine, read it and then tell us you are sorry for accusing Bob of not knowing what he is talking about when you were the one who didn’t know what he was talking about.

      • Thanks, Gil: That made me laugh! In my earlier blogging career I used to lecture these nameless “experts” with the advice to “read, then write,” which of course never stopped them. I usually have no interest in responding to these shadowy know-it-alls except for the teachable moments (to other readers, certainly not them) they afford us. Unfortunately, there are so many such moments with these guys that it is exhausting to try and respond to even a small fraction of them — and, worse, their usual recourse is to resort to mindless ad hominem attacks when they have a light thrown in their direction — which, reasonably, turns off many of the people we are actually trying to reach. Now I just try to get out the bug spray and attempt to keep them from sucking up too much of my time and energy.

    • Fire Maintenance

      Unfortunately the special interest ‘ologists’ and environmentalists don’t trust anyone but themselves which clearly demonstrates that they don’t have any common sense. Obviously training and experience mean nothing to them. Unproven theory is what really counts. That is what we need to trust. 🙁

      They have it all figured out as nature only – so let’s give it to them – reduce the USFS budget to fire fighting only and further limit it to firefighting only on areas which immediately threaten communities of 50 or more people. We lost communities a lot bigger than that to the NSO and the ‘ologists’ and environmentalists didn’t mind that. After all if we believe in nature only then common sense would tell us to ‘let nature rule’. If we are lucky it’ll keep our debt ceiling from having to be raised for a couple of days and we won’t need any foresters, ologists or anybody else in the USFS not directly involved in fire fighting. 🙁 Shoot, the global warming people will like that because they’ll have an near term cause to rally around. Maybe they’ll even hire some ‘ologists’ and environmentalists to explain why nature only isn’t working and human intervention is required. Nah, I’m dreaming. 🙂

  9. Bob…I have to add, that if it were 150 years ago….they’re would be fewer trees…and more multi story uneven age.

    Nutrient cycling? How much nutrient cycling from limbs was there in a pre-settlement forest that was frequently burned. Seems I read once, that most soil nutrients in a forest came from the needle cast itself….hence the duff layer. The “required” 10-15 tons/acre of “woody debris” was left behind…even though the “one day” thinning was near a major highway and that requirement may have been waived. I asked PeTer Kolb once, who has spent extensive time researching German forestry, if after two hundred years of logging had their forests suffered any kind of nutrient deficiency…he said,”To the contrary, because of industrial pollution, growth rates had increased 20% !” LOL.

    Sterile? Sterile would have been the high intensity stand replacing fire on the USFS side…and THAT is how the public would look at it. When I look at these photos, I’m reminded of the quotes of early settlers in the SW that said it was so open you could ride a Buggy through.

    Gil…the whole tree harvesting here skids the limbs and tops to the landing, where they are “boom delimbed” and the slash piled and burned in winter. The burned piles are then scarified, sprayed, ripped and seeded.

    Finally, if “thinning” doesn’t work…then why is it that the pre-settlement p-pine forests that were “naturally thinned” by fire very resistant to stand replacing crown fires. It’s not rocket science logic here.

    If no common ground can be found thinning the “fire suppression generation” of trees in stands that were logged off 100 years ago….then there can be no “common ground.”

    • Derek: 150 years ago there may have been no trees — or a lot less, that’s for sure. In pine there would be multiple ages, as you say. Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, lodgepole, redalder, and several other PNW species seem to develop as even-aged stands for the most part.

      The whole “nutrient cycling” argument is absurd. Gore invented photosynthesis just so green plants could produce their own food. And just think about all of the tons of stumps and roots left behind following a logging operation. What about them?

      The Kalmiopsis Wilderness/Biscuit Burn landscape has been above water since the time of dinosaurs, and is still mostly surface rock in many places that still grow trees. Roots and weathering rock produce soil that grows trees, then much of it is blown into the air during catastrophic wildfire events, or flushed toward the ocean during landslides or flooding. Then trees start growing again, just like always.

      Conifer trees need water, a rooting surface, and some trace minerals and they grow, just like always. They are more complex than algae, but not by much. An eight-year old child has older cells than any redwood or sequoia. The “nutrient cycling” nonsense needs to be challenged at some point. It’s barely even true and hardly a factor, if at all.


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