Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?

A new study recently published in ECOSPHERE, an open access journal, found “found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.”

Here’s the Abstract, and again the full study can be viewed here.


There is a widespread view among land managers and others that the protected status of many forestlands in the western United States corresponds with higher fire severity levels due to historical restrictions on logging that contribute to greater amounts of biomass and fuel loading in less intensively managed areas, particularly after decades of fire suppression. This view has led to recent proposals—both administrative and legislative—to reduce or eliminate forest protections and increase some forms of logging based on the belief that restrictions on active management have increased fire severity. We investigated the relationship between protected status and fire severity using the Random Forests algorithm applied to 1500 fires affecting 9.5 million hectares between 1984 and 2014 in pine (Pinus ponderosa, Pinus jeffreyi) and mixed-conifer forests of western United States, accounting for key topographic and climate variables. We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading. Our results suggest a need to reconsider current overly simplistic assumptions about the relationship between forest protection and fire severity in fire management and policy.

17 thoughts on “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?”

  1. Such a study ignores important items like the changes in firefighting tactics, and increased fuels loadings, since 1984 (33 years ago). Ironically, forest “protections” do not protect forests from destructive wildfires.

    • If fire is a natural process in forest ecosystems, and if species evolved under the influence of a variety of disturbances, including wildfire, what makes wildfire “destructive?”

      • Over 90% of all wildfires are man-caused. When those fires burn in overstocked and unhealthy stands (from decades of fire suppression), you get unhealthy fire. We’ve gone over this so many times. There are some realities that you MUST accept, bud! (We must all accept them and move on from there!)

      • 2ndOutLaw

        So you aren’t too concerned about “preserving” the existing forests in their present state?

        So you would be ok with properly planned and executed thinnings, clearcuts and other establishment harvests which mimic fires and other disturbances with less destructive impact?

        So you’re not really concerned about the endangered species that depend on the existing forests that wildfire destroys?

        So you aren’t too concerned about the loss of human life, health, property and infrastructure that comes from wildfires?

        What about all of the erosion caused by wildfire? I guess that you must think that those enviros that are worried about aquatic species are wackos?

        Sorry, but the contradictions wear me out.

        • Gil, seems he’s asking about how many systems evolved with fire as a part of the living cycles, so fire would be part of the system to be preserved. Far as I know, no system has ever evolved with clearcutting as an evolutionary factor, so I’m not sure where that question comes from…tim

          • Well, then, it’s a good thing that clearcutting in the Sierra Nevada has been banned in those National Forests, since 1993. AND, just how ‘natural’ was it for Indians to expertly manage their lands? The key issues on wildfires is that they should burn cool and that they are almost always human-caused. We should not be welcoming firestorms that cannot be mitigated.

            • “The key issues on wildfires is that they should burn cool.”

              I disagree entirely that this is a key issue on wildfires. Sure, perhaps in some types of forests, such as lower elevations ponderosa pine, these types of wildfires were common.

              However, the vast majority of forest types in the western U.S. are not ponderosa pine. Subalpine Fir, spruce and lodgepole pine forests make up a huge chuck of western forests and when wildfires burn in these forests (both historically and in modern types) theses types of forests are not set up to ‘burn cool.’

              • After fire suppression for decades, we simply cannot say that much of today’s wildfires have any chance at being ‘natural’. It is ludicrous to think that today’s wildfires are “natural and beneficial”. That just isn’t true and no amount of repetition will make it so, just like the idea that we can “prevent wildfires”.

                There has also been a major encroachment of flammable understory trees in those pine forests. Selective logging could restore those species compositions to a more fire resistant and resilient state.

          • Tim

            Re: “so fire would be part of the system to be preserved”

            “Preserved” is the key word.

            My response above 3.5 months ago is in regard to many comments made where “preservation” implies maintaining the forests in their current state right down to the stand level rather than accepting the dynamic nature of forests including succession from one forest type to another or even one age group to another. Sounds like you have no problem recognizing the dynamic nature of forests?

            So the only difference that might exist between us might be a question of whether or not mankind has any role to play in ameliorating/reducing unnecessarily high risks of catastrophic loss.

            I have asked 2ndLaw before and never received an answer about his and other enviros seeming contradictions in many of their positions. I even had a post on the subject one time. Since I never got an explanation, about 3.5 months ago, I thought I’d take the above approach to ask if he had changed his position and turned from “preservation” to allowing loss of species due to the dynamics of the world.

            For instance, I’d like to know:

            1) Why is it ok to shoot barred owls to preserve an inferior competitor with traits that make it less suitable to surviving in times of significant climate change like the NSO in an attempt to stop the dynamics of evolution?
            Why is it not ok to use forest management to maintain a forest in roughly the same conditions at the landscape level by manipulating the stand dynamics of individual stands to manage the dynamics and provide more diversity/heterogeneity that would provide a higher level of sustainability over the long term by reducing the peaks and valleys of cycles?

            2) What human interventions in the forest are acceptable to enviros? When is it ok to manage forest densities to reduce the risk of future damage to:
            — a Human health for a thousand or more miles down wind.
            — b) Infrastructure such as homes, reservoirs, roadways, private lands and forests.
            — c) Soils
            — d) Other forest dependent species.

            I’ve raised these questions a thousand times here and all that I get is ignored, obfuscation or derision. I still want to know because there will be no forward progress until we find something to agree on other than that our federal forests are worth saving. We can’t even agree on what “saving” means.

            • I noticed that Gil worked for Champion International and Plum Creek Timber Company during the era these timber corporations completely laid waste to wide swaths of Montana (and likely other states), liquidating entire old-growth forest ecosystems at an entirely un-sustainable rate. I don’t know a single forester in Montana who would defend what transpired during that period by Champion International and Plum Creek Timber Company. In fact, most all foresters in Montana, and even the mill owners, have completely disowned the practices of Champion International and Plum Creek during that era. Everyone also knows, as the U.S. Forest Service is certainly acutely aware, that those of us in Montana, and likely elsewhere, are still dealing with the wholesale destruction of forest ecosystems and watersheds, which complicate any modern management of public and private lands in our region. Perhaps Gil was issued “blinders” by Champion International and Plum Creek Timber when he graduated.

              • Matthew

                You don’t know anything about my 6-7 years of work with those two company’s in the Deep US South and in the Southeast but, hey, that’s never stopped you from slander by innuendo before so I’m beyond caring what you emote. “Perhaps” you stereotype too much. I know that it is hard work but, try getting all of the facts before you charge off into the night with your blinders on. See the contributor’s page for this blog for a link to my Linked-in resume if you want more info to twist against me.

  2. The way I look at these broad correlational studies is to take a real life area near me and ask two questions-(1) Is this true where I live/or where I worked? And (2) if it’s not true, what specific mechanism do the authors propose for how this happens? Actually, 2 is always a good question. Because usually in science, you would need to have a hypothesis. You test this hypothesis for why differences exist.You would also test other hypotheses. But first you have to find a difference to explain.

    So for me, I took central Oregon, where I spent a lot of work time on the ground. Our protected areas were “protected” (wilderness) because they were high, with poor growing conditions, so no roads had gotten into them. Even in Colorado, this is often the case. Higher, wetter, smaller trees. The authors say they corrected for that, but given their previous work (honestly) I would have a low level of trust for models that are complicated enough to take into account vegetation and weather combos across the western US.

    ” We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.” Who identified them as “having higher levels of biomass” I wonder…??? I think there might be places where that’s the case, say the SW where it’s drier at lower elevations so there’s more biomass, but not everywhere in the west. And if it varies across the west, does taking the average make any sense?

  3. In Southwestern Oregon it seems that since the northwest forest plan we have had more large catastrophic fires. All types of forest land have been burned, but especially those under the management of the forest service. I think the correlation could be made between fire severity and fire fighting philosophy and procedure. There also seems to be a correlation between active management, less fire, and no management, more fires.
    I find it hard to understand people who profess to care about the forest also promote its destruction by fire.


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