George Wuerthner on the Poison Pills in the GOP’s House Farm Bill

The following piece was written by George Wuerthner. – mk

In the coming week or so, Congress will be considering the Farm Bill which has numerous inappropriate amendments for our public forests approved in the House but not in the Senate version. The bill’s fate will be decided in a conference committee between the House and Senate. It is critical that Senator John Tester not support the House bill as written because of numerous anti-environmental provisions that will fail to protect communities and increase fire intensity resulting from more logging.

Among the poison pills in the bill are provisions designed to speed logging in the West under the guise of reducing large wildfires. Not only is logging ineffective at halting large fires which are primarily driven by extreme fire weather/climate, but there are many ecological “costs” to logging including the spread of weeds, sedimentation from logging roads, loss of carbon storage, and disturbance to sensitive wildlife.

The House version of the Farm Bill would reduce the requirement for NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) which protects our public lands from unmitigated logging projects. This will eliminate government accountability.

The bill would also expand the use of “Categorical Exclusions” (CE) to 6000 acres that could lead to clearcuts as large as 9 square miles without any public review. Furthermore, there is no limit on CEs, so the agency could log one 6000-acre block and immediately adjacent log a second or third 6000-acre block.

How big is 6000 acres? A football field is about an acre—so imagine 6000 football fields being cleared of trees.

The worse thing about the proposed House Farm Bill is that these provisions are not based on science, but on flawed assumptions about the effect of logging on wildfires.

Recently more than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived.

Worse, such solutions simply do not work under extreme fire weather conditions. With climate change, we are experiencing more extreme fire weather conditions.

To quote from the scientists’ letter: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity…However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

The letter goes on to say: “Thinning large trees, including overstory trees in a stand, can increase the rate of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased wind velocity, damage soils, introduce invasive species that increase flammable understory vegetation, and impact wildlife habitat.”

“Thinning also requires an extensive and expensive roads network that degrades water quality by altering hydrological functions, including chronic sediment loads”, the letter states.

It is critical that Senator Tester does not support phony solutions in the House Farm Bill will not work.

Over 38 Senators and over 100 Congressional Representatives signed a letter to Conferees to reject the House provisions. Hopefully, Senator Tester can join with his colleagues and reject this flawed plan for forest mismanagement.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including two on fire ecology.

9 thoughts on “George Wuerthner on the Poison Pills in the GOP’s House Farm Bill”

  1. The letter acknowledges that “When fire weather is not extreme, thinning-from-below of small diameter trees followed by prescribed fire, and in some cases prescribed fire alone, can reduce fire severity in certain forest types for a limited period of time.” But it does not propose to increase thinning. What’s the alternative proposed action? The main policy recommendation is, “Policies should be examined that discourage continued residential growth in ecosystems that evolved with fire.”

    • I’m pretty sure that “thinning-from-below” means smaller than commercial size. Also, is he implying that such a 6000 acre clearcut would include rivers, lakes, old growth, streams, rocks, marshes, cultural sites, botanical sites, nest trees, etc, etc, etc?

      Or, is he just making up conspiracy theories, complete with tin foil hats?

  2. Aside from, and perhaps more important than, fire considerations, thinning is essential to maintain forest health and resistance to insect and disease attack. Those of us who garden know that an un-thinned row of carrots or an un-weeded garden plot produces stunted plants and reduced yields. “Carrying capacity” is usually thought of as applying to numbers of animals (Including humans) on a given area but the basic concept is also valid for plants. Too high basal area per acre means less vigorous and less resilient individual trees, and increased mortality from drought or insect attack.

    Larry, “thinning from below” is commonly used in overdense stands of commercial size. — And for the non-forester readers— the stems removed may be appear to be healthy and have living foliage but must be harvested for the future well-being of the stand. The recent dramatic increase in the mortality of national forest timber, especially in the western U.S., is the result of decades of hands-off management and fire exclusion that has produced crowded, aging timber stands unable to survive the stesses of a changing climate.

    • Yes, I have implemented thinning from below, selecting which trees (of the available pool) live and die. I would have no trouble defending my marking choices, and I’ve always prodded my crew members to defend their own work.

      Most government foresters have worked under some sort of diameter limits but, having a strict 30″ limit, it sends another important variable into the mix. The real skill in my style of timbermarking is the ability to pick and pluck some of co-dominant white firs between 24 and 29.9 inches dbh.

      I was merely pointing out that some people (like George?) think “thinning” is non-commercial.

  3. Is there any measurable reduction in fire severity from “picking and plucking” large trees? Does that have any ecological benefits? Or is it just about the MBF and $$?

    As for policies, the obvious one is to thin from beyond. That is, thin areas closest to the values at risk, usually not on public land.

    • Absolutely! Much of the Sierra Nevada has been allowed to become too dense, with white fir and cedar being most of the additional understory, due to fire suppression and previous logging. Such trees also have increased water requirements, and are extremely flammable. Separating crowns is also important in reducing crown fires, as well as fire intensities. Besides, they really aren’t “large trees” in the bigger picture. In the Sierra Nevada, a 26″ dbh white fir is not considered to be “large”. Spacing is important, and if a flammable tree, under 30″ dbh is too close to a better tree, it has to go (unless it is in a human-designated clump).

      With the Forest Service’s dependence on Temporary Employees marking timber, this is the area of expertise that is lacking. They don’t have the experience or ‘gumption’ to see that more of those trees over 20″ dbh should be removed.

      This all fits in with my personal principles of restoration:
      1) Restore tree densities to match current annual site-specific precipitation levels.
      2) Restore more resilient site-specific species compositions.
      3) Restore forest structures to a more all-aged condition.

  4. I could be wrong about this but last I recall FS NEPA regulations required notice and comment on CE projects. If you look under the tab at the top CE Fuel Treatment Examples from the Farm Bill CE’s you will see public comment opportunities. If that is still true, Wuerthner’s statement “without public review” is inaccurate. I don’t expect that many of the scientists on the letter have reviewed FS NEPA regs, the processes involved in other CE’d fuel treatment projects, how objections work, understand the concept of “extraordinary circumstances” nor have reviewed many fuel treatment effectiveness reports.

    • Thanks, Eric! I had a memory lapse with the term “scoping”. Note: Tony Erba and I had a discussion on how these regs (dated 2013) interrelate with the 2014 Farm Bill CE’s. Maybe someone somewhere has a
      a complete list that shows all the current legislated and regulation CE’s and whether they have different approaches to scoping or extraordinary circumstances than the current regs. Then we could take a look at what’s in the HR bill and compare. I see a table:
      project purpose- acres -collaboration requirements- scoping requirements- extraordinary circumstances -other requirements..


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