An op-ed from the NY Times last week by Chad T. Hanson and Michael Brune, who are against forestry provisions of the Farm Bill, now in Congress: “Using Wildfires as an Excuse to Plunder Forests: Logging won’t end the blazes that are sweeping the West.” Hanson is an ecologist whose research focuses on forest and fire ecology. Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.
The authors make at least one point of fact that hasn’t received enough attention:
“Most of the homes that were destroyed by wildfires over the past year, as in the Tubbs fire and Thomas fire last fall in California, were not primarily in forested areas, but in grasslands, shrub lands and oak savannas.”
They are correct that taking measures to help individual homes survive fires is important, but grasslands, shrub lands, and oak savannas will need some form of fuels management if the threat of large fires in these types of ecosystems is to be significantly reduced. Doing nothing means that large fires will remain a threat.
However, Hanson and Brune recycle old falsehoods in an attempt to make their case.
The Farm Bill provisions the object to “would include logging of old-growth forests and clearcutting of ecologically important post-fire habitat, upon which many imperiled wildlife species depend.”
Large-scale Logging of old-growth forests isn’t occurring on federal lands in the western US and isn’t likely to be used where fuels reduction is the goal. And “clearcutting of ecologically important post-fire habitat” typically occurs on very small portions of burned areas, such as the Chetco Bar Fire on the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest in 2017, which burned 170,321 acres of National Forest System lands. The USFS says it plans to salvage 71 million board feet of burned timber from 4,090 acres, or 2.5% of the Chetco Bar Fire area — 97.5% of the “ecologically important post-fire habitat” will remain.
(Note that the Chetco Bar Fire burned a total of 191,197 acres, a bit less than the area of New York City, 197,760 acres.)
The authors insist that “logging does nothing to curb fires. On the contrary, increased logging can make fires burn more intensely. Logging, including many projects deceptively promoted as forest ‘thinning,’ removes fire-resistant trees, reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy and leaves behind highly combustible twigs and branches.”
Forest thinning, if applied at the appropriate intensity for a site’s conditions, can lead to a significant decrease in fire severity and extent. See “Basic principles of forest fuel reduction treatments,” by noted fire ecologist James K. Agee and Carl N. Skinner of the USFS Pacific Southwest Research Station, who report in Forest Ecology and Management that “Applying treatments at an appropriate landscape scale will be critical to the success of fuel reduction treatments in reducing wildfire losses in Western forests.”