Guest opinion: Focus on defensible space, not large scale logging

The following piece was written by Steven Krichbaum, a PhD conservation biologist and longtime forest defender. Many of us in the forest protection community have been pushing some of these same ideas for almost twenty years now.- mk

It seems both major parties can be sadly misinformed about forests and fires. The president recently promoted logging as a way to curb fires even though studies have clearly shown it to be ineffective. Now two western Senators, Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., intend to introduce legislation to further Trump’s agenda.

The most comprehensive scientific analysis conducted on the issue of forest management and fire intensity found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging actually tended to burn much more intensely, not less. For instance, the Camp Fire which destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif., began in an area that had burned a mere ten years before and was then salvage logged.

Research on the “home ignition zone” by Dr. Jack Cohen of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Science Laboratory makes clear that the only strategy that consistently works for reducing fire impacts to human habitation, is to focus on the land within 100 feet of houses, not logging distant forests.

Defensible space
Reducing flammability within this 100-foot “defensible space” involves basic precautions such as fire-resistant roofing, pruning branches and small trees, and keeping gutters clear of dry leaves and needles. Also keep in mind that more than half of all the acreage that recently burned in the West occurred in non-forest vegetation like chaparral, sagebrush, and grasslands.

But it’s always the same prescription for our National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands: We need more stumps. Stumps for timber, stumps for wildlife management, stumps for restoration, and now stumps for fire management. The underlying consistency behind these rationalizations is the habitual dismissal of the critical importance of old and dead trees, wilderness conditions, natural disturbances, and limited roads to healthy forests.

In this case, both the Dec. 21 Executive Order (Federal Register Jan. 7, 2019) – that expedited logging on an area of our public lands larger than the entire state of Massachusetts – and now the Feinstein-Daines bill, use a tragedy to push the same thing that would be pushed even if the tragedy didn’t happen. Disregarded are fire drivers such as previous logging and extreme weather events. Not a peep about defensible space. No, instead come up with ‘more stumps!’

Pre-empting lawsuits
And this benighted approach to forests gets even worse. To expedite logging, Daines and Feinstein plan to legislatively slow or stop so-called “frivolous” lawsuits, in effect locking the public out of management decisions on our public lands. Whenever politicians feel compelled to pre-emptively lock the public out of our day in court, it’s a sure tell that something is rotten.

They must know that their proposal won’t withstand scrutiny in any court worth its name. Here’s a message to Daines and all those who think like him: Americans involved in legal efforts to stop the desecration of our public lands and their wildlife are not frivolous. According to you, we “frivolous” taxpayers get to subsidize the degradation and destruction of our precious homelands, we just don’t get to have a real say in it.

We do need new legislation, but not the toxic brew Feinstein and Daines are cooking up. We need legislation and policies that free the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from the internal and external pressures that promote and prioritize commercial logging and other exploitation. The focus must be on real protection, not legislation that exacerbates both the pressures and the underlying fire problem. Congress needs to drop this disastrous bill and instead facilitate protection of the “defensible space” around homes and development. And then pass legislation that puts an end to the ongoing logging-grazing-drilling-mining horror show on our public lands once and for all.

Steven Krichbaum, PhD, conservation biologist, forest protection activist for 30 years with grassroots groups. He lives in Staunton, Virginia.

19 thoughts on “Guest opinion: Focus on defensible space, not large scale logging”

  1. Of course we need to focus on both. Krickbaum should know that we have very strong environmental regulations protecting our public lands. He should also know very little logging takes place in our public forests. Our public forests are also the ones that burn the most. Maybe someday he can spend some time in our western forests and see for himself. The only “horror show” I have seen have been the catastrophic fires.

  2. Sadly, some people’s primitive ‘binary thinking’ forces them to never consider intermediate options. The idea that ‘doing nothing’ is the only viable option on all public lands is short-sighted, not based in science and not palatable to many western residents and their elected representatives. Even liberal California does not want to stand on the sidelines, watching their State’s forests die, rot and burn. We do need to act, while we still have some options. Some parts of the southern Sierra Nevada have no options left, with firestorms being the only option left, in those dead conifer forests.

  3. If that were true, why do people in my neck of the woods do more than 100 feet on private lands when they love their trees (moved here for them), when there is no market for the material?
    Misguided? Wrong?

    It’s OK to think “i’d prefer that people not do fuel treatments on federal lands”. It’s different to argue that 100 feet is all you need.

    I wonder why Senator Feinstein would put her name on something so wrong, maybe she and her constituents see things differently?

    • So, Sharon, are you saying that Dr. Jack Cohen, the U.S. Forest Service’s (and likely the world’s) leading home protection expert is wrong?

      Also, saying, as Dr. Krichbaum did: “Research on the ‘home ignition zone’ by Dr. Jack Cohen of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Science Laboratory makes clear that the only strategy that consistently works for reducing fire impacts to human habitation, is to focus on the land within 100 feet of houses, not logging distant forests.”

      …is not at all the same thing as saying “100 feet is all you need.”

      For whatever it’s worth, here’s a U.S. Forest Service piece touting the 100 foot Home Ignition Zone (which environmental groups have been also promoting for almost 2 decades now):

      And here’s an NPR piece featuring Dr. Cohen saying “The home ignition zone is limited to the house and its immediate surroundings out to about 100 feet.”

      • I agree that 100 feet from a home or other structure is important/necessary. But many folks also do work beyond that to reduce fuels. They do that around here even though (1) it costs them money and (2) the material can’t be sold. I doubt whether Cohen would say that they are wrong to do so.

        As I’ve said before, people in reality don’t want fire going through their communities. They don’t like evacuating. They don’t like smoke and water damage to their homes and interiors. Cohen’s framing is something like “given fires what is the best way to protect a structure” and my framing is “given fires, what is the best way to give firefighters a chance to keep undesirable fire effects from occurring, including destruction of communities and infrastructure, watershed problems, and so on.”

        Each of us gets to frame the problem our own way. Framing is a public policy, not a scientific exercise. To repeat, that’s why collaborative framing and design or research is recommended for public policy. That way you can get the framing discussion to be open and transparent, and the research follows in addressing the questions as framed by stakeholders involved.

        • Indeed, it is very useful to get everyone’s ‘framing’ on the table, so they can all be sorted out and averaged into something useful. Of course, “Compromise” is the easiest of the three ‘C-words’, and the last one to accomplish.

  4. I don’t understand this part.

    “To expedite logging, Daines and Feinstein plan to legislatively slow or stop so-called “frivolous” lawsuits, in effect locking the public out of management decisions on our public lands.”

    When I want to weigh in on public land issues I simply call or write my representatives. My representatives appropriate money or not and act in an oversight role. Surprisingly enough I’ve had reps call me back and discuss policy, and believe me it’s not due to non existent contributions. I don’t think there are any other entities that can legitimately claim to represent the interests of the public than our government agencies and our elected politicians.

  5. The truth is, “expedited logging” in the Sierra Nevada is not needed, as lawsuits against thinning projects aren’t very prevalent. Similarly, Hanson’s ‘jihad’ against salvage projects has deflated, as well. Efforts to increase the amount of acres treated have other issues blocking more management. There is a social license for the Forest Service to keep “thinning from below” but, that doesn’t fit into the eco-groups’ ‘business model’. We’ve already seen the Sierra Club take multiple steps backward, harvesting personal information and donations from their more-ignorant followers. Luckily, some of their previous followers don’t like this newer and less-humanistic version, desperate for money and influence.

  6. Here is a (sort of) response to the opinion piece.

    “To their credit, Daines and Feinstein agree on the need to accelerate treatments on overgrown forests where targeted thinning and timber removal can help reduce heavy fuel loads on national forests. The proposal can help expedite forest projects that can provide significant protection to communities, including treatments around roads, trails and transmission lines. The proposal could also help promote the utilization of low-value wood material as biomass that is converted to renewable energy. I suspect most would agree this is a better alternative than allowing the material to burn in the forest.”

    Without any specifics from the two Senators, the opposition is going with the ‘slippery slope’ response, seemingly opposing most forms of vegetation management.

    • For whatever it’s worth:

      The group Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities appears to be a front group with strong ties to the American Forest Resource Council. According to Guidestar, the princple officer of both the AFRC and Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities is Travis Joseph, who is president of AFRC.

      According to Guidestar, Travis Joseph makes almost $200,000 a year in salary and compensation with AFRC. If Mr. Joseph worked for a non-profit forest protection group and make 1/4 that amount annually, certainly it would’ve been mention on this blog in the past.

      According to Guidestar, all the 990 reports of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities include this information (or lack thereof):

      Maybe this information via Guidestar will help provide more context.

  7. Sharon: I can’t resist… “I don’t think there are any other entities that can legitimately claim to represent the interests of the public than our government agencies and our elected politicians.”

    Based on what I observe, the willing and voluntary decision to ignore “interests of the public” on the part of so many Sen’s and Rep’s on so many issues, means I can’t support the notion of legitimate. They are supposed to represent the public and some do, occasionally, but the stronger tendency nowadays is to curry favor with money or power or both.

  8. Pragmatically, I don’t see us being able to say “the government of our country is not legitimate” therefore we career feds should do whatever floats our moral boat instead of law, policy, and regs.

    I’m not a fan of many politicians, but I don’t really think they’re any worse people than they ever have been. They have just been rewarded for being snarky by the Twitterati and partisan extremists and not so much for getting their work as legislators done.

    In my part of the world, they do represent the public. E.g., in Colorado, I don’t believe that Governor Polis supports the marijuana industry or Senator Gardner supports the wind industry because of money or power (Polis has plenty of money anyway). They support them because they bring money and jobs to our state. Both can have health and environmental effects. But the fact is that people like renewable electricity and like to ingest pot.

  9. Sharon: my framing is “given fires, what is the best way to give firefighters a chance to keep undesirable fire effects from occurring”

    Everyone agrees that losing structures (especially those with people living in them) is an “undesirable fire effect,” but once you retreat to that generic description you start losing the “social license” to act. It starts to depend, and you have to involve everyone that might be affected. That is what the forest planning process should do – determine the desired condition, so we know what an undesirable fire effect would be.

  10. While I generally agree with the author of this op-ed, I am adjusting my thinking based on new science indicating that forest fuel conditions (even fuel conditions within “defensible space”) have minimal effect on the likelihood that nearby homes will burn. In fact, defensible space barely registers when looking at the probability of structure loss to wildfire. Maybe, the “middle ground” we should be seeking is some combination of attention to architectural design and fuels within 10-15 feet of structures. Wildland fuels seem to dominate the conversation, but maybe they just do not belong in the conversation.

    See Alexandra D. Syphard, and Jon E. Keeley 2019. Factors Associated with Structure Loss in the 2013–2018 California Wildfires. Fire 2019, 2(3), 49;,

    …defensible space and “hardening homes” via building construction practices or structure retrofits, collectively referred to as the home ignition zone (HIZ), have often been considered the primary factors that matter in terms of structures surviving wildfire [34,35]. Despite the widespread advocacy of these practices, there has been little empirical study of their effectiveness under actual wildfires, and there is still debate on how much defensible space is critical to home survival despite the regulated distance of 30 m (100 ft). In this study based on more than 40 k records of structures exposed to wildfires from 2013 to 2018 [in diverse regions of California], we found that, overall, defensible space distance explained very little variation in home survival and that structural characteristics were generally more important. Although the relative importance and relative risk ratios of different factors recorded by building inspectors varied slightly from region to region, there were also general similarities, particularly in that structure survival was highest when homes had enclosed or no eaves; multiple-pane windows, and screened vents. The only region in which defensible space distance explained at least 1% variation in structure survival was the Bay Area, where survived structures had an average of 9.7 m (~32 ft) of defensible space versus 7.4 m (~24 ft) for destroyed structures. … One potential explanation for the limited importance of defensible space in these data may be that the defensible space distance classes were defined rather broadly, too broad to discern critical details that may have a much bigger impact. Of the few studies quantifying the most effective distance of defensible space for making a significant difference in structure survival probability, Syphard et al. and Miner [19,21] both found the optimum distance to be much shorter than the required 30 m, with the ideal range between 5–22 m. Distances longer than that provided no additional significant protection. Furthermore, these and other studies have shown that more nuanced characteristics of landscaping are most critical for structure protection, including vegetation touching the structure or trees overhanging the roof [36]. The arrangement of vegetation and irrigation are also important factors not accounted for [20]. In fact, despite defensible space traditionally being divided into zones, with the first being from 0–9 m (30 ft) from the structure, newer recommendations are beginning to isolate and focus heavily on the first zone being from 0–1.5 m (5 ft) [37], which may be the most critical zone to account for.

    • But 2nd this “science” again frames the issue in terms of structural protection.. as I’ve said people don’t want fires going through their communities and so the question is how do you stop that? And the answer is before it gets there. And where is that? In the wild lands, in many circumstances. You don’t need a doctorate in the physics of flammability to figure that out.

      • You might need a doctorate in the physics of flammability to figure out “where is that,” since the probability of anything being effective seems like it would decline the farther you get from what you want to protect. Better to frame the question as how far out do you want to go from what you want to protect, but that also should assume that the highest priority would be to start closest to it – i.e. structural protection.

        • Around where I live, we have notable experiences with fires, both adjacent to NFS and on only private land. Most people here subscribe to the both/and school. We don’t want fire running through our communities. We don’t want to have elders evacuated from nursing home, horses, cattle, alpacas, goats evacuated and so on.

          But if it does come through we want the best communication, evacuation planning, structural protection.

          Perhaps conveniently there are different policy actors involved. On the National Forests they can provide places where suppression folks can stop the fires before they hit us. On the residential end, towns, counties and states can regulate and require access for fire vehicles and evacuation, building codes and so on. And there are insurance companies and homeowners who also have a role to play.

          The Forest Service can’t require building materials, and the county can’t prioritize federal thinning and fuels reduction projects (although in many places the FS and residents collaborate). Everyone has their part to play.

          Don’t see why “both and” is so resisted by some.

          • It is helpful to point out that the different policy actors can lead to talking past each other. I meant my point to include using National Forest System funding to start with the national forest lands closest to the structures (and whatever else the public has determined to be equal priority). That should be the “wildland urban interface” rather than your “wild lands.” But that terminology may provide another opportunity to talk past each other if the WUI can be identified anywhere a community wants it – instead of going through an appropriate public forest planning process.


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