The following guest opinion from Dr. James Burchfield appeared in a number of Montana newspapers over the past few days. Dr. Burchfield had a 20 year career with the U.S. Forest Service, including working as a field forester. Later, he served as the Director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana and after that Dr. Burchfield was the widely respected Dean of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, also at the University of Montana. – mk
Solution to wildfire crisis is not more logging
By James Burchfield
It’s time to put to rest the myth that the solution to the West’s wildfire crisis is more logging. Even well-managed forest stands will burn. The primary driver of our expanded, more intense wildfire seasons is climate change. One cannot be simultaneously in favor of healthy, resilient forests while denying climate change.
Higher summer temperatures, less winter snowpack, more frequent droughts, and uncharacteristic, windy storm events are the ingredients of unstoppable wildfires. These characteristics result from human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Unless we collectively address the root of the problem, other attempts to protect our forests will fail.
Thankfully, forest management has become more sensitive to natural processes, and modern treatments have moved away from the heavy hand of clear cuts and tried to recreate the complex mosaics of natural vegetation patterns. But the curve ball of climate change coupled with the expansion of human settlement in dry forest environments has made forest management more challenging than ever. What we don’t need are drastic approaches demanding more logging while foregoing environmental review and analysis.
Science continues to inform us of nuanced impacts of forest interventions. For example, recent research has shown that many forest fuel treatments that focus on thinning do not improve forests’ ability to absorb carbon because they remove so many trees that overall photosynthesis diminishes. However, forest treatments in some forest types that are developed to retain and recruit large trees — sometimes through combinations of harvest and prescribed burning — can over the long term lead to carbon-absorbing, more fire-resilient forests. We can develop these projects through careful, site-specific design, but they are not a panacea.
Unfortunately, all the forest management in the world won’t stop forests from burning at higher levels unless we turn down the heat. We can also help our cause by being responsible landowners and controlling the growth of new human developments in fire prone ecosystems. Yet the real solution depends on shortening the fire season, reducing summer temperatures, and keeping the water cycle intact. This implies a real commitment to climate action, and the recently signed Montana Climate Change Action Plan is a valuable first step. Let’s not be lured into counterproductive schemes that result from our dismay from this difficult fire season. We all need to put our shoulder to the wheel to reduce our carbon footprint and tackle climate change. Our forests depend on it.
Before retiring, James Burchfield worked as a field forester for the Forest Service and served as Dean of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.
8 thoughts on “Dr. James Burchfield: Solution to wildfire crisis is not more logging”
Very thoughtful discussion on the role of climate change and excessive WUI development in the catastrophic wildfires. Thank you!
The reality is that there is not enough that can be done in the next few years to “shorten() the fire season, reducing summer temperatures, and keeping the water cycle intact. W
What we have to do is to mitigate and to adapt, using the tools available to us, which includes reducing the fuel loading and reducing stocking in many forest types.
Mitigate and adapt. Well said! More logging is not THE solution but increased judicious stand treatment is a part of the solution.
“However, forest treatments in some forest types that are developed to retain and recruit large trees — sometimes through combinations of harvest and prescribed burning — can over the long term lead to carbon-absorbing, more fire-resilient forests.”
That is what has been done for the last 27 years, in Sierra Nevada National Forests. That is their style of ‘commercial logging’, yet some ‘grumblers’ would like to see that come to an end, talking about stuff like “increased fire behavior from thinning the forest”. That’s a very weak argument, considering historical forests had significantly lower tree densities than today.
With all due respect to Jim, this essay is full of straw personages
No reasonable person thinks
“It’s time to put to rest the myth that the solution to the West’s wildfire crisis is more logging”
no one said it is the “solution” (except perhaps stray politicos?) but thinning forests in places can help suppression folks and change fire behavior. I don’t think this is at all controversial in Colorado or New Mexico.. so why in Montana?
“One cannot be simultaneously in favor of healthy, resilient forests while denying climate change.”” Unless we collectively address the root of the problem, other attempts to protect our forests will fail.” “Unfortunately, all the forest management in the world won’t stop forests from burning at higher levels unless we turn down the heat. ”
Who’s denying climate change? Here’s what the climate scientists themselves said as I quoted in this post https://forestpolicypub.com/2020/09/18/climate-science-voyage-of-discovery-climate-attribution-for-wildfires-and-the-science-journalism-translation/:
“In the long-term, reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions is the most direct path to reducing this risk, though the near-term impacts of these reductions may be limited given the many sources of inertia in the climate system . Fortunately, a broad portfolio of options already exists, including the use of prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads and improve ecosystem health , upgrades to emergency communications and response systems, community-level development of protective fire breaks and defensible space, and the adoption of new zoning rules and building codes to promote fire-resilient construction.”
Now, if the climate scientists say that in the near term the effects of even drastic reductions will be limited…and they say there are a portfolio of other options.. why does Jim believe that “other attempts will fail.”
Note that the climate scientists said PB, which in some places you can’t do without preliminary mechanical treatments… AKA “logging”, I guess if the trees are big enough and you sell them.
I’m reading this differently and don’t see a conflict. Jim is just saying that the “portfolio of other options” would fail if we don’t address carbon. (I think we are seeing some of those failures now.) I don’t think the climate scientists (who are not experts on preventing fires, by the way) are opining that we can do just those other options. They are assuming we are also reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
Here’s one of those other options – stopping development in fire-prone areas. (Good to see a CBD lawsuit targeting that part of the problem, too.)
“As wildfires rage across Northern California, the Center for Biological Diversity sued Lake County today for approving a sprawling new luxury resort and residential development in fire-prone Guenoc Valley, just north of Napa County. The site approved for the Guenoc Valley Mixed-Use Planned Development Project has repeatedly burned over the past few years and is currently under an evacuation order due to the encroaching LNU Complex lightning fires.”
You’d like to think that the fires would have more of depressing effect on the market for housing there than they seem to have so far. There’s a map overlaying the proposed development area and the fire perimeter.
I’ll bet much of the members of the money-extractive litigation industry live in fire-prone WUI’s, too.