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.