Mechanical Thinning vs. Prescribed Fire in the Age of Escaped Prescribed Fires

Having perused perhaps zillions of news stories since the inception of TSW, I would have a request of media folks for the betterment of understanding, dialogue, and all that. Please use the word “some”! As in “some” foresters think, “some” ecologists think and so on. I know that’s difficult because it raises the question “what do the other ones think?” I can safely say that in no group with which I’ve been affiliated, that means, my scientific discipline, my professional society, the Forest Service, and our retirees’ organizations… does everyone agree.. pretty much about anything. This thought was triggered by this article on the old “PB vs. mechanical treatments” discussion. This article tends to highlight the “scientists know best and they want PB” view.

Forest restoration versus wildfire mitigation
At its core, the debate between thinning and prescribed fire is one of purpose.

Thinning can achieve what it is intended to do, which is reduce wildfire risk, but it cannot be a replacement for fire and does not address forest restoration, said Bill Baker, an emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Wyoming who wrote the book “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”

“If the goal is restoration, the problem mechanical thinning has is that we don’t have a very good understanding of what those forests really looked like, historically,” he said.

(some) Ecologists believe that mixed conifer and ponderosa pine forests evolved a particular organization called the “ICO structure.” ICO stands for individual, clumps and openings, meaning that forests evolved to have areas with gaps between individual trees, areas where trees of different sizes were clumped closely together and openings where there were no trees.

That structure represented a “healthy” forest.

But after European colonization and the drastic reshaping of the West’s forests, in part for timber production, ecologists and forest managers have little sense of what that looked like locally in Southwest Colorado’s forests.

Of course, there are differences about the whole concept of “forests” evolving. We know species evolve, but there are basically two schools of thought. 1. Species come together through space and time and evolve genetically as they perceive the environment. This could be called the Dynamic Species Assemblages point of view 2. There is a correct way of which species are there interacting, which I think either goes back to holism or some other philosophy, which would be interesting to discuss. Whatever it is, without a mechanism, it’s not science even if scientists talk about it, seemingly authoritatively.

I don’t know about the “drastic reshaping” of Colorado’s forests for timber production. Trees don’t grow very fast in most of Colorado; hence people cut them down at various times in the last 100 years (for mining or railroads or fuel) or so and they may not have had time to grow back to timber-ish size.

1 thought on “Mechanical Thinning vs. Prescribed Fire in the Age of Escaped Prescribed Fires”

  1. You’ve taken a statement that says “Ecologists believe” that this “structure represented a healthy forest” and turned it into “scientists know best and they want PB.” Not the same. (The link is to a home page rather than this article.)

    When the word “some” is used it could refer to the fringes of the marginally informed, and I think it is important to know what the weight of expert scientific opinion is. I suspect that this statement about ecologists in that framing is valid, especially if “healthy forest” means the same thing to all of them – like “sustainable.”


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