Let’s Discuss: the Norm-and-Jerry MOG Op-ed in Politico

Side note: whatever your thoughts, please comment on the MOG ANPR here. That is Mature and Old Growth Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  Some people have had trouble finding the link, perhaps due to the bizarre title “Organization, Functions, and Procedures; Functions and Procedures; Forest Service Functions.”  Comments are due June 20th. We appear to be in the middle of a major media campaign on the MOG, so this seems like a good time to discuss some concepts.

Norm Christenson and Jerry Franklin had a an op-ed in Politico yesterday.  I’m a big Jerry Franklin fan, based on my personal interactions with him since the 80’s. I’ve told some of the stories before, so I won’t bore you with them again. Mostly our disagreements have been about west-side vs. east-side practices, ecology and experience.

I like how they tagged on the wildfires in Canada to “underscore the need to let our current mature forest grow old.”  You could also argue that the wildfires in Canada underscore the fact that wildfires are a danger when trying to use forests to mitigate climate change.  Because if you believe that climate change will cause forests not to grow back, you’ve just blown your last tree sequestration opportunity plus released much carbon (and PM2.5).

“It turns out the age and composition of forests makes a big difference in what role they play in preventing wildfires and storing carbon. Old growth forest is the best at both, but there is very little old growth left in either the western or eastern United States.”

I would argue that old growth forest in some species/places is not the best in “preventing” wildfires (what does “preventing” even mean in this context?).  Take a mixed ponderosa/true fir understory stand with large old pp.. how exactly does that “prevent” wildfires? I won’t go into carbon because the sequestering/storage burning up all depends on assumptions which may differ.

As part of the MOG effort, the FS counted the BLM and FS Old Growth acres and you can see them in the above table. It looks like 33 mill acres or thereabouts, or about 18% of the total. Note that this is just FS and BLM, there is probably OG on other state and country and private lands as well. So.. are 33 ish mill acres plus other unknown acres “very little” or not? How would we know what the “right” amount is?

But a large amount of the forests on public lands is what foresters call “mature” forest, which is nearly as good as old growth and in fact is on the brink of becoming old growth. It is these older forests that will help us prevent future forest fires and will do the most to reduce climate change, and its these forests that we need to protect at all costs.

I’m still interested in the mechanism of older forests helping us “prevent” fires.  I have to admit, the old forests in my neck of the wood seem to be slacking off on this.

Then there’s  the “p” word.. protect- the question is “protect from what?” This op-ed seems to mean “protect from removing any trees”.. but you can in the chart below (in the ANPR) see the timber harvest acres (including ecological restoration and fire risk reduction) are relatively tiny compared to fire and bugs and diseases.  I guess I can see the argument “we can’t affect wildfire, and insects and diseases, so let’s focus on timber”; except that we can affect acres impacted by wildfire by thinning.  Unless you believe that fuel treatments, PODs, etc. don’t help protect mature and older forests.  Which isn’t the view of the fire science community nor practitioners.  In fact, that isn’t addressed in this op-ed.

Within a few years, tree seedlings grow quickly, and their canopies expand to form a continuous green “solar panel.” The time it takes for this growth depends on the site’s fertility and the number of pioneer trees in the environment. The result is an immature forest composed of trees of small stature and similar age. These immature forests pose a high risk of wildfire due to the abundance of fine fuel, small branches and leaves, near the ground.

This reminds me of our 1980’s Central Oregon silviculture workshop with Bruce Larsen and Chad Oliver- when trees compete for water, they don’t grow the same way as the standard models and thinking based on competition for light.  The old mesic forest bias.  And when water is limiting, then thinning can increase vigor of trees and reduce beetle outbreaks in some cases. This isn’t scientifically controversial. There’s probably a literature review out there;  here’s one example from the Northern Rockies

Our results show treatments designed to increase resistance to high-severity fire in ponderosa pine-dominated forests in the Northern Rockies can also increase resistance to MPB, even during an outbreak.

So “protecting”  increases risks from pine beetles and wildfire, which doesn’t actually sound, in those cases, very protective.

As to the green “solar panel” well..that kind of implies an even-aged stand, which many stands that I observer are not. And then there are forests that never form continuous crowns due to competition for water.

I can understand if some don’t want to count pinyon-juniper as forests, but then maybe each kind of forest should be considered separately,  including mesic and dry forests.


Here are some interesting and relevant Q&As from the ANPR.

Q. What restoration options are available to restore old-growth forest structure in frequent fire forests?
Mechanical thinning and prescribed fire represent the primary approaches to active restoration of frequent-fire mature and old-growth forest areas to reduce their vulnerability to wildfire. Reduction in tree density often increases resilience to the climate-driven impacts of droughts, insects and wildfire.
Restoration prescriptions generally aim to increase the diversity of trees – age, size, and species – and retain the largest trees of the most fire-resistant species in the area. Diverse forests are more resilient because threats are less likely to impact trees species, ages and sizes at once.

Q. Are old-growth forests climate resilient?
Many old-growth forests have resilient characteristics like thick bark, high canopies, and deep roots. Some, like coastal redwoods, require moderate year-round temperatures and abundant moisture to thrive. As such, they are highly vulnerable to shifting conditions. As climate continues to deviate from historical
norms, even otherwise resilient forests are expected to be at increasing risk from acute and chronic disturbances such as drought, wildfires, disease, and insect outbreaks. These threats heighten the vulnerability of mature and old-growth forests resulting in higher chance of forest loss.

Your thoughts?


8 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: the Norm-and-Jerry MOG Op-ed in Politico”

  1. I was a little disappointed with the op-ed. Generally good stuff but it seemed to me that the effort to use simple language targeting a general public audience was executed inartfully. I think the examples you mentioned show this: the authors certainly understand the nuances, but the way they’ve written this is kind of sloppy.

    For example, “prevent wildfire” here seems to mean something like “prevent wildfire… from doing things we don’t want it to do.” There isn’t enough room in the op-ed to really flesh out the whole situation, but their oversimplified language doesn’t seem very helpful to me either.

  2. Hi Sharon: I worked with Norm a little on the Clinton Plan before I was dismissed for mixing facts with modeling. During those years and until now I have bumped into Jerry from time to time and always found him friendly, warm, intelligent, and entertaining, but on more of a religious mission than scientific when it came to old-growth; i.e., apparent personal beliefs and values superseding historical documentation, rural economics, and — in my consistent opinion — common sense, when it comes to forest management.

    When it comes to forest science, Jerry has been a giant in framing discussions, and in large part due to his enormous success in fundraising. As a team with Norm, they have been a powerful political influence over the management of our public lands. Unfortunately, they are inexperienced forest managers and their efforts have been a costly and deadly misdirection from the outset. Total failure. Why that hasn’t become readily apparent to the public over the years remains a mystery to me.

    This editorial is more of the same. Religious conviction and modeling substituting for scientific inquiry and critical thinking. The first sentence is an example, in which Jerry and Norm Christensen assert that “nearly everyone living” along the US east coast this past week has received a “powerful reminder” (in case they had forgotten) of the “complex effects of climate change.” They were referring to the smoke from the Canadian fires. And Armageddon, apparently. These are not facts — at best these are confirmations of their beliefs or wishful thinking; at worst, purposeful fabrications to further their political objectives. Or, maybe “nearly everyone” shares the same beliefs that “climate change” somehow causes major forest fires.

    Of course, in Jerry’s world, “Most people understand that trees and forests play an important role in reducing climate change.” Silly overstatement, of course, but typical for the “Wild Science” folks. From there it continues to go downhill — even though most folks “understand” this debatable assertion, somehow they are still too stupid to understand that “all forests are not alike.” Statements such as that waver between academic arrogance and idiocy. Why do “most people” want to “reduce climate change” in the first place? Why and in which way? And do they actually think forests should be used in that effort? And yet they don’t know that a jungle and a pine forest are quite a bit different? Lucky we have scientists to explain these things to us.

    Then we get a lecture on forest development theories that are mostly debatable before we get to the actual religion: “In all cases, nature knows what it is doing, and human intervention tends to make matters worse, not better.” So there is our omnipotent all-knowing God (“nature”) doing important things, with us original sinners going around “making matters worse.” This is “science?” Humans as pathogens, messing with the good intentions and efforts of nature? Seriously? The wages of our transgressions being smoke from Canada?

    The summary shows Jerry either hasn’t been paying attention, or his distrust and hatred of active management of our forest is such that he is willing to be dishonest: “Letting our current mature forests age further is our best opportunity to diminish carbon emissions and mitigate catastrophic wildfires that threaten the health of humans and of our planet.” That is the exact disproven nonsense that has led directly to the scientifically predicted massive increases in forest wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. With increased, not “diminished,” emissions of CO2 (“plant food”).

    Over time forests are carbon neutral. The burn, die, and rot. Carbon is the building block of life, and certainly not a “pollutant.” If people truly believe they can control the weather by temporarily storing carbon in plants, then maybe an intervention is needed. In the interim, it is long past time to abandon this “ecological forestry” experiment and return to the active management of our public lands if we want to reduce the severity and extent of wildfires, improve forest safety and aesthetics for human visitors and native wildlife, and return economic vitality to our rural communities for the benefit of all. Like we used to do, Before Jerry.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the “In all cases, nature knows what it is doing, and human intervention tends to make matters worse, not better.”

    Like planting trees where the potential parents have burned up.. and the whole idea of fire suppression… and killing barred owls.
    Like one of our Regional Foresters said, “climate change is a game-changer” because the perfect unaltered (except by Indigenous folks) world can’t occur, now it’s how to respond via human intervention to a world forever changed by … human intervention.
    Not that Norm and Jerry are saying this.. but.. there are ideas out there like..
    “climate change will cause ponderosa pines to die off” “but we can’t help them adapt because that would be “messing with nature.” My mind can’t wrap itself around all the inherent contradictions.

  4. Yes, the OpEd was written for general audiences, so Jerry utilized generalities. Franklin v. Zybach? I’ll take Franklin. “Over time forests are carbon neutral” says Bob Z. True, yes, until you cut them down. Then…? The amount of MOG that has been lost to logging, ag, development etc (in US and globally) is enormous. Franklin is simply suggesting restoring balance; allow forests to become what they used to be – big and old.

    • Hi Jim:

      I would have guessed you would go with Jerry. The problem is twofold: Most forests didn’t “used to be — big and old,” and — even if true — why is that “better?” Whether we should “allow” them to do anything is another problem.

      First, wind, fire, bugs, floods, landslides, shade, and diseases kill — by far — more trees than logging ever could. Yes, some pockets and stands of trees in some locations can, and have, become remarkably old over time, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most trees don’t make it that far, and never have. The “sea of old-growth” is a myth, and always has been — because of “nature.”

      Second, when I was a kid, other kids were still getting polio. The past is not always better, and humans have often made the future better through actions and inventions. For Jerry to somehow get the public to believe that a “Healthy Forest” contains a lot of dead wood was an amazing anti-salvage logging accomplishment. No one ever believed that before because it isn’t true, but Jerry somehow got politicians, “non-profits,” and lawyers — even teachers! — to become believers in this regard. Dead trees and logs are really common, of course, for the reasons stated, but they are ugly, flammable, and an impediment to travel and safety.

      Why is that somehow “healthy?” Bugs and salamanders? Really? Should cities be leaving dead people strewn around for the microbes, ants, and rats? Would that somehow be “healthier?” Because of “biodiversity?” Same thinking process. People have always built fires, homes, furniture, tools, weapons, and art with dead wood, instead of just leaving it laying around. Why the big change? Enlightenment, or modern-day electrical, gas, plastic, and sheet metal options?

      The biggest problem I have always had with the “New Forestry” is that it is based on a theory that people don’t know what they’re doing, it’s almost always bad, and only recently we began doing too much. My perception is that healthy forests have always contained people before now, and restoring people and our good intentions to our forests would be the best for all concerned. People, trees, wildflowers, and wildlife. Based on experience.

      [Please note — I have always sought out and enjoyed giant, old trees and think we did log too many — but we have lost way more old trees due to neglect and predictable wildfire the past 35 years than logging would have ever eliminated. I think large, old trees should have been saved wherever possible — through active management — and that new plantations should be planned for very long rotations in certain areas where that can occur. The idea of thinning existing plantations to achieve some kind of visionary “old-growth condition” doesn’t make sense for a lot of good reasons.]

    • There’s not enough time to fact-check all this, so I think you hit it about right, Jim. (But I’d really like to see the science behind his assertion that dead trees and logs are “ugly.”)

      • Hi Jonathon: Aesthetics are based on personal values, of course. This is a response to credentialed ecologists that claim dead trees and logs are “beautiful” or “healthy” or some such — and there have been a lot of them. The only thing that makes my statement “scientific” at all is my documentation as a scientist. That being said, I can base a lifetime of experience with the Tillamook, Yaquina, and Yacolt burns and the opinions of family members and acquaintances on the issue. Burns are great for hunting and berry-picking, but most everybody I’ve ever talked to think that large, living trees are “beautiful,” but snags and rotting logs — not so much. “Ugly reminders” of past unpleasant events seems to be a common perception of many of these folks.

  5. I recall back in the 90s to a West Virginia forestry symposium that managed to get Jerry Franklin and Chadwick Oliver on the same stage/panel. Chad ran circles around Jerry, and Jerry really showed he had limited knowledge of Eastern forests generally and hardwood silviculture particularly. His wildlife knowledge was zilch (audience was at least 1/3 wildlife and fisheries).


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