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Looking in the rear-view mirror on forests

There have been three headlines in the news summarizing research papers related to wildfires in the West in the past month.

Perhaps getting the most media attention is a proposal to reduce 80% of the trees to “restore” the historic forest in parts of California’s national forest. A second research publication noted that most wildfires that threaten communities start on private lands, not on public lands. The third major headline pointed out that the West is experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years.

The proposal to log 80% of the forests is an excellent example of looking in the rear-view mirror.

The researchers suggest that reducing the density of the trees will restore the forest to the condition they allege historically consisted of open, park-like stands of large trees. They assert removal of 80% of the trees will create “healthy, resistant” forests and reduce large high mortality blazes.

However, there is disagreement among forest ecologists about the historic condition of these forests. While there is no doubt that some of the lower elevation dry conifer forests dominated by species like ponderosa pine and sugar pine were open and park-like, some ecologists say such a characterization overly generalizes. Dense forest stands were also historically common.

The second problem is that the probability that a fire will encounter any thinned stand is remote — typically less than 1%-2%. Since logging is not benign, we get the negative impacts from tree removal with a small likelihood of a benefit.

A third problem with the scheme to log 80% of the trees is it seeks to preclude high severity fires and bark beetle outbreaks that provide much of the dead wood that is critically important to healthy forest ecosystems. Indeed, resilient, healthy forest ecosystems have many dead trees remaining as snags and decaying logs. Logging 80% of the trees will degrade, not improve the health of forest ecosystems.

Fourth, foresters marking trees for cutting have no idea which trees in a stand may possess the genetic ability to withstand natural stress conditions resulting from drought, wildfire, bark beetles, and other sources of mortality. Tree mortality from biological processes is an essential evolutionary selective factor that maintains forest health like wolves keep a healthy elk herd by eliminating the less fit individuals.

Fifth, even if it were possible to thin or remove 80% of the trees, a near-impossible proposal, many ecologists suggest that opening the forest stand dries out fuels and allows greater wind penetration that in many instances enhances fire spread.

That is one reason why research has demonstrated that forests that are in protected areas like national parks and wilderness areas where logging is prohibited and thus possess more biomass (fuel) tend to burn with lower tree mortality than forests that are under “active forest management” and “restoration.”

Removing 80% of the trees in a forest stand immediately releases more carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate warming, which exacerbates wildfire, bark beetles and drought. Some studies have suggested that logging and wood processing releases five times more carbon than all the fires, beetles, drought, wind throw and disease put together. Another Oregon study found that logging contributed to 35% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the transportation in the state.

Logging and removing 80% of the trees will not only release more carbon into the atmosphere, but it kills trees that otherwise would continue to sequester carbon. Even the snag forests that remain after a major wildfire or bark beetle outbreak store carbon for decades and sometimes even centuries.

And this is where we circle back to the news that we are experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years.

Logging will not restore the forest to a historic condition because the ultimate determinant of any plant community’s makeup is climate. Trying to “restore” the “historic” forest conditions of 100 or 200 years ago is impossible because we are now in an unprecedented warming period that is driving large blazes.

We must adapt to a warming climate. This means working to “harden” homes and communities and reduce ignitions on private lands. Rather than spending money trying to “sanitize” our forests, we should be spending funds to make it easier to live with wildfire.

Trying to restore historical conditions by logging the forest is looking in the rear-view mirror. Running faster won’t get you any closer to your goal when you are going in the wrong direction.

Instead of logging our public forests, a far greater benefit would be to set aside all public forests as carbon reserves while at the same time, we strive to reduce all sources of human-caused carbon emissions.

George Wuerthner of Bend has published several books on wildfire ecology, including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”