Foresters and other proponents of logging assert that our forests are “unhealthy” and require active management to fix them.
However, it is a self-serving perspective. In reality our forests ecosystems are exceptionally healthy. They are adjusting to the ongoing drought and higher temperatures that are stressing trees and causing mortality in some not adapted to current climatic conditions.
The ongoing drought across the West is the most severe in 1,200 years. Extreme drought drives all other mortality factors. Climate factors make some trees more vulnerable to insects or disease and contribute to large wildfires.
I can absolutely assert that if the climate were to suddenly turn cold and moist, we would see large wildfire ending.
A look at the climate/weather of the last century shows millions of acres charred by wildfire in the first part of the 1900s during a hot and dry spell. Indeed, in 1929 alone, wildfires scorched a record 50 million acres of the West.
Was it more than coincidence that the largest wildfire in Western history—the 1910 Big Burn that charred 3.5 million acres of the northern Rockies—occurred during a significant drought fanned by high winds? And this was well before anyone could suggest there was “effective” fire suppression.
Then in the late 1930s, we entered a cooling period. Glaciers began to advance throughout the Cascades during this period. Finally, in the 1970s, scientists predicted we would enter another Ice Age.
The 1940s through 1980s is that same period that logging proponents claim fire suppression was so successful.
Those same factors—drought, high temperatures, low humidity and, most importantly, high winds—are driving all large wildfires today. I do not know of a single exception.
And all these factors have increased significantly since the 1970s, primarily due to the C02 increase as a result of human burning of fossil fuels.
Contrary to logging proponents’ assertions that thinning/logging will reduce wildfire spread and fire severity, there is abundant evidence that chainsaw medicine increases wildfire spread.
For instance, a study of 1,500 fires in dry conifer forests across the West found that fire severity was highest in stands with “active forest management” while sites like wilderness where logging is prohibited had lower tree losses.
Ironically, proponents of chainsaw medicine never count the trees they kill with machines as a problem, but if the trees die from insects or fire, that is a “loss.”
However, they also fail to acknowledge that “healthy forest ecosystems” require dead wood, snags and other physical biomass in the forest. In essence, logging is strip-mining the forest biological legacy that sustains forest ecosystems.
It is critical to understand that natural evolutionary processes like drought, fire, insects and other sources of mortality select the most vulnerable trees, leaving behind the individuals most adapted to the current climate/weather conditions.
Logging is indiscriminate and removes trees that have a natural genetic resistance to current conditions. Logging creates “unhealthy” forests and degrades forest ecosystems.
The fact that the Forest Service, forestry schools and the like all depend on ongoing logging to fund their salaries and research may explain their dedication to chainsaw medicine. I believe these folks are well-meaning but hold a worldview that they can “fix” the forest.
As writer Upton Sinclair once said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published several books on wildfire ecology.
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