The article “Baldy gets a trim to improve forest health” (published July 23) perpetuates the Forest Service’s misleading and scientifically inaccurate “Forest Health” claims. Thinning out large trees and re-planting different species may open up skiable terrain but it will not make the forest more resilient, more resistant to disease or insect outbreaks or lessen the possibility of catastrophic wildfire.
Wildfire is driven by drought, high temperatures, low humidity and wind. The amount of fuel present is the least important factor. When optimum conditions exist, wildfire will burn through thinned forests. In a recent commentary, Jim Furnish, deputy chief of the USFS between 1999 and 2002, said that “a raging debate questions whether thoughtful logging can actually limit fire risk and severity by reducing fuels in advance. The Forest Service says emphatically, ‘yes,’ but anecdotal evidence yields troubling results throughout the fire-prone western United States.”
Opening the canopy by thinning out large trees exposes the forest floor to more sunlight, higher temperatures and greater wind penetration. This dries out soils and vegetation. More sunlight on the forest floor promotes growth of grasses, shrubs, and small trees, the very elements that initially carry a fire. The soil disturbance that occurs during thinning creates conditions favorable to invasive weeds and flammable grasses like cheatgrass. All of these factors act to increase fire danger. The money allocated for this project would have been better spent helping individuals and communities create defensible space immediately adjacent to vulnerable structures and towns.
Insect outbreaks tell a similar story. Insects causing damage in the forest are native and always present. Their populations rise and fall periodically. Outbreaks occur when trees are stressed and conditions favor their spread. The same is true of disease. A decade or so ago, we had a massive beetle outbreak in the Sawtooth Valley. For two to three years it was a hotspot on the Forest Service fire map. But the needles dropped, and as the trees fall and rot they provide critical nutrients for soil life and ultimately to the forest itself. Meanwhile, they provide habitat to wildlife. It is undeniable that forests are struggling, but claiming that insects were pushed towards Baldy by the past fires is disingenuous. Insect outbreaks, like fires, are natural events made worse by the prolonged drought, high temperatures and a rapidly changing climate. Changing the mix of species on a few hundred acres will do nothing to change this dynamic.
The unfolding climate catastrophe is driving dramatic changes to our environment. Fire and insect outbreaks are a harbinger of what is to come. We have no choice but to try and cope with the mess we’ve created. Active management may play a limited part in the solutions, but prominent restoration ecologists admit it is pure hubris to believe we are capable of actively managing entire ecosystems. The complexity is too great and the unintended consequences too unpredictable. To heal and restore our environment we must adjust our behavior to the realities of natural systems, not force nature to adjust to our imperfect ideas. Limited, linear solutions like thinning do not address this complexity and will inevitably fall short as other management practices have in the past. Even worse, these projects create the false hope that with a little tweak here or there we can continue to act as we always have. This is a false and dangerous belief, and it diverts our attention and money from addressing the difficult structural changes we must make to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which might, if we’re lucky, pull us back from the brink and really save the forests.
Kelley Weston lives in Hailey.