The Skinny on Thinning
Should we save the forest from itself?
BY TIM HERMACH
I’d like to follow up on forester Roy Keene’s sensible Viewpoint (10/4) discussing the need to take action to protect homes from burning in wildfires. Where Keene’s focus was urban forests, I’d like to discuss public lands.
Before going any further, let’s make a clear distinction between maintaining “defensible space” 100 feet around a home – by pruning low hanging dead tree branches, cleaning out gutters and mowing high lawns, storing combustibles away from a home and installing metal roofs – and cutting trees miles away from any dwelling.
It’s well known that our remaining 5 percent of native forests on National Forest and BLM lands are wild forests that have evolved with fire for thousands of years. Yet what we’re hearing from the logging industry, USFS, some politicians and more and more environmental groups is that because of fire suppression, tens of millions of acres of our forests are now “overstocked,” an “extreme fire danger” and – who could’ve guessed? – need to be logged, excuse me, “thinned,” to save the forest from itself!
There’s no question that we need to allow the natural cycle of wildfire to return to our forests. Yet are we overestimating the effects fire suppression has had on our forests? Over the history of many Western forests, particularly the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, often several hundred years passed without a fire. And when those fires did burn, they were often “stand replacement” fires, meaning most of the trees burnt, replenishing forest soils and setting the stage for a new cycle of forest growth.
Consider this: Fire suppression has never been all that effective and has only occurred for the past century, industrial fire suppression (helicopters) only over the last 50 years. So if these forests have historically gone centuries without a fire, less than a hundred years of fire suppression hasn’t altered the fire cycle at all.
And of course, let’s not forget that the unconscionable decimation of our forests over a century of “industrial forest management” remains the greatest threat to forest health.
On a positive note, science is finally catching up to common sense that “thinning” a forest can open it up to sunlight and wind, drying it out and creating more undergrowth, and can therefore not only make a fire burn hotter but actually spread faster. In fact, recent science demonstrates that forests that were “thinned” before a wildfire, including the Biscuit Fire, ended up with more dead trees than the forests that were left to nature.
Those of us who have investigated the aftermath of this summer’s Lake Tahoe fire learned that a major cause of homes igniting was unmaintained defensible space around these homes, which spread to other unmaintained homes. Not surprisingly, many of the forests around Lake Tahoe had already been “thinned,” some of them up to six months before the fire, which — at best — did next to nothing to prevent the fire, and — at worst — intensified the blaze.
In our neck of the woods, we’re being subjected to the “Oakridge Thinning and Fuel Reduction Project,” yet another example of business-as-usual logging being dishonestly passed off under the guise of “forest health thinning.” We recently toured this 80- to 120-year-old native forest in the Willamette National Forest with Roy Keene, who in his comments renamed the project the “Oakridge Timber Harvest and Fuel Production Project.” Keene contested the USFS claim that the project would “increase public safety” and commented that if the project went through “surrounding forests and human dwellings will be at greater fire risk than they are now.” Submit your own comments to email@example.com.
The single most important action we can take to protect homes from wildfire is maintaining defensible space 100 feet around homes and installing metal roofs. But our efforts shouldn’t stop there: We must also realize that fire is a part of our forests, and if we choose to live there, we must face the consequences — not expecting firefighters to risk their lives or for more forests to fall for our sake. Comprehensive action would also involve changing zoning laws to stop sprawl into the ever-expanding “wildland urban interface,” so we can let natural wildfires burn.
Emerging science demonstrates that the real culprit for creating more wildfires — including southern California’s blazes — is not “fuels” but climate and weather. Climate change simply means we must learn to live with more wildfires.
Humankind can be pretty smart (we made it to the Moon), but we can also be pretty stupid (we’re destroying the lungs of the planet for profit). One thing, however, is certain: Mother Nature knows best. So let’s be responsible and stop logging the publicly owned forests, let them recover and let God and nature back in.
Tim Hermach is executive director and founder of Native Forest Council and editor-in-chief of the Forest Voice newspaper. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.