By Annette McGee Rasch for The Mail Tribune, published September 21, 2018
A group of environmental scientists have written a letter to Congress advising that efforts to control wildfires should focus on reducing fire hazards near communities, homes and roads and not on logging larger, fire-resistant trees deeper in the forest.
More than 200 scientists with backgrounds in areas such as wildfire ecology and natural resource management recently sent the letter to Congress urging the removal of pro-logging amendments to the 2018 Farm Bill.
“It’s hard for most policymakers to ignore science from so many experts when they explain why the logging provisions would harm forests and worsen wildfire conditions in the West while doing nothing to protect communities,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with Geos Institute, which focuses on climate change and other environmental issues.
Another group of scientists, led by prominent forest ecologists Jerry Franklin and Norman Christensen, sent a similar letter outlining their concerns about how “many of the House bill’s forestry provisions are not supported by science.”
“The bill seeks to aggressively expand post-fire ‘salvage’ logging on public lands to prevent wildfire, when in reality post-fire logging occurs primarily for economic reasons and rarely contributes to ecological recovery in the disturbed area.”
The letter to Congress from the 217 scientists — the vast majority of whom are connected to universities or environmental groups — said in part, “Wildfires have shaped the ecology of western ecosystems for millennia” and stresses the need to manage western forests in tune with their propensity to burn.
“Attempting to suppress fires that are not a risk to communities is impractical, costly, risky to firefighters and ecologically damaging.”
Most stakeholders involved in the wildfire debate agree forests should be better managed, but what that management should look like is where disagreements arise.
Thinning the forests is a much-touted solution: but where, how much, how to pay for it and whether it will make forests more or less flammable are all points of dispute.
“Obviously the fuel load in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has built up dramatically over the last 25 years,” says David Schott, with Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association. Timber sales on federal lands in Oregon have been vastly reduced since the 1990s, primarily to protect habitats of threatened and endangered species.
“We have two mills only in Jackson and Josephine counties that can actually process logs,” he added. “Without any producing infrastructure, the question becomes one of where will we go with more timber being produced by future thinning operations that everyone seems to think is the panacea for our future well-being?”
The scientists say there’s another reason that logging would be no panacea.
“Our 2013 Douglas Complex fire research observed that private industrial forestlands burned more severely than public lands under similar environmental settings,” said Chris Dunn an Oregon State University professor, adding that industrial forestry “appears not to be effective at improving fire resilience.”
The scientists agree that traditional forestry practices need reform “so that clearcutting, salvage logging and planting with dense conifer seedlings don’t result in more flammable landscapes.”
“I believe it’s time we move beyond blame, accept where we are today, and look toward practical solutions that address the challenges we face in fire management today,” Dunn said.
So even while logging interests, tourism, recreation and conservation might seem to be at cross purposes, there are organizations, like the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative partners, which work to bring stakeholders together to create future forest policy.
“We are trying to solve some problems and do it in a collaborative way,” said SOFRC President Terry Fairbanks. “The agencies don’t have the funding to do what needs to be done, and they need collaboration from all of us to do the right work in the right places.”
But even that collaborative effort, which produced a Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Strategy, has come in for second-guessing.
Several scientists, including DellaSala, released a 35-page review of the strategy that addresses “scientific shortcomings.”
The Rogue Basin strategy, written by scientists with The Nature Conservancy, relies heavily on prescribed burning and recommends thinning 1.1 million acres, which includes logging some large trees. Scientists reviewing the plan say it “lacks evidence” and “does not protect homes and will likely degrade old-growth forests.”
“The proposed scheme rests on dangerous modeling assumptions,” writes Dennis Odion, a University of California professor and vegetation ecologist who has been an author on numerous papers about fire-prone environments.
Odion, who is on the Geos Institute science advisory board, says wildfires “cannot be mimicked by prescribed burning” and that “out-of-season burning has negative ecological impacts and will not help reduce smoke.”
Prescribed burns are often promoted as a solution, but Odion raises many ecological issues that lie beneath the surface.
He says smoke from low-intensity prescribed burns is more hazardous to human health than typical wildfire smoke. And also, when logging slash or vegetation too green to burn up during springtime prescribed burns is left behind, the unburned slash dries out more, creating fuel for wildfires and thus increasing smoke.
Springtime burning also coincides with nesting season for birds. Smoke may drive them from their nests, possibly killing nestlings — and ground nesters will be most impacted.
Another little-understood impact affects lichens, which are a rich food source for many animals and are extremely sensitive to smoke. Elk depend on lichens. Odion says, “They are used to determine the effects of air pollution in much of the world.”
With subjects as complex as wildfire and climate change, sometimes even the science is in conflict.
“We need to continue to look at what the preponderance of research is showing us to help guide our actions until things become more clear,” said KS Wild Executive Director Joseph Vaile.
From coast-to-coast, people must adapt and learn to live with the effects of climate change, he said. Scientists have cautioned for years that destructive hurricanes in the East and big wildfires in the West are the new normal.
They also express strong consensus that “deforestation from logging is a major driver of climate change and that our forests are our first line of defense, as they are our region’s lungs,” Vaile said.
“Working from homes outward to create defensible space, clearing brush and making roads nearest homes safe for firefighters by thinning out small trees, that’s where there’s 100 percent scientific agreement,” DellaSala said.
“Those priorities would keep everyone busy for a long time and provide jobs, while allowing scientists to properly evaluate and participate in the Rogue Basin strategy.”
Reach Illinois Valley freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geos Institute depends on the generous support of caring people who believe we can and must do a better job addressing climate change for our children and those who will follow.