Wildfire Forest Service Lies

Five Lies the U.S. Forest Service Tells About Forest Fires

Derek E. Lee is principal scientist for the Wild Nature Institute,  author of many peer-reviewed scientific articles on the subject. and a nationally known expert on fire ecology.

It is fire season again in the American West, and that means we will soon be surrounded by media stories about the latest forest fires. These stories will inevitably be filled with misleading quotes from US Forest Service personnel, spokespeople, fire ecologists, and fire fighters.  Profiting from forest fires has become the core business of the Forest Service, the federal agency that administers our nation’s public forest lands.

The Forest Service spends $2 billion to $4 billion in taxpayer money annually for firefighting, plus hundreds of millions earned by selling our public lands’ trees in bogus pre-fire “fuels reduction” or post-fire “salvage” sales.  They have a huge financial incentive to mislead the public and our representatives in Washington DC about the state of our forests and how best to manage this publicly-owned natural resource, so every fire season they roll out disinformation talking points that are parroted by the media.  Here is a quick guide to the five worst and most-repeated deceptions along with relevant data-driven, ecological truths. 

1)      Forest fires are “catastrophic”, they “destroy” our forests and leave the land “devastated” and “ruined.”

Truth: Fire is essential to all western forest ecosystems.  Forest fires do not “damage,” “devastate,” or “destroy” forests, and forest fires are never “catastrophes”. Fire-loving western forest ecosystems include rare plant and animal species that require fires of all intensities and frequencies. Species diversity and abundance is higher after intense, stand-replacing crown fires, even more so after repeated fires, and burned habitat is incredibly scarce. Fire in your house is bad, but fire in the forest is necessary and should be welcomed.

2)      After decades of fire suppression, our national forests are “overstocked” with “excessive fuels” and we must log to correct this or risk “unprecedented fires.”

Truth: The notion that “overstocked” forests are a higher fire risk is untrue, but often repeated to deceitfully justify logging projects on our public lands. The number and density of trees and shrubs (a.k.a. “fuels”) makes no difference to fire behavior during extremely dry and windy fire weather, the conditions when 98% of forest fires burn. Pre-fire “fuels treatment” logging projects are a waste of time and money, do lasting harm the ecosystem, and do not change fire behavior. Long-unburned forests burn mostly at low to moderate severity, and do not have higher proportions of high-severity fire. The very notion of “overstocked” forests puts a new twist on the old lies about “decadent” forests that were once used by the Forest Service to rationalize logging of old growth. Most importantly, logging the forest will not protect homes. The only effective way to protect homes from forest fire is to use ignition-resistant construction and reduce combustible small-diameter vegetation within 100 to 200 feet around buildings. For more information see this California state checklist.

3)      Recently burned forest has higher risk of burning and increased severity later, so these areas must be “restored” through salvage logging and replanting.

Truth: Burned forest has been naturally thinned and fire risk and severity is low in recently burned areas. Perversely, forest “restoration” and salvage logging actually increase risk and severity of fire due to the slash debris piles and dense replanting characteristic of such projects.

4)      Burned forest will “never recover” or will “convert to shrublands” without “restoration” projects. Burned forest needs to be “restored,” “rehabilitated”, or “recovered.”

Truth: Burned forest always follows the natural process of regenerating back to a green forest over time while providing valuable ecological services along the way.  One step is temporary shrubland that increases soil fertility and shelters young trees while proving food and shelter to insects and rodents that feed higher diversity of wildlife than that found in unburned forest.  Eventually, without any interference by humans, every burned forest is replaced by green forest.  Post-fire “restoration” projects actually slow forest regeneration and cause massive ecological damage as tractors disturb and compact the soil, destroy seedlings, damage streams, and remove logs, valuable sources of nutrients and moisture for re-growing forests. Most restoration also uses herbicides to kill shrubs, reducing soil nutrients, lowering species diversity, and inhibiting natural forest regeneration. There is absolutely no ecological reason to log burned trees in sensitive post-fire habitat, especially without environmental review, as some legislators propose after every big fire. Our national forests provide less than 4% of our wood supply, so ending salvage logging and “restoration” projects will not significantly affect the economy.

5)      Forests are burning more, with bigger and more severe fires than ever.

Truth: Data from over 100 studies proves that Ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests across the West have always had mixed-severity fires consisting of nearly equal proportions of low, moderate, and high severity patches. The mixed-burn patches are distributed in a mosaic pattern across the landscape and the large fires that create them are primarily climate- and weather-driven events. Due to ongoing fire suppression, western forests are experiencing LESS stand-replacing fire than they did in the past. There is a current deficit in high-severity fires, NOT a surplus.  Climate change models predict drier conditions and more fire in the west, but even in the highest range of estimates for increased fire, we still would have less fire than occurred naturally before fire suppression began 100 years ago.

The US Forest Service makes its money from forest fires, and promotes fire hysteria in the public and government through disinformation. Cost and risks associated with forest fires would be much reduced if fires are allowed to burn in more remote forest environments, and if fire suppression is focused near fire-safe human communities. These guidelines have been part of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy since 1995, but the Forest Service has exploited fire phobia to get a $4.9 billion per year budget that harms our public lands while hiding behind a smokescreen of forest fire disinformation.

Learn more at Wild Nature Institute. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

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3 comments

  1. Listen, i want to believe you, I really do. But I need more out of this article to be convinced.

    First, semantics, The Forest Service is a government agency. It doesn’t “profit” from anything. Its buddies in the timber industry may profit from these policies, but that’s a separate (and actually potentially more damning) point. I think the point you’re trying to make is that USFS is using these “myths” to lobby for a bigger budget, but that’s really quite different from “profit.” It raises a lot of issues – regulatory capture, waste of public resources, and perverse institutional economics. But I assure you that no one at USFS is getting personally rich from government service, which is what you imply when you use the word “profit.”

    Second, Point 2 is pretty controversial. The idea that fuel load makes “no difference” to fire behavior is pretty bold, and the link you provided to your own website doesn’t do a great job of supporting it. I need more support before I believe that statement.

    And point 3 DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS Point 2! Why are forests thinned by fire at lower fire risk, but forests thinned by selective logging burn at a high intensity regardless? The distinction simply makes no sense.

    Point 4 also makes a bold statement that needs more support. For example, here in California, the climate is warmer and drier than it was when our forests last went through the succession process. And moreover, native plants are in competition with persistent invasive species that weren’t around last time. I’m legitimately worried that after big, mid-elevation fires like last year’s Rim Fire, the lowland oak-scrub ecosystem is going to permanently replace the coniferous forest that burned down.

    I would love to be convinced that we should leave the western forests alone, but this article isn’t doing it. Now that’s not to say reasonable people can’t disagree about what will happen with and without restoration activities, and what kind of restoration activities are appropriate. But presenting the issue as “lies” and “truths” overstates your case to the point of damaging your credibility. And we enviros need credibility more than anything else if we’re going to change anything.

  2. Some forests that have a short fire return interval, such as lower-elevation stands dominated by ponderosa pine in AZ and CO do have more fuel now versus historically due to fire suppression. But these areas are relatively small in CO. Recent research by Baker and others shows that many areas thought to have historically been under a short fire return interval actually had mixed severity fires, i. e., some low-, moderate-, and high-intensity fires.

    All forests have fuel that can burn. Indeed, forests burn because they are meant to. They will most readily burn under hot, dry, and windy conditions. The form of the fuel does make a difference: a stand of beetle-killed lodgepole pine with its needles fallen off is not susceptible to a crown (stand-replacing) fire, whereas the same stand 20 years later with the dead trees having fallen to the ground and mixed with young tree or shrub growth is much more prone to a high-intensity fire. However, any forest can burn under extreme weather conditions. In fact, all of the recent large fires in the western U. S, have started under such conditions.

    Logging can increase the fire risk by increasing the small, easily ignited fuel. A thinned stand would have fewer standing trees to burn, but in addition to having more fine fuels, it also is more open, allowing wind to fan any flames. Thinning a stand may also increase the growth of shrubs and small trees, which form a “fire ladder” which can carry a ground fire into the crowns of the overstory trees. Larger-diameter material left after logging, such as cull logs not useful to loggers, can add to the fire intensity in a logged area, if an ignition occurs. The Four Mile Fire, in Sept., 2010 in the hills above Boulder CO ,spread rapidly through thinned areas because slash (logging waste) had not been treated.

    Recently burned forests have a low risk of burning again in the near future. The recent fire has burned off the easily consumable fuels, making it difficult for a new fire to carry through the stand.

    All fires change the vegetation. That is fire’s role in ecology. Intense fires may prevent forests from growing back for some time, though some areas begin to return to forested cover soon after an intense fire. At the same time, however, existing openings, some created by past fires, begin filling in. Forests lost and forests regained – that’s nature at work.

    Rocky

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