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.