The dozens of fires burning in the Northwest this summer forced thousands of people from their homes and cast clouds of heavy smoke that kept residents inside and ruined untold numbers of vacations. That’s led to some vigorous finger-pointing on editorial pages, talk radio and social media. JPR asked some forest experts for a reality check.
California congressman Tom McClintock has no doubt about who’s to blame for the fires raging across the West. As chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, he held a hearing in June to highlight his perspective on what’s wrong in the woods.
“Extremist groups delay and cancel desperately needed forest management and wildfire prevention projects with reckless abandon for the damage they inflict on our federal forests and the local communities that depend on them,” he said.
McClintock isn’t alone in blaming environmentalists. Among the fire-related internet memes making the rounds on social media recently is a photo of a blazing forest with the caption, “Thanks, Sierra Club!”
The reasoning goes like this: reductions in timber harvest on federal land have led to forests that are dangerously over-stocked. If loggers had been allowed to cut more trees, we wouldn’t be having all these fires. Nicole Strong, a forester with the Oregon State University Extension Service, says the reality is more complex than that.
“Because it all depends on the forest you’re looking at,” she says. “Ponderosa pine forest is going to behave in a very different way than our high elevation hemlock forest. And then south-facing slopes will behave much differently than a cool north-facing slope.”
For example, she says, dry forests, like those found in eastern Oregon and in parts of southwest Oregon, historically burned more frequently but less intensely than the moister forests in the Cascade and Coast ranges. So what makes sense for one may not make sense for the other.
Strong also says it’s important to consider the impact of historical factors such as past logging and grazing practices, as well as a century of suppressing fires.
“And so just saying that because we haven’t logged it in 30 years, it’s a limited way of telling the whole story.”
Norm Johnson says there’s a strong argument to be made for removing woody fuels in naturally dry forests as a way to reduce fire intensity and restore ecological balance. But as for fires in moist forests like the Cascades …
“That’s just nature at work,” he says. “And the fires historically were severe. And the notion that we ought to go in there and reduce fuels to restore natural processes is wrongheaded.”
Johnson is professor emeritus at the OSU College of Forestry. He and his University of Washington colleague Jerry Franklin were deeply involved in crafting the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.
Johnson agrees there’s a need to remove excess growth caused by decades of fire suppression in dry forests that historically were cleaned up by frequent, low-intensity fires. But, he says, that’s going to mean setting more controlled burns.
“Restoring these natural processes would be putting fire back on the landscape to a much more significant degree than we’re now doing,” he says.
And that means more smoke in the air, not less. On the other hand, Johnson says, if the goal is less about forest health and more about protecting nearby towns and dwellings …
“You may want to go in and harvest the trees and reduce stand densities, even though you’re not restoring any natural process.”
Chad Hanson takes issue with the whole premise that we’re experiencing unusually high levels of fire and need to do something about it.
“This year in Oregon is an above average fire year relative to the last 40 years,” he says. “But it’s not an above average fire year relative to natural fire levels before fire suppression.”
Hanson is a forest ecologist with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute in California. He says the focus on so-called excess fuels as a driver of wildfires disregards more important factors.
He and some colleagues recently published a large-scale study that found thinning forests doesn’t actually result in less fire.
“All other things being equal, in the same forest types, the most protected forests, with the least logging or no logging, actually had the lowest levels of fire intensity,” he says. “And the forests with the least environmental protections and the most logging had the highest levels of fire intensity.”
Hanson says opening the forest canopy lets in more sunlight and wind, drying out the understory and making it more likely to burn. He says a warming climate is a growing factor, as well.
The bottom line, Hanson says, is that while we need to protect lives and homes, thinking we can log our way out of having frequent wildfires in the West is simply wrong.
“Fires burn in our forests,” he says. “They always have and they always will. And it’s something that’s as natural and essential in our forests as the wind and the rain and the sunlight.”
As this fire season begins to draw to a close, expect these arguments to be debated anew in state capitals and in Congress, as the battle over how best to care for our public lands rages on.