Press Room

Forest thinning projects won’t stop the worst wildfires

So why is California spending millions on them?

A recent Los Angeles Times project explores the effectiveness of firebreaks across California, with satelite and drone footage showing the devastation caused by recent firest, including the Camp fire in 2018. 

Post-conflagration photos of Paradise reveal row after row of houses reduced to heaps of ash, while nearby trees and vegetation stand green and largely untouched by flame. In the Camp fire, the primary fuel was houses, not vegetation.

Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service research scientist who studied ignitions and wildfire spread, said he’s been asked to explain the “unusual pattern of destruction” in Paradise.

His response: “It’s not strange and unusual — it’s typical. Every investigation I’ve done comes up with that pattern.”

“We do fuel breaks because the premise is we’ve got a wildfire containment problem” when in fact, Cohen argues, we have a home ignition problem.

Until firefighting agencies recognize that, he said, their efforts are doomed to “further failure at ever increasing cost.”

The Tongass deserves a better path forward

By Dominick A. DellaSala  
Originally published 9/11/2019 at the Anchorage Daily News

In response to former Gov. Frank Murkowski’s Sept. 6 op-ed calling for a full exemption of the Tongass National Forest from roadless protections, its remarkable how much has changed since he was governor. Instead of regressing to the heyday of rampant old-growth logging, no longer acceptable in Alaska or the nation, there is a path forward that reduces controversy, sustains jobs, saves roadless areas and slows down climate chaos by transitioning to young-growth forests. And as far as access issues he is concerned about, the Forest Service already has exercised its discretion to approve 67 projects in roadless areas that involved tree removal and/or road construction. So, the Trump Administration’s roadless rollbacks is completely unnecessary.

There is a better way forward to avoid the kind of global outrage now directed at massive logging in Amazonia, as both the Amazon and the Tongass play vital roles in slowing down runaway climate chaos as the planet’s “lungs.”

Megafires Not Increasing: New Research Shows Large High-Severity Fires are Natural in Western Forests

For Immediate Release, September 10, 2019

From Geos Institute and The John Muir Project

Contact: Eric Podolsky, eric@pikeandcompany.com, (415)585-2100, photos available via e-mail

“MEGAFIRES” NOT INCREASING: NEW RESEARCH SHOWS LARGE HIGH-SEVERITY FIRES ARE NATURAL IN WESTERN FORESTS

Case Study Rebukes U.S. Forest Service’s Post-Fire Clearcut Methods

ASHLAND, OR – SEPTEMBER 10, 2019 – A peer-reviewed study by leading experts of forest and fire ecology recently published in the science journal Diversity disputes the widely held belief that “megafires” in our national forests are increasing, preventing forests from re-growing, and that logging is necessary to prevent these wildfires. While many policy and management decisions in U.S. national forests are based on these assumptions, research shows that large patches of trees killed by wildfires—known as high-severity burn patches—have not been increasing. These findings thus show that taxpayer-funded logging projects on public lands are not only unnecessary, they are also counter-productive, as related research shows that such logging often increases fire severity.

Researchers analyzed the most extensive contemporary and historical datasets ever collected on large (over 1,000 acres) high-severity burn patches across 11 western dry pine and mixed-conifer forests over three decades. The findings dispute the prevailing belief that increasing “megafires” are setting back post-fire forest regeneration.

“This is the most extensive study ever conducted on the high-severity fire component of large fires, and our results demonstrate that there is no need for massive forest thinning and salvage logging before or after a forest fire,” says Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, lead author of the study and Chief Scientist at the Geos Institute. “The perceived ‘megafire’ problem is being overblown. After a fire, conditions are ideal for forest re-establishment, even in the interior of the largest severely burned patches. We found conditions for forest growth in interior patches were possible over 1000 feet from the nearest low/moderately burned patch where seed sources are most likely.”

DellaSala and co-author Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project used computer mapping (GIS) databases to investigate vegetation and fire severity trends in large, severely burned forest patches, out of which grow “complex early seral forests” or “snag forest habitats”—unique and ecologically rich areas that are comparable to old forests in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance. They analyzed these patches in four equal time periods from 1984 to 2015 using U.S. Geological Survey fire severity datasets. They found an increase in large burn patches only during the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by a flat pattern to the present day.

“We will use these findings to counter ill-conceived post-fire logging projects on the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada,” says Dr. Hanson. “The U.S. Forest Service, assisted by The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Nevada Conservancy, is proposing to clearcut several thousand acres of prime snag forest habitat based on their false assumption that the forest cannot rejuvenate on its own and is better off being converted to wood chips for biomass energy production, which worsens the climate crisis.”

The study concludes that over the past three decades, the interval between large, high-severity burn patches at the landscape scale averaged 12 centuries to over 4,000 years, allowing more than ample time for forests to regenerate and develop into old-growth areas. Evidence was found in historical records of even larger high-severity burn patches, countering claims that contemporary high-severity burn patches are unprecedented and forests cannot recover on their own.

“This paper is critical to wildlife conservation in fire-dependent forests, as it dispels notions that large, high-severity fires are unnatural and catastrophic,” says Monica Bond, a Ph. D candidate and researcher with the Wild Nature Institute, who was not involved in the study. “As a researcher, I have documented spotted owls, songbirds, and numerous woodpeckers using these large burn patches for both foraging and nesting. An entire community of under-appreciated wildlife depends on these large burns.”

See below for links to the study:

Abstract: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/11/9/157

HTML Version: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/11/9/157/htm

PDF Version: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/11/9/157/pdf

For more information on the Rim fire, visit https://bit.ly/2kaxpMF.

About Geos Institute:

Geos Institute is a science-based organization that is helping to make natural and human communities whole in the face of climate change. For information on their forest work, visit https://www.forestlegacies.org/.

About The John Muir Project:

John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org) is a forest conservation and research organization dedicated to ensuring that public forests are protected and managed for ecology and recreation, not commercial logging.

 

It’s time to get it right with Tongass, timber, carbon and climate change

By Catherine M. Mater and Dominick A. DellaSala

Opinion article published August 29, 2019 in the Juneau Empire

A perfect storm is brewing in Southeast Alaska and all weather vanes are pointing to the Tongass National Forest — the “Amazon” of America that serves as lungs of the nation by absorbing and storing the equivalent of almost 10 percent of all the carbon retained in U.S. forests. Alaska has been in the national news with coverage of dried-up salmon spawning grounds due to unprecedented drought, and dwindling deer populations from logging old growth on Prince of Wales Island; all while the White House and Alaskan officials double down on eliminating protections for Alaska’s roadless old growth stands.

Understanding the connection between the Tongass, continued timber production, climate change and the real need for creating economic development in the state has never been more urgent. But these seemingly disparate silos offer a comprehensive solution.

While the state’s forest products industry that relies on old growth timber has sharply declined, a new one is emerging focused on transitioning out of old growth logging to reliance on Tongass young growth — 55-75-year-old trees — timber supply.

As Amazon Forest burns, Dunleavy and Trump eye Tongass National Forest

Dunleavy and federal government want to repeal forest protections

By Michael S. Lockett, Originally published August 29, 2019 at the Juneau Empire

The Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States, at roughly 16 million acres, or slightly more area than West Virginia. It’s also one of the largest remaining temperate rainforests in the world, protected by rules prohibiting logging.

But Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Trump administration reportedly want to change that.

“Our general belief is if the Trump administration is moving in this direction, we think it’s very much appropriate,” said Dunleavy’s spokesperson, Matt Shuckerow, in a telephone interview. “Without timber in the United States, I don’t know how we build a home, how to build construction.”

A report by the Washington Post indicated sources within the Trump administration confirmed the president’s desire to roll back protections called the “Roadless Rule,” which exempts more than 9 million acres of Tongass from development. Nearly 6 million further acres are designated as wilderness, barring them from development in perpetuity. 

Trump pushes to allow new logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

By Juliet Eilperin and Josh Dawsey. Originally published August 27 at the Washington Post

President Trump has instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt Alaska’s 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest from logging restrictions imposed nearly 20 years ago, according to three people briefed on the issue, after privately discussing the matter with the state’s governor aboard Air Force One.

The move would affect more than half of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, opening it to potential logging, energy and mining projects. It would undercut a sweeping Clinton administration policy known as the “roadless rule,” which has survived a decades-long legal assault.

Trump has taken a personal interest in “forest management,” a term he told a group of lawmakers last year he has “redefined” since taking office.

Greens lash out at plans to speed NEPA reviews

By Marc Heller, Originally published August 27, 2019 at E&E News

Conservation groups and scientists are bashing the Forest Service’s plan to revamp the National Environmental Policy Act. (Photo of The Elliott State Forest. Photo credit: Tony Andersen/Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)

A Forest Service proposal to accelerate environmental reviews of forest management projects has generated thousands of public comments, including criticism yesterday from conservation groups.

In comments submitted to the agency, the Western Environmental Law Center and other groups said the proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act’s procedures would diminish public input while opening national forests to “sweeping destruction” through increased logging, mining and other projects.

Scientists Oppose Draft Forest Service Rule

For Immediate Release, August 26, 2019

Contacts: Dominick DellaSala, dominick@geosinstitute.org, (541) 621-7223 | Chris Frissell, leakinmywaders@yahoo.com, (406) 471-3167

Over 230 scientists oppose Draft Forest Service Rule That Would Block Scientist Voices, Gut Bedrock Environmental Law

Washington, DC― Over 230 scientists submitted comments strongly opposing a draft US Forest Service rule that would overhaul regulations that implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one our nation’s landmark environmental laws. The proposed rule is designed to speed up logging and other damaging activities across the 193 million-acre national forest system, while cutting the public and independent scientists out of the vast majority of all national forest decisions.

The letter, signed by scientists with expertise in conservation biology, ecology and hydrology, raised concerns about the proposed changes saying they “would hamstring the agency from making informed decisions in an era complicated by unprecedented climate change and a legacy of land-use impacts to the national forest system.”

“In shutting scientists and the public out from forest planning decisions, the Trump Administration continues its reckless policies that will change the very future of our nations treasured forests and rivers, said Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist at the Ashland-Oregon based Geos Institute, and lead scientist on the letter. “The Forest Service is chipping away at public accountability with severe consequences likely to our national forests.”

For nearly half a century NEPA has guaranteed public transparency, federal government accountability and ensures that the best available science is considered in federal decisions on public lands. The current NEPA rules require that the Forest Service to notify the public of pending logging, mining, drilling and other projects on national forests and to require the public, including scientists, to comment on these decisions.

The rule would cut out scientist and other public voices from most extraction and development projects on national forests by ending early notification, called scoping, and by creating a host of new loopholes known as “categorical exclusions.” Among many new loopholes, two would allow logging up to nearly 7 square miles and bulldozing up to 5 miles of new logging roads at a time without any public engagement.

“Logging roads cause permanent, elevated levels of erosion and pollution of waters by sediment and nutrients, said Dr. Chris Frissell, a freshwater ecologist and watershed expert in Fisheries Science with 37 years of experience. “We now know how environmentally devastating these accumulated harms to water quality are around the world. The Forest Service’s irresponsible proposal to build more roads without strict limits on road construction and active restoration of the existing road system will increase harm to wild fish and our rivers and streams.”

Categorical Exclusions are reserved for categories of actions that do not cause significant harm either individually or cumulatively like campground modifications and parking lots. The new rules would now apply to mining and oil and gas drilling as well as pipelines and transmission lines that could permanently cut through national forests without any public engagement.

The Trump administration has ordered the Forest Service to increase timber targets to levels not seen in 20 years. The draft rule also weakens standards for categories of extraordinary circumstances such as threatened species, or the presence of wilderness when a more thorough environmental review is required.

“The national forest system stores massive amounts of atmospheric carbon and provides clean drinking water to millions of citizens in rural and urban communities. These values will be increasingly important in helping society slow and adapt to global heating and are unduly being compromised by the Forest Service,” added DellaSala.

Geos Institute is a science-based organization that works to make communities whole in the face of climate change.

Dr. Chris Frissell (PhD, MS, BA) is an ecologist and fisheries scientist and founder and principal scientist at the firm of Frissell & Raven Hydrobiological and Landscape Sciences. He holds an affiliate professorship at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana.

The link to the scientist letter can be found here – https://forestlegacies.org/images/scientist-letters/FS_NEPA_Comments_Scientists_Final.pdf

Related Coverage

Alaska fishermen fight for logging limits

By Marc Heller, originally published on August 22, 2019 at E&E News

More than 100 people who operate commercial fishing boats in southeast Alaska urged the Trump administration not to ease limits on logging in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, saying opening those areas could negatively affect salmon.

In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen yesterday, the fishing operators asked officials to delay releasing a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed Alaska roadless rule until October, citing the industry’s busy summer season.

“We depend on the forest, we are important stakeholders, and in the summer we are fully engaged in earning a living. If the comment period occurs during the summer months, we will effectively be precluded from participating,” they said.

In addition, they asked for a roadless rule that “prioritizes protecting and sustaining the Southeast salmon resource and its habitat in perpetuity.” That would include phasing out old growth, clear-cut timber practices, they said.

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