Saturday, December 27, 2008

Neither logging nor subdivisions

Farmland dominates the Willamette Valley, not development.

This is response I wrote to a recent editorial in the Oregonian basically stating the tired condos vs cows or in this case, the condos vs clearcuts argument and chastising some environmentalists for continuing to oppose logging when in the Oregonians view they should wise up and see that timber companies are really "our friends."

To see the original editorial go to:

Neither logging or subdivisions are good for the land.

George Wuerthner

The December 26th editorial in the Oregonian suggested that the logging industry deserves the support of environmentalists or these companies might sell their land for subdivisions. Unfortunately the Oregonian editors relied on flawed information to reach their conclusions. I'm sure if they had access to better information we would have seen a much different viewpoint.

The implied message is that we should tolerate environmental degradation and biological impoverishment resulting from logging because it’s better than a subdivision. That’s like suggesting we should encourage people to be alcoholics because otherwise they might become heroin addicts. Obviously neither is good for society, and neither are subdivisions and/or logging impacts.


There are two things wrong with such a false dichotomy. The first is that subdivisions are not necessarily worse than logging and the likelihood of new rural subdivisions in the current economy is a minor threat—though obviously in Oregon due to its terrific land use laws, even this threat is more imaginary than real.

The geographic footprint from all development in the US is actually quite small. It may not seem that way to someone living in Portland, but the bulk of the US landscape is not urbanized and/or developed. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service approximately 5.4% of the land area of the US is estimated to be developed—that includes all highways, malls, factories, housing tracts, etc--any development that involves more than a quarter acre of land. In Oregon, approximately 2% of the land area is developed. Even California which has the largest population in the country and huge urbanization pressures, developed land occupies slightly more than 5% of the state.

One can easily confirm this with a drive down the Willamette Valley at night. The thing that is most striking to me is how once you leave the immediate area of the few cities like Portland, Salem and Eugene, one sees very few lights despite the fact that 70% of Oregon residents live in this one valley. It’s not urbanization that has biologically impoverished the Willamette Valley as well as the rest of Oregon, but forestry, farming, and livestock production. That is not to suggest that development is good for the land—it’s not, but Oregon has wisely chosen to limit such development through its land use laws.


Even if we were to limit the discussion to forested lands (as opposed to open lands like the Willamette Valley) it is not housing tracts that fragments, degrades and biologically impoverishes these lands, it is logging. For instance, there are far more miles of logging roads in Oregon than all the roads among subdivisions, highways, etc. combined. And since most of these roads leak sediments into streams, fragment the landscape, spread weeds, degrade watersheds, and so forth, the overall ecological footprint of logging is far greater than subdivisions—and I predict will always be so as long as there is a timber industry left in Oregon. Statistics on endangered species support that contention with the bulk of species endangerment in Oregon as well as the rest of the West due to resource extraction industries like farming, ranching and logging.


The second assumption of the argument that deserves critical review is the economics of development. Given the current housing glut, and economic situation, there is not much demand for rural land development any place in the country right now.

We could reduce any future demand considerably if we internalized the real costs of rural development. These costs include fire fighting to protect those properties, the effects of leaky septic systems on water quality, habitat fragmentation, costs of transporting kids from far flung housing tracts to schools, and so on. If these real costs were not externalized to all taxpayers but internalized on developers as well as owners of homes far from towns and cities, there would be little demand for rural forest development.

Instead of enumerating all these costs to both logging and subdivisions, too many environmental groups either out of ignorance or lack of courage are afraid to articulate the real costs of both logging and development, so citizens are not able to make reasonable choices.

Fortunately Oregon Wild has the courage to articulate these environmental and economic costs, and Oregonians can be thankful they do.


The choice isn’t logging or subdivisions as implied by the Oregonian. Neither is good for the land, and we should strive to curb the impacts of both. One of the great things about Oregon is that its land use laws do limit the spread of unwise subdivisions. Unfortunately, the state hasn’t done a good job of limiting unwise logging. Most of the real costs associated with logging are externalized—which is why salmon and marbled murrelets are among the many species endangered, not as a result of subdivisions, but as a consequence of logging.

Interview Ecological Value of Wildfire

Dispelling the Cowboy Myth Interview by Tim Lengerich


The original interview of me by activist Tim Lengerich of Arizona was done a few years ago when I was living in Eugene. It can be assessed on Earthsave International Web site:

Dispelling the Cowboy Myth

"One friend reports having a flash of understanding when he stood by a fence that separated grazed and ungrazed portions of the same creekbed. One side was lush and verdant. The other side looked like the face of the moon. Moo." --- Donald M. Peters, Arizona Republic, 1990

By Tim Lengerich

There is a tremendous irony in public-lands ranching. On one hand, ranchers and cowboys are canonized in the cowboy myth as icons of stalwartness, hard work and an aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth mentality. In reality, ranchers are the most pervasively destructive force on our public land, with logging as a distant second. Via outlandish subsidies, you, I and Uncle Sam support the cattle industry with drought and fire relief, fencing, water tanks, windmills and bargain-basement grazing fees. Our government kills hundreds of thousands of wild creatures each year to protect ranchers' herds against predators such as wolves, mountain lions and coyotes.

In return we get erosion, endangered species, habitat destruction, flash floods, exotic weeds, desertification and some of the most degraded landscape on Earth. Much of it will never recover.

George Wuerthner of Eugene, Ore., is one of the most outspoken leaders against public-lands ranching. He dispels the cowboy myth and forecasts the demise of public-lands ranching, one of the biggest farces in American history.

Wuerthner evolved gradually into a grazing activist. He worked at a fast-food hamburger joint in high school, where he considered the free hamburgers a major perk, and on a couple of ranches in college.

"I have some firsthand experience with ranching and its lifestyle," he says. "It has its attractions-especially if you ignore the environmental costs."

Wuerthner began to reassess his views on ranching as a result of his college experiences. As an undergraduate he studied wildlife biology and botany. He went to graduate school in range science, hoping for a job as a range conservationist with the government.

"In other words, I was not inherently hostile to livestock production or ranching," he says. "But as I looked more and more at the ultimate causes of many Western environmental issues, I kept coming back to one industry-the livestock industry. I came to conclude that the cumulative environmental effects of this industry easily outstrip all others, hence my conversion to a grazing activist."

Wuerthner says a key problem with public-lands ranching is that it affects more public land than any other activity. Some 90% of all Bureau of Land Management lands, 70% of Forest Service lands, dozens of national parks, wildlife refuges, state land and even county land are affected by livestock production.


"Because of its huge geographical scope, even if it were a benign use of the landscape, it would be a concern," Wuerthner says.

"But it's anything but benign. It is the No. 1 source of water pollution in the West. It's the No. 1 source of soil erosion in the West. It's the No. 1 cause of species endangerment in the West. It's the reason we don't have wolves throughout the West. It's one of the major reasons that more than four-fifths of all native fish west of the Continental Divide are endangered or threatened."

Public lands play a crucial role in this country's biodiversity crisis too, Wuerthner says. Although protection of private lands is desirable, it probably will never achieve more than spotty results, he says. But because of their sheer size, public lands are where "landscape-scale ecological processes like wildfire and predation can operate."

"We can grow cows elsewhere if we insist on growing cows anywhere," Wuerthner points out. "And there are certainly far better places to do this than our Western public lands."


One obstacle to land-use reform is the "cows-vs.-condos" argument that eliminating livestock production, particularly on public lands, fosters greater sprawl and development. Even many environmentalists, as well as the industry itself, suggest that the way to protect open space is to protect the livestock industry, Wuerthner says.

The appeal of the cows-vs.-condos theory is understandable, Wuerthner says: "Most of us live in cities or towns that are growing. … It is only natural to assume that sprawl is necessarily worse than livestock production. It is something that we all experience every day. Most of us don't directly experience the negative effects of livestock on a daily basis. So this colors our perception of the issue.

"On an acre-by-acre comparison, sprawl and urban development are highly destructive and probably far more damaging than having some cows munching on weeds," Wuerthner concedes.

But, he says, although sprawl is a real problem that needs to be controlled where it occurs, it's not a fair comparison because the amount of land directly affected by sprawl and development is actually quite small: Based on analysis of aerial photos, only 4% of California's landscape is developed.

"I know that may be difficult to believe if you are living in Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area," Wuerthner says, "but think again: You have millions of acres in the desert, in the Sierra Nevada and along the North Coast that are virtually uninhabited. Much of this is public land-half of California is public land-and will never be developed. Even most of the agricultural lands are used for livestock production-with hay and pasture accounting for more crop acreage than any other crops grown in the state.

"Where I differ from others is that I believe we need to control, guide or eliminate livestock production as well as sprawl. Neither is good for ecosystems or native species. It's not a choice of one or the other. We should be fighting both."

Wuerthner points out that when the effects of farming are factored in-bearing in mind that most of the agricultural land in the U.S. is used to grow crops to feed livestock-livestock production is responsible for more endangered species than any other human activity, including urbanization.

"Livestock production affects nearly 70% to 75% of the entire U.S. That includes the public and private range land used for grazing, the lands used for crop production like hay or corn and the lands used as pasture. It's a huge amount of land. By comparison, urbanization only affects 3% of the U.S. land area. So if you are talking about total ecological impacts, the effects of livestock production are far greater than sprawl simply based on geographical scales," Wuerthner says.

The picture becomes even more skewed toward livestock when you look at other Western states, he says-95% of Montana, for example, has less than four people per square mile. Using the 1890 U.S. Census definition, that's frontier. The state's population growth is taking place on only 0.17% of its total land area. And most of Montana's nonforested land is used for agricultural production, including livestock.

"So most of the West is dominated by open space, not urbanization or sprawl," Wuerthner says. But "open space isn't necessarily good for wildlife or ecosystem protection. If that were the case, then Montana would not have any endangered species. There would be bison, wolves, grizzlies and sage grouse everywhere-but these species are on the verge of extinction," not because of sprawl, obviously, but because of agriculture-primarily livestock production.

"The problem with the cows vs. condos myth is that it saps public support for alternatives," Wuerthner says. "If people think we can have our cake and eat it too-i.e. having ranching and the cowboy myth preserved and not have to cough up money for land acquisition or debate about zoning issues, they are going to avoid biting the bullet and seriously discussing these proven alternatives. Those promoting ranching as a means of preserving open space are actually fiddling while Rome burns."

Fortunately, Wuerthner believes the Western livestock industry is dying out, largely because of rising land prices. Today's prices make it impossible to buy land and pay it off by running cattle, which prevents young people from entering the business unless they have outside money, so old ranchers are not being replaced when they retire. Also, it is more difficult to pass on a ranch to family members, since even small ranches are now worth millions.

This leaves ranching families with little choice but to sell, he says, which in some places will mean subdividing the land and in others means selling to a wealthy buyer who will run the ranch as a 'trophy' or hobby.

"That is not altogether a bad fate, since it keeps the land intact," Wuerthner says, "but if you are rich, you don't need to run cows."

Wuerthner believes the death of ranching can be hastened by putting pressure on ranchers, particularly public-lands ranchers, thereby making it "less fun" to be into ranching. Also, making it less prestigious to be a rancher could effectively change the status of this occupation for the wealthy and elite that are coming to dominate the Western livestock business-similar to "making it less desirable to be a slave owner."

"Once this is no longer socially acceptable, far fewer wealthy individuals will run cows on their lands," Wuerthner says. "They might seek status in a different way-restoring ecosystems-as Ted Turner has done.

"We should try to shape the debate so that ecosystem restoration is what the wealthy do-not run cows."

Tim Lengreth lives in Ajo, Arizona, and is a grazing activist who believes only public awareness can bring about resolutions to the public lands ranching disaster.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Logging, thinning would not curtail wildfires

Guest Viewpoint

Logging, thinning would not curtail wildfires

By George Wuerthner

Published: Dec 26, 2008 09:26AM
Opinion: Editorials & Letters: Story

Kathy Lynn’s guest viewpoint in the Dec. 17 edition of The Register-­Guard about wildfires and protecting communities was full of flawed assumptions, and consequently flawed solutions.

Lynn correctly noted that acreage burned by wildfire has increased, but she implied that somehow this was a result of “unhealthy” forests — and her implied solution is more logging.

Unfortunately in ecology, what seems obvious is not always accurate. Remember, the sun does appear to go around the Earth.

Contrary to common opinion, large blazes are not driven primarily by fuels, but by climatic conditions. When you have high winds, high temperatures, low humidity and severe drought, you have the right ingredients for large fires.

Not surprisingly, the past decade has been a period of severe drought, high summer temperatures and low humidity. Those conditions have been coupled at times with high winds — so naturally we would expect more large blazes.

Such weather-driven blazes are unstoppable and go out only when the weather changes — not because of a lack of fuels.

Although we are seeing more charred acres in recent year, the idea that this trend is unnatural is skewed by our limited time perspective.

The years between 1940 and late 1980s were moister and cooler than, say, the turn of the century or in the past decade. Unfavorable conditions for fire ignitions kept the annual acreage of wildfires down to historically low levels.

However, if you go back even to the turn of the century, you will find that tens of millions of acres burned annually — including a single fire in Idaho and Montana that in 1910 charred more than 3.5 million acres. One researcher in California recently estimated that prior to 1850, an average of 5 million to 6 million acres burned annually in California alone.

Healthy ecosystems burn, and often burn by the tens of millions of acres. The spate of large wildfires we are experiencing now are not “abnormal” or an indication of “unhealthy” forest. Rather, we are seeing the natural response of a healthy forest ecosystem.

Given that wildfire was so common for thousands of years, it is not surprising that recent research shows that wildfires, particularly severe wildfires, increase biodiversity.

If anything, we probably need more wildfire, not less. With global warming we will probably get it, as vegetative communities adapt to new climatic realities.

Another surprising finding is that mechanical fuels treatment, commonly known as logging and thinning, typically has little effect on the spread of wildfires. In fact, in some cases, it can increase wildfires’ spread and severity by increasing the fine fuels on the ground (slash) and by opening the forest to greater wind and solar penetration, drying fuels faster than in unlogged forests.

Although we are really unable to stop fires, nor prevent their spread by logging and thinning, that doesn’t mean we need to let fire burn down homes.

Research by Jack Cohen at the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana has found that the most effective strategy for protecting homes and communities is accomplished by reducing the flammability of homes. Replacing wooden shingles with metal roofs, removing firewood from around a home, keeping gutters free of debris and other simple measures can significantly reduce the likelihood that a home will burn.

Logging the forests is not the answer to protecting our communities from wildfire, nor does the sun circle the Earth.

George Wuerthner is a part-time resident of Eugene. He is an ecologist, and the author of 34 books, including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

Monday, December 22, 2008



Though many may perceive there to be no difference between a tree killed by a fire or a tree killed by a chainsaw as part of a logging operation, there are vast ecological differences. Furthermore, logging based upon the presumption that reduction in fuels will reduce or eliminate large blazes is based upon flawed premises. We need big fires.

Across many landscapes, intensive timber cutting has replaced fire in ecological significance, but not in ecological effect. Because of some commonalities between effects of logging and fire, there is a perception held by many people is that logging emulates natural disturbances like wildfire. For instance, the draft legislation for the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership, suggests that logging can mimic wildfires. There are, however, substantial ecological differences between logging and wildfire.

A second assumption inherent in many assertions made by timber industry proponents is that logging can reduce large blazes. As a corollary to this assumption, most proponents of fire control believe suppression of large blazes is desirable. Such assertions are self-serving and play upon ecological ignorance and nuances in the ecological literature to create what appears on first review to be a plausible argument in favor of logging––an argument, however, that ignores many ecological realities.

Wildfire, whether from natural sources like lightning or a result of human ignition, has been a major influence on many ecosystems around the world. One mapping of presettlement fire patterns found that more than half of the United States burned on a fire return interval of between 1 and 12 years. Though much of this was grasslands as well as forests, particularly in the Southeast, it nevertheless, demonstrates the ecological importance of fires in many regions of the country. In the native plant communities of the western United States, fires have probably played a more critical role in shaping ecosystems than any other ecological factor.

Fire affects both forest structure and ecosystem processes. How a tree dies and is ultimately utilized is critically important to the long-term health of a forest. A tree removed by logging has a different effect on soils, watersheds, wildlife habitat, and, ultimately, biodiversity than one killed by fire and left on-site.

Superficially, logging and wildfire have some gross similarities; however, fire differs from logging in many ways. Fires vary in intensity thus create many small, and occasional very large, burn patches in a shifting mosaic across the landscape. For instance, in Yellowstone National Park, 83 percent of all natural fires are less than 1.2 acres in size, and 94 percent of all natural fires burn less than 100 acres, but the occasional large blazes––such as those in 1988––burn hundreds of thousands of acres. For this reason, fires tend to have a landscape-scale diversifying influence. Logging tends to create more evenly spaced, evenly sized habitat patches and does not alter all forest stands—particularly lands dominated by noncommercial forest species.

Fire alters an ecosystem by chemical processes; logging, by the mechanical process of tree removal. Fire rapidly recycles nutrients, kills pathogens, and selectively favors fire-adapted species. Logging leads to the loss of soil nutrients and organic matter and increases soil compaction, thereby reducing water infiltration. Fires do not leave a large road network in place (assuming the blaze was not suppressed otherwise there may be dozer lines, etc.). Logging creates roads that fragment habitat and generally increase human access, both of which affect the use of the land by wildlife. Moreover, roads and logging equipment can become vectors for the dispersal of weeds.

It is widely recognized in the scientific community that past commercial logging, road building, livestock grazing, and aggressive firefighting are the sources of many “forest health” problems, including unnaturally severe wildfires. According to the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to Congress, a government report that reviewed the ecosystem health of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains: “Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity.”

Impacts Associated with Logging
Logging is more than the removal of trees. It typically involves a road network, which has a substantial and diverse array of impacts on the land. Since most areas are not logged all at one time and are repeatedly cut over a century, logging has many additional effects, including periodic human invasion and disturbance from human activities. Soil erosion from logging roads is a major impact, particularly on aquatic ecosystems. Logging also significantly increases debris slides. One northern California study, for example, found that 61 percent of the soil displacement (erosion) resulted from logging roads.

Structural changes in the forest are obvious effects of logging, particularly with clearcutting. Timber harvest tends to leave few or no snags (standing dead trees). Even when logging leaves snags behind, the usual prescription is to have only one or two per acre which is considerably fewer than needed for cavity-nesting animals. Plus snags as they rot provide a long-term nutrient supply so there removal short circuits nutrient cycling on the site.. Even selective cutting can radically alter forest stand dynamics since most commercial logging selects for larger-diameter trees—the very individuals that under a natural fire regime are most likely to survive a blaze and persist on the site.

Commercial logging tends to remove the larger trees—exactly the ones most resistant to fire. By contrast, fires tend to kill the smaller trees, reducing competition for water and light among remaining trees. In addition, the process of logging takes away the least flammable portion of trees––their main stems––and leaves behind the most flammable parts of the tree, the limbs and needles.

In addition, partially buried and buried wood debris can make up as much as 50 percent of all surface organic matter in old-growth forests and remain for centuries. Logging eliminates the potential for creating additional soil wood.

The activities associated with logging, including the coming and going of workers and vehicles, can displace wildlife sensitive to human presence. Because of this human activity, the impacts of logging-created fragmentation are worsened by human access, reducing the effectiveness of remaining habitat patches for wildlife sensitive to human intrusions. This disturbance may be semi-permanent, since logging roads often remain open for subsequent timber harvest or public access. Human activity along roads has been shown to reduce habitat use by elk for up to a half mile on either side.

A recent study by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks found that grizzly bears avoid roaded areas, often for years after timber activities ceased. A severe loss of suitable habitat may occur even if the amount of land that is directly disturbed is quite small. Increased access for human trappers and hunters also changes or reduces population structure in species sought. Poaching may increase. Road closures can mitigate some, but usually not all, of these impacts. Research has demonstrated no road is better than a closed road.

The physical impact of logging upon site topography and soil profile is another difference between timber harvest and fires. Heavy logging equipment compacts soils. Studies done by the Forest Service have demonstrated that compaction inhibits forest regeneration and slows growth of tree seedlings that do manage to emerge. Fires, on the other hand, often provide ideal seedbeds for the reestablishment of plant cover.

Weed invasion is another problem often associated with timber harvest, particularly because roads serve as vectors for weed dispersal. Seeds of spotted knapweed and many other invasive exotic species are carried on the chassis of logging trucks to new locations. If the logging roads are left open for public access after a logging operation, other vehicles may also disperse weed seed. And the disturbed soils along bulldozed roads provide ideal habitat for the proliferation of weed species.

Wildfire mosaics maintain natural curves and lines, while logging introduces abrupt edges and scars from logging roads and skid trails that take decades to heal. Edge effects are generally more severe with logging than with fire.

The timing of stand-destroying fires differs substantially from the timing of stand-destroying clearcuts. In many managed forests, the goal is to eliminate older trees to favor faster-growing younger ones. The loss of old-growth structural features in a managed forest has many ecological ramifications, including changes in nutrient flows and storage, and in wildlife habitat parameters. Though fires do occasionally burn up substantial acreages of old growth, in many ecosystems, the old-growth stands are relatively fireproof except under extreme conditions, such as severe drought. Since standard forestry management practice is to cut trees at or shortly after they reach peak wood production efficiency, most managed timber stands will never possess old-growth features.

Some of the above negative features associated with logging can perhaps be mitigated or reduced by changing timber harvest methods, but one factor that almost certainly cannot be emulated by foresters is the randomness of fire disturbance. Though fire ecologists make predictions about fire frequency and “average” size, wildfires are essentially unpredictable. Logging does not emulate this randomness, and we do know how important it may be to ecosystem integrity and function.

Finally, fire performs many of the above ecological services at no economic cost––unless, of course, it threatens human life or habitation. Foresters claim that timber harvest can achieve the same ends, but frequently it costs far more to taxpayers per treated acre––particularly in places like the Rocky Mountains, where the value of timber is low––than can be recouped from the timber sales. In contrast, a prescribed-natural-burn policy, particularly if there are no fire suppression costs, is very cost-effective––no more than pennies per acre burned in monitoring costs.

Large Fires Are Necessary

There is an inherent assumption by many people, including those who support wildfires in general, that large blazes are somehow abnormal or destructive. Yet it is large fires, not the ordinary small blaze, which set the ecological parameters of western ecosystems. Large blazes are usually weather-driven—favored by drought and wind. Furthermore, since fuels are not the driving force behind most large blazes, small prescribed burns, and even “salvage” logging and/or mechanical thinning to reduce fuel loading, generally do not have an effect on large fires, nor would this be desirable. In most ecosystems, we should be encouraging, not discouraging, large fires. Current forestry policies of fire suppression, road building to facilitate suppression, fuel reduction, and so on, all contribute to the fragmentation of fire habitat, distorting natural fire regimes. Big fires are as ecologically important to functioning and healthy ecosystems as large predators are to wildlife populations. Just as large predators are “top-down” regulators of other species, fire serves a similar ecological function for ecosystems.

This is why we need large, protected nature sanctuaries such as large national parks, wilderness areas, and other preserves. Large natural areas are necessary so that big blazes can “roam” freely across the landscape, just as preserving habitat for wide-ranging species like grizzlies and wolves is important to sustaining natural biodiversity.

Ecosystem Functions Performed by Fires

Most fires perform a variety of ecosystem services that are not normally associated with logging. For example, fires cleanse a forest. Heat from fires can kill forest pathogens in the soil, including root rots, as well as insects and fungi that may be found in fallen trees or snags.

Heating and subsequent rapid cooling of rocks and boulders cracks and breaks them apart. Repeated numerous times over the centuries, this is an important soil-building process. Logging, of course, provides no such benefits.

The influence of fires often extends beyond the blaze perimeter.

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that smoke from fires will kill certain arboreal forest pathogens, reducing, for a time, the influence of some tree diseases. Smoke also aids the germination of some plant species.
Fires also change nutrient flows. Dead litter burns and turns to ash. The heat and combustion change the chemical composition of soils. Depending on how hot they burn, fires can volatilize certain nutrients, like nitrogen, that are lost as gases into the atmosphere. However, the nitrogen pool available to plants is large relative to most fire-induced losses, plus nitrogen is quickly replaced in the soil through nitrogen fixation by bacteria, which usually increase significantly after a burn in most western U.S. ecosystems. Studies have shown that bacteria and other nitrogen fixers typically make up all the losses to volatilization within two years of a burn. Other important plant nutrients, including phosphorus and calcium, are released from litter by fires and leached into the top layers of the soil. Despite some losses to waterways and the atmosphere, the overall effect of all but the most intense fires is the redistribution of nutrients from the forest canopy and floor into the soil, thus increasing soil fertility. For instance, one study in a Southwest ponderosa pine forest found that ammonium nitrogen levels were 80 times greater after a recent burn than before.

In some forests, more than a third of the nitrogen-fixing capacity is provided by microorganisms responsible for decaying wood on the soil surface and in the soil itself, again emphasizing the importance of retaining wood debris even after a fire.
Nutrients may also wind up in waterways by directly washing into a stream or lake or settling as ash from the air. Periodic nutrient enrichment from fires may be necessary for the maintenance of aquatic ecosystems, particularly those at higher elevations, which tend to be low in nutrient inputs.

By contrast, timber harvest removes nutrients from the ecosystem since trees are transported out of the area. The severity of this removal depends on logging practices. In conifers, most nutrients are stored in the branches and needles; thus, the more slash left on site, the less actual nutrient removal. Nevertheless, to replace the nutrients lost, even when only the boles are extracted, takes longer than the timber rotation period (time between logging episodes) on many sites. As a result, over time, repeated timber harvest may gradually deplete a site of important nutrients.

By removing forest canopies and increasing sunlight, logging may stimulate the growth of nitrogen-fixing plants, but usually not enough to match the quantities that grow after a fire. Furthermore, foresters usually attempt to truncate such early successional stages in order to hasten the restocking of forests with commercial species. For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, where red alder is an important nitrogen-fixing species that colonizes burned or logged areas, it is standard practice to treat such sites with herbicides to kill off the hardwoods like alder so that commercially preferred conifers can quickly regenerate.

In many forests, another important source of nitrogen input is arboreal lichens. Nitrogen-fixing lichen species are common on the branches and bark of older, larger trees. Rainwater percolating through these lichen-covered branches leaches and transports nitrogen to the soil. Since the rotational age (age when trees are large enough to cut profitably) when trees are cut is usually far shorter than the age at which they might otherwise burn, the amount of old growth in managed forests is usually substantially less than in wild, natural forests, reducing the potential input of nitrogen from lichens. How important such contributions may be to forest productivity and health is unknown.

Logging may provide a temporary flush of nutrients, but this is often accompanied by a flush of sediment as well. True, fire-bared slopes will at times wash high sediment loads into river systems, particularly if heavy rains occur immediately after a burn. However, on most sites, within a year or two of a fire, vegetation covers the ground, since fires typically do not kill underground tubers or seeds that may be lodged in the soil. However, logging roads are seldom removed or decommissioned, and thus they are a long-term and unending source of sedimentation.

Also, the snags that are left on a burn site often fall across the slope, creating check dams that slow erosion and reduce sediment yield to streams. Again logging, particularly “salvage” logging, removes such snags, hence increasing sedimentation and its many negative effects.

In addition, the soil disturbance caused by logging and heavy equipment strips away soil and the buried seeds and roots that might otherwise sprout and quickly cover a slope. Logging roads are notorious for generating high sediment loads, even higher than typically found on the logged or burned slopes themselves.

Of course, the amount of sedimentation, whether because of fire or because of logging, is largely determined by such things as soil type, gradient, seasonality of runoff, and timing between periodic natural floods. Logging nearly always increases sedimentation over natural levels associated with most, but not all, burns. High sedimentation kills aquatic insects and fish, and changes stream channel patterns.
Fires may temporarily reduce the amount of organic matter in aquatic ecosystems, to the detriment of aquatic invertebrates, particularly in smaller streams. However, within a few years, the flush of new vegetation begins to compensate for these losses.

Unless the blaze is extremely hot, fires do not totally consume a forest. Typically, hundreds of snags per acre remain. These snags serve a number of important ecological functions. Woodpeckers carve cavities that provide an abundance of homes for many birds and mammal species, including bluebirds and nuthatches and flying squirrels. Snags offer perching sites for flycatchers, swallows, and raptors.
Furthermore, many of these standing fire-killed trees (snags) are invaded by wood-eating beetles and other insects. These in turn provide an abundant food source for woodpeckers and other insect feeders. Some species, like the black backed woodpecker, show tremendous increases for three or four years after a fire, then decline. The woodpecker is one of several species that may depend on fire-shaped landscapes to maintain adequate population levels. Populations of black backed woodpecker do not increase on logged sites since few standing dead trees are left after harvest.

Dead trees continue to play important ecological roles, even after they fall over. On the ground they provide habitat and hiding cover for a mostly different group of invertebrates, as well as rabbits, voles, shrews, and other small mammals. These animals in turn provide a food source for predators like pine marten and lynx. In addition, as these fallen snags molder and rot, they gradually add organic matter to the soil, which increases its fertility and water-holding capacity.

Trees that fall into waterways are important to aquatic ecosystems. Fallen logs create pools and riffles, which provide habitat for aquatic invertebrates and fish. Logs also help to stabilize stream banks, deflecting or reducing the erosive force of water. Furthermore, since submerged logs rot slowly, they are important long-term sources of nutrients for aquatic ecosystems.

Finally, though naturally a live forest provides more cover than the snags left after a blaze, dead tree boles still provide some thermal and hiding cover––much more than found in a clearcut. A burned area thus has far more value as security cover to big game and other hunted species than a logged area. Since snags typically remain for 50 to 100 years after a blaze, they commonly survive until the new forest has a chance to mature sufficiently to provide new hiding and thermal cover.

In sum, wildfire is an important ecological process not emulated by logging practices. Some kinds of timber harvest, such as selective cutting of young, small-diameter trees, may superficially mimic the structural influence of fire––creating, for example, open stands of large-diameter trees––but it fails to emulate the ecosystem processes associated with fires. Forest structure is just an outward manifestation of ecosystem processes. If we must husband anything, it should be ecosystem processes, not preconceived notions of “proper” structural appearance.
Maintaining fire as an ecosystem process is still an option. Acknowledging that many people have inappropriately built towns and homes in what is the fire equivalent of a floodplain does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that we have no choice but to suppress wildfires. Indeed, a wise course of action is to make a few areas defensible against wildfire by frequent prescribed burning and the surgical use of limited, selective logging around towns, and around other structures deemed worthy of protection. In the rest of forested areas, wildfires should be permitted to burn unsuppressed. Our goal should be ecosystem maintenance, not ecosystem management.
Large wildfires have many of the same characteristics as large carnivores. They range widely, occur in relatively small numbers, are often in conflict with human exploitation schemes, and thus can only exist in large wildlands. They contribute to the ecological processes that maintain ecosystems. A western wilderness without large, episodic wildfires is as ecologically bankrupt as one without grizzlies and wolves. Without them all, our wildlands are no longer truly wild, no longer ecologically intact.


Pyne, S. World Fire: the culture of fire on earth. 1997. U of Washington Press, Seattle.

C. C. Frost, “Resettlement Fire Frequency Regimes of the United States: A First Approximation,” Proceedings of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference No. 20 (Tallahassee, Fla.: Tall Timbers Research Station, 1998).

David R. Foster, Dennis H. Knight, and Jerry F. Franklin, “Landscape Patterns and Legacies Resulting from Large, Infrequent Forest Disturbances,” Ecosystems 1, no. 6 (1998): 497-510.

National Park Service, “Fire Facts,” on “The Official Website of Yellowstone National Park,”, updated 20 October 2003.

: Jurgensen, M. F., A. E. Harvey, R. T. Graham, D. S. Page-Dumroese, J. R. Tonn, M. J. Larsen and T. B. Jain. 1997. Impacts of timber harvesting on soil organic matter, nitrogen, productivity, and health of inland Northwest forests. Forest Science 43: 234-251.
Purser, M. D. and T. W. Cundy. 1992. Changes in soil physical properties due to cable yarding and their hydrologic implications. Western Journal of Applied Forestry 7: 36-39.
Gent Jr., J. A., R. Ballard, A. E. Hassan and D. K. Cassel. 1984. Impact of harvesting and site preparation on physical properties of Piedmont forest soils. Soil Science Society of America Journal 48: 173-177.
S. C. Trombulak and C. Frissell, “A Review of the Ecological Effects of Roads on Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems,” Conservation Biology 14 (2000): 18-30.

Beschta, R., C. Frissell, R. Gresswell R. Hauer,J. R Karr G. W. Minshal, D. Perry , J. Rhodes Wildfire and Salvage Logging
Recommendations for Ecologically Sound Post-Fire Salvage Management and Other Post-Fire Treatments On Federal Lands in the West
Final Report to Congress, Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (1996)
S. C. Trombulak and C. Frissell, “A Review of the Ecological Effects of Roads on Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems,” Conservation Biology 14 (2000): 18-30.

Amaranthus, M. P., R. M. Rice, N. R. Barr and R. R. Ziemer. 1985. Logging and forest roads related to increased debris slides in southwestern Oregon. Journal of Forestry 83: 229-233.

McCashion, J. D. and R. M. Rice. 1983. Erosion on logging roads in northwestern California: How much is avoidable? Journal of Forestry 81: 23-26.

. Merrill R. Kaufmann, Claudia M. Regan, and Peter M. Brown, “Heterogeneity in Ponderosa Pine/Douglas-fir Forests: Age and Size Structure in Unlogged and Logged Landscapes of Central Colorado,” Canadian Journal of Forest Research 30, no. 5 (May 2000): 698-711.

D. S. Page-Dumroese et al., “Organic Matter Function in the Inland Northwest Soil System,” in Proceedings: Management and Productivity of Western Montane Forest Soils, ed. A. E. Harvey and L. F. Neuenschwander, General Technical Report INT-280 (Ogden, Utah: U.S. Forest Service, 1991).

Waller Mace et al., “Relationships among Grizzly Bears, Roads, and Habitat.”

Waller Mace et al., “Relationships among Grizzly Bears, Roads, and Habitat in the Swan Mountains, Montana,” Journal of Applied Ecology 33 (1996): 1395-1404

Purser, M. D. and T. W. Cundy. 1992. Changes in soil physical properties due to cable yarding and their hydrologic implications. Western Journal of Applied Forestry 7: 36-39.

Amaranthus, M. P., D. Page-Dumroese, A. Harvey, E. Cazares and L. F. Bednar. 1996. Soil compaction and organic matter affect conifer seedling nonmycorrhizal and ectomycorrhizal root tip abundance and diversity. Research Paper PNW-RP-494. USDA Forest Service. Pacific Northwest Research Station. 12 p.

. J. L. Gelbard and J. Belnap, “Roads as Conduits for Exotic Plant Invasions in a Semi-Arid Landscape,” Conservation Biology, 17 (2003): 420-432.

Government admits logging losses (AP article)
B. M. Kilgore, “Restoring Fire to the National Park Wilderness,” American Forests March (1975)

. D. A. Shebitz et al., “Smoke Infusion for Seed Germination in Fire-Adapted Species,”
. P. J. Dillon, L. A. Molot, and W. A. Scheider, “Phosphorous and Nitrogen Export from Forested Stream Catchments in Central Ontario,” Journal of Environmental Quality 20 (1991): 857-864.

Shiqiang Wan,Dafeng Hui, and Yiqi Luo 2000 Fire Effects on nitrogen pools and dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems: a meta analysis. Ecological Applications: Vol. 11, No. 5, pp. 1349–1365
. M. G. Ryan and W. W. Covington, Effect of a Prescribed Burn in Ponderosa Pine on Inorganic Nitrogen Concentrations of Mineral Soil, Research Note RM-464 (Fort Collins, Colo.: U.S. Forest Service, 1986).
A. E. Harvey, M. F. Jurgensen, and R. T. Graham, “Fire-Soil Interactions Governing Site Productivity in the Northern Rocky Mountains,” in Prescribed Fire in the Intermountain Region: Forest Site Preparation and Range Improvements: Symposium Proceedings, ed. D. M. Baumgartner et al.(Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989).

Lathrop, R.G. 1994. Impacts of the 1988 wildfires on the water quality of Yellowstone and Lewis Lakes, Wyoming. International Journal of Wildland Fire. 4(3):169-175.
Darwyn S. COXSON and Medea CURTEANU 2002.
Decomposition of hair lichens (Alectoria sarmentosa and Bryoria
spp.) under snowpack in montane forest, Cariboo Mountains,
British Columbia Lichenologist 34(5): 395–402

. G. W. Minshall, J. T. Brock, and J. D. Varley, “Wildfires and Yellowstone’s Stream Ecosystems,” Bioscience 39 (1989): 707-715.

V. A. Saab and J. G. Dudley, Responses of Cavity-Nesting Birds to Stand Replacement Fire and Salvage Logging in Ponderosa Pine/Douglas-fir Forests of Southwestern Idaho, Rocky Mountain Research Paper RMRS-RP-11 (Ogden, Utah: U.S. Forest Service, 1998).

JOHN F. LEHMKUHL, 1 U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 1133 North Western Avenue, Wenatchee, WA
98801, USA
RICHARD L. EVEREiT,2 U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 1133 North Western Avenue, Wenatchee, WA
98801, USA

JOHN F. LEHMKUHL, RICHARD L. EVEREiTT, RICHARD SCHELLHAAS, PETER OHLSON,DAVID KEENUM, HEIDI RIESTERER, and DONALD SPURBECK, 2003 Cavities in snages along a wildlife chronosequence in eastern Washington. J. Wildl. Manage. 67(1):2003

Robert E. Gresswell, “Fire and Aquatic Ecosystems in Forested Biomes of North America,” Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 128, no. 2 (1999): 193-221.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Livestock as four legged picnic baskets

Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:05 AM MST


A recent AP article by Matt Brown reported 245 wolves were killed in the Northern Rockies this past year and it implies that wolves are the "blame" for livestock depredation. Yet much of the blame for livestock depredation is self created due to poor animal husbandry.

In our national parks it's illegal to leave out picnic baskets because it will lead to human-bear conflicts. To save bears, humans are fined if they fail to put away food.

But when it comes to ranchers, we have the exact opposite approach. Instead of fining them for leaving four legged picnic baskets scattered all over the landscape -- including most of our public lands -- we hold the wolves accountable any losses that are largely due to the livestock industry's poor management.

By killing wolves we are subsidizing ranchers. We permit ranchers to externalize one of the costs of doing business--namely implementing livestock management regimes that minimizes predator opportunities.

These include the use of herders, guard animals, prompt removal of dead animals, use of night time lambing and calving sheds, and other pro-active measures that are proven to reduce predator losses.

Additionally, we should, at minimum, never kill wolves preying on livestock grazing public lands. If ranchers choose to use public lands, they must accept the risks of predator losses.

The only way this conflict is going to be resolved is when society starts to demand that ranchers internalize one of the costs of doing business -- that is adopting mandatory preventive measures to reduce conflicts.

Mandatory preventative measures will not eliminate all conflicts, but it will go a long ways towards reducing the number of wolves and livestock killed annually.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Logging not the Answer--A Response to Ellen Simpson

The December 15th Great Falls Tribune editorial by Ellen “No Brainer” Simpson of the Montana Woods Products Industry titled “Red and Dead” reminds me of the scare tactics of the Cold War Era when “better dead than Red” was the motto of some right wing fear mongers.

Throughout her editorial she used fear of fire as her major theme and asserted that it was a “no brainer” that logging was the cure. Towns are going to burn down if we don’t log the forests. People are going to be unemployed if we don’t log the forest. Hikers will be hit by fallen trees if we don’t log the forests.

More than that, she demonstrated that she didn’t use her brain or at least isn’t aware of some of the recent research on beetles, wildfire, and thinning.

It is only the ignorant or those with an agenda to profit from logging that sees wildfire and/or beetle killed forests as “unhealthy”. Unfortunately there is a lot of ignorance being spewed forth by the timber industry trying to exploit fear of fires and beetles.

As is typically the case in ecology, the truth is often the opposite of what seems intuitive. (Remember the world does appear flat.) Contrary to what might seem obvious, logging forests does not stop the kinds of large fires she envisions will engulf Montana communities.

Climate, not fuels, drives large fires. Under conditions of extreme drought, low humidity, high temperatures and high winds, fires are unstoppable. It doesn’t matter whether you have thinned, or even clearcut the land, any residual vegetation will burn and burn well.

I attended the Pacific Coast Fire Ecology Conference a few weeks ago where at least four different presentations showed recent research that documented in one fashion or another that mechanical thinning (i.e. logging) failed to stop fires and/or in some cases actually increased fire severity. Researchers found that logging, by leaving behind fire fuels on the ground, as well as opening up the forest to greater wind penetration and solar heating, can even assist fire spread and increase tree mortality.

If logging were able to stop fires, the Jocko Lake, Black Cat, Chippy Creek, Fish Lake and many other well known Montana fires would have never gotten large enough to make headlines since all burned through areas that had been previously logged and/or thinned.

And while Simpson tries to suggest that wildfires are somehow “bad’ for forest ecosystems, some recent studies suggest that biodiversity is highest in recently burned forests, particularly those with severe fires. From an ecologist’s perspective (and the forest ecosystem), dead trees are an important ecological component of a healthy forest ecosystem.

As for beetle-killed trees increasing fire hazard, again what seems intuitive is not quite what it seems. There is a growing body of scientific literature that finds little correlation between bark beetle-killed trees and wildfires.

Fires don’t burn because there are dead trees. To get the big fires we read about in the papers, you need a convergence of an ignition with severe fire weather conditions of wind, drought, high temperatures and low humidity. These kinds of weather conditions are relatively rare—which is why, for example, large wildfires in Yellowstone’s lodgepole pine forests only occur on average every 300-400 years.

Thus the probability that any particular stand of bug killed trees will burn is small during the few red needle years immediately after a bug kill when they are most vulnerable to fires. In fact, logging a stand of bug killed trees will actually increase the spread and intensity of any fire that should ignite by creating more slash on the ground than if you leave it alone.

Some recent scientific studies back up that contention. Researchers in Yellowstone found only a small relationship between beetle killed trees, and fire—and in one instance found that a recent beetle kill stand apparently had zero chance of increased burning. Another study in Alaska looked at the charcoal/pollen record going back 2,500 years, and could find no relationship between beetle outbreaks and wildfire.

The reason for this has to do with several factors. First, once the red needles and small branches fall off a tree—typically after its first winter--its flammability goes way down. Big upright standing logs just don’t burn that well. It’s the fine fuels that carry a fire as anyone who has tried to make a campfire knows.

Contrary to what you might think, very dry green trees are more flammable than a dead beetle killed tree. Under severe drought conditions the wood in live trees can become as dry as kiln dried lumber, yet still possesses fine fuels of small branches and needles which contain flammable resins.

As for beetles destroying the forest, a recent study found that bark beetles actually increase biodiversity in forest ecosystems, so from the forest ecosystem’s perspective are a welcome natural process.

If protecting Montana communities is the goal, research by Jack Cohen at the Missoula Fire Lab has shown that reducing the flammability of homes is the best and most cost effective strategy for reducing fire risk. Measures like metal roofs, removing wood piles from homes, and other tactic that any individual homeowner can do dramatically increases the chance that a home will survive even a stand replacement blaze.

Unfortunately, forest ecology is not as straight forward as some might suggest, and Ellen “No Brainer” Simpson hopes you don’t use your own brain in thinking about complex ecological issues.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Questions about Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Proposal

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Proposal (BCSP) has gotten a lot of positive press, including most recently in an editorial in the Missoulian on December 1st and another on December 9 in the Billings Gazette. To put it bluntly, the BSCP appears to be a trade of public trees to the local timber industry in exchange for their support for wilderness designation.

The major part of the plan appears to be a public subsidy of the Pyramid Lumber Company based upon flawed assumptions about forest health, fire suppression, and the effectiveness of thinning as a fire hazard reduction mechanism. Other alternatives to achieve the same goals that would not involve logging are not given serious consideration. Plus, the real environmental costs of logging are ignored and glossed over to make this proposal sound environmentally benign or even environmentally beneficial.

One of the potentially positive aspects of the BCSP is the removal of culverts, closure of roads, and other activities that would benefit the environment. But how these removals and restoration activities are funded is problematic. Stewardship logging is an Orwellian idea whereby money generated by the presumed profits of timber sales will be used to repair land damaged by logging. With such an incentive, it’s easy to imagine that agencies will advocate more logging to do more repair of logging damaged lands. That’s like advocating more gambling to fund gambling addiction programs.

While I don’t doubt for a minute that the plan’s proponents have the best intentions and goals, I believe they may have deluded themselves into thinking the BCSP is a good thing for Montana and the public by ignoring and/or glossing over some potential problems. Nevertheless, I do want to acknowledge that the folks working on the Seeley Lake District, including the Tim Love, the district ranger, as well as all others involved in this proposal, are a very committed and honorable group of public employees and citizens. The Wilderness Society, for instance, has created a GIS program to evaluate where thinning might be most appropriate based upon such considerations as distance from roads, forest type, and other factors that help target logging to places where it might be most beneficial—if logging were to be done.

However, in their rush to reach consensus, there has been a tendency to forgo critical review of the plan’s underlying assumptions, particularly on the part of environmental groups who should be providing such a critique. Without such a balanced review of the pros and cons of the proposal, I, as well as the American people, cannot determine whether the BSCP is ultimately in the best interest of the country and the forest ecosystems of western Montana.

While I have serious reservations about the logging aspects of the BCSP, the designation of 87,000 acres of wilderness additions to the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains Wildernesses would be a terrific net benefit. The area includes important grizzly, lynx and wolf habitat, plus spawning streams used by bull trout. Monture Creek, as well as other parts of the proposed wilderness additions, are important trail access points into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The closure and full restoration of old roads, if implemented, is welcomed as well.


Flawed assumption number one is that the forests in the Seeley Lake area are suffering from fire exclusion, hence more dense than would otherwise be “natural.” Yet recent research suggests that the role of fire exclusion on increased stand density and biomass accumulation may be exaggerated, especially for forest types other than those dominated by ponderosa pine.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that a fifty-year period of time between 1940s and late 1980s (ending with Yellowstone in1988) was a time of cooler and moister climatic conditions in the northern Rockies compared to the preceding decades, as well as the last few decades. Cool, moist weather would have limited the spread of fires, and also contributed to higher tree seedling survival—both of which would naturally lead to denser forest stands, more residual biomass, and fewer large fires.

Flawed assumption number two is that the current spate of large blazes in the Northern Rockies is a consequence of “fuels build up” due to fire suppression. One of the reasons for this flawed assumption is the widespread application of the Southwest Ponderosa pine fire regime model which postulates that frequent low intensity fires kept fuels and stand density low. Many apply this conceptual model to all forest types even though most of the forest stands within the BCSP, as well as the rest of the northern Rockies are not ponderosa pine, but species that tend to burn naturally with mixed to high severity fire regimes.

And to make matters more interesting, there are some researchers now suggesting that the Southwest model does not apply to even ponderosa pine outside of the Southwest, suggesting that stand replacement blazes may occasionally occur at longer intervals imposed over the shorter fire frequency in ponderosa pine in the Rockies and elsewhere.

Indeed, the majority of forest types burning in the northern Rockies in recent years are stands of lodgepole pine, western larch, grand fir, sub alpine fir, Douglas fir, aspen, and other species that are naturally characterized by mixed to high severity fire regimes and naturally longer intervals between fires than those found in pure ponderosa pine forests. It is doubtful that most of these forests—with the possible exception of dry Douglas fir stands have been significantly altered—even if one assumes that fire suppression, not climate, is responsible for current conditions.

The large blazes we are witnessing are likely more a consequence of changing global climate than due to fuels. When you have drought, low humidity and winds, you get conditions that make fires unstoppable. We are experiencing longer periods of hot weather, often coupled with drought and frequent high winds. Under these conditions, fires burn through all kinds of forest stands and densities with equal ferocity.

So the impressive blazes we are experiencing are less likely due to “forest health” but largely to climatic conditions favorable to rapid fire spread.


This brings up another problem with the BCSP. Proponents argue that logging can reduce fuels and thus reduce fire risk. On the surface this seems to make sense. Reduce fuels, lower fire risk. However, there is a lot of research that finds mechanical thinning of the forest is seldom effective at stopping or even reducing fire intensity under severe fire conditions. And severe fire conditions are the only ones that are of real concern since these are the only fires that typically are a threat to communities. In some cases, due to the increase in fine fuel residue left by logging operations, it can actually increase fire risk.

Mechanically thinning by hand, followed by piling of debris and burning has been shown to be more effective at reducing fire intensity and spread, but this is a very costly operation, often running into the thousands of dollars per acre. Furthermore, it requires continued repeat treatments to maintain effectiveness since removal of small trees and shrubs by fuels reduction projects leads to less competition and enhance rapid growth of new trees and shrubs. In other words, you don’t do this once and call it good. As a consequence, this might be an appropriate strategy if used in a surgical manner in and near Seeley Lake, but it is unlikely to be implemented across the landscape as a whole simply due to cost.

We should not forget that the National Park Service does a tremendous job of fuels management without logging, but the Forest Service always seems to see logging as the answer to all that ails the forests. Much like the old time doctors who always advocated bleeding a person to rid the body of “bad” blood that was presumed to be causing illness, the Forest Service tends to default to logging as the “cure” for all ills real or imaginary.

A far more effective and less costly way to protect Seeley Lake home owners is to reduce the flammability of homes themselves by mandatory metal roofs, keeping gutters free of debris, and other means that are remarkably successful at reducing home losses to fires.


One of the biggest problems in the plan is that it fails to consider the full range of negative impacts associated with logging. Logging always degrades the forest ecosystem. Logging roads and skid trails become vectors for the spread of weeds. Yes you can spray herbicides on these weed infestations, but spraying is seldom 100% effective, so every time you log, you help to spread weeds, which in the long run may be one of the worse threats to ecosystem health.

Logging roads cut slopes, severing down slope water flow, and capturing water on roadbeds, which then runs off with greater volume and erosive power. Not surprisingly, logging roads are a major cause of sedimentation in streams, negatively impacting fish, and aquatic life.

Logging roads also act as vectors for human entry through illegal ORV activity. A study by the MDFWP has shown that closed logging roads facilitates easier hiking by hunters, thus increases access, leading to a reduction in security for hunted and trapped species.

Logging equipment compacts soils, decreasing water infiltration and reducing soil productivity by eliminating space for soil microbes from bacteria to nematodes.

Logging removes biomass, much of necessary for future forest growth. Live trees, dead logs on the ground and snags are not a “wasted” or “excess” resource that can be removed without impacting the future resiliency of the forest. These physical structures provide the home and feeding areas for many species. Dead trees, in particular, have great, but mostly unappreciated ecological importance in the maintenance of the forest ecosystem health.

Logging alters stand age structure, species composition, and other variables in ways that we don’t fully appreciate or acknowledge.

The full and complete restoration of roads is more than putting up a gate. It requires the restoration of slope and replacement of top soil, removal of culverts and naturalization of stream channels, and revegetation. To fully restore a road is a costly endeavor, and seldom occurs. So ask a lot of questions about just what the BCSP means when they say they will “restore” or “close” a road and how will they pay for this?

Yes one can mitigate some of the worse aspects of logging impacts—if you even know what these impacts are—but logging has many impacts that appear to be glossed over by all the parties to the BCSP.


But beyond the problem that we are creating more environmental damage by logging so we can fix the damage created by past logging, there is the issue of implementation. Given that the demand for lumber is at near record lows, the demand for public logs will likely result in very low bids. Some proponents expect timber demand to rise in the future, making the plan’s economic assumptions more viable. However, at this time it’s not clear there will be sufficient additional funds over and above the cost of implementing the timber sales to do other restorative work like road closures. With such uncertainty, there should be no logging. On other stewardship contracts in the Montana, the trees were cut, but much of the lauded restoration work that was supposed to happen did not occur.

Furthermore, we don’t need to log the forest to pay for these activities. Keep in mind that the BCSP is advocating a subsidy of $12 million for implementation of the plan, much of it a direct subsidy to Pyramid Lumber to facilitate its purchase of a biomass burner to reduce the energy costs of its operations to the company. If we had $12 million to throw at Pyramid Lumber and the Seeley Lake Ranger District, we could use that money to fund road removal and other activities that would both create jobs and benefit the environment without the negative impacts of logging.

Even if one believed that it was in the public interest to subsidize the economic opportunities of Seeley Lake, one can question whether other ways of spending the money might produce greater long-term benefits. Perhaps using that same amount of money to hire more teachers for the Seeley Lake schools might result in more long-term good than subsidizing a lumber company. Or maybe creating more cross country ski, mountain biking, and hiking trails in the area might ultimately result in greater economic activity than subsidizing a logging company. I have not seen any evidence that the BCSP has considered any other options.


That the timber industry and Forest Service would gloss over logging impacts is not surprising, but it’s unforgivable that environmental organizations like TNC, TU, NWF, MWA, TWS all fail to articulate these costs. If environmentalists fail to articulate the real environmental costs of logging, who will?

Given the uncertainty about many of the basic assumptions of the BCSP such as the need for “restoration” and whether thinning will reduce fire risk, and other issues of economic viability of the stewardship proposals, one would hope that environmental organizations would default towards no manipulation of the land and/or the least intrusive methods that could accomplish the goals (like NPS fuels reduction, and mandatory regulations to reduce flammability of homes) rather than advocating intrusive and often environmentally destructive logging activities as a cure to questionable ailments. How can the public decide whether this BCSP serves the real interests of the American people if all we get is a one-sided view of the proposal that clearly serves the timber industry?

Is the BCSP worthy of public support? It is impossible to tell given the one-sided support for the proposal we have seen so far. One thing is certain; many of the real environmental and economic costs are ignored, while the presumed benefits are exaggerated. The BCSP might be a good starting point for further discussion, but without revisions, as it now stands, one can’t determine whether it’s really a public benefit or just a benefit to the local timber company.

Critique of TWS Economic Analysis of Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Plan

Autumn larch along Monture Creek Valley, Lolo National Forest, Montana

The following is a critique of an economic analysis done by the Wilderness Society that supports the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Proposal. Though I sent the critique in July, I have yet to get a detailed response to my concerns. Keep in mind that I may have misinterpreted the economic analysis, but in the absence of no response to correct any mistakes, I encourage readers not to take my interpretation as the final word and all should review the economic study themselves.

Bob Eky
Montana Office The Wilderness Society
Bozeman, Montana
July 7, 2008

Dear Bob:

Sorry to cause you more heartburn, but I have recently read the economic analysis for the Blackfoot Clearwater proposal and I am troubled and disappointed by what I saw in the report. From what I can deduce, the report seems to find a positive economic return for logging, and ignores many ecological impacts. Here are some criticisms and questions. I welcome your response. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear my critique is correct. But if you would like to respond, I have included all the people I copied on this message. So far this is an internal critique I'm only sending to you and others at TWS and MWA. But you can hit reply to all if you wish to set the record straight.

The TWS economic analysis comes out very positive about the Blackfoot Clearwater proposal. Perhaps in the end it is a net positive gain for the public—but one can’t determine that from this analysis. It seems to miss some important costs, particularly the ecological impacts from logging and its direct negative financial costs (logging loses on average $1400.00 an acre). This is not speculation—there’s a huge volume of scientific literature on all aspects of how logging negatively impacts the landscape and biodiversity—but you wouldn’t know it from this economic analysis—more on that later.

While the report suggests that there will several million in wages, etc. from the Blackfoot Clearwater proposal, it appears to ignore the original input of tax payer dollars that will facilitate much of this economic activity including the proposal to give Pyramid Lumber more than $4.5 million for a co-generation unit? Such a gift from taxpayers directly to a private business does not seem appropriate for any environmental organizations to be promoting. Sure Pyramid Lumber is happy—bought off for supporting wilderness in a place it can’t log anyway—but the taxpayer doesn’t necessarily benefit.

Plus there is an annual appropriation of $750,000 to the FS which is another "cost". These costs must be weighed against the presumed economic benefits. But in my quick review, I did not see these costs subtracted.

Furthermore, there is an underlying assumption that these subsidies are the best way to spend tax payer dollars to stimulate the local economy—even if we agreed that stimulating the local economy was something that we taxpayers should be doing in the first place. Take the economic issue of logging. Unless this proposes something drastically unique, most logging on the Lolo and other forests in the northern Rockies lose money—on average about $1400.00 an acre. Logging in a more sensitive manner would increase the costs, and lead to even greater losses.

Would it be better to spend these millions on something else like hiring more teachers for the schools or maybe just spending all those millions closing all the existing logging roads? Do we need to log the forest to close roads? I don’t think so—especially when the Blackfoot Clearwater proposal is talking about extensive federal subsidies. Stewardship sales are always tied to logging, however, one doesn’t need to log to do things like close and remove logging roads. Indeed, if we used that $750,000 annual appropriation proposed for ten years (over ten years amounting to $7.5 million) combined with the $4.5 million gift to Pyramid Lumber, we could close and restore a hell of a lot of logging roads. And ecologically this would be far superior to new logging.

Perhaps instead of promoting the local timber mill, we could use that federal subsidy to close roads, and promote quiet recreational like cross country skiers in winter and mountain bikers in the summer—making Seeley Lake a major destination for these activities. Perhaps promoting quiet recreation might actually improve Seeley Lake’s economy well beyond the short term benefits that might come with logging. In other words, could we spend a similar amount of money in some other way that might also create jobs in the community instead of logging? No comparison is offered. Instead TWS just goes along with the assumption that the best way to promote the local economy is by stimulating the timber industry with federal subsidies.

But even more troubling to me is that nowhere in the analysis did I see any attention given to the negative economic impacts of logging, motorized vehicle use, and other impacts that are going to be promoted by the Blackfoot Clearwater Partnership. All is glossed over and ignored as far as I can see.

The heart of the proposal is to thin the forests around Seeley Lake. The ecological justification for thinning forests in these kinds of ecosystems is questionable at best. This is not the Southwest ponderosa pine zone with its frequent fires. I know the area quite well. It is relatively wet, and even though some ponderosa pine exists in the area, the vast majority of the area included for logging can’t be called a ponderosa pine zone. The lowest elevation forests are transitional from ponderosa pine to western larch/Doug fir forests with extensive stands of lodgepole pine subalpine fir/spruce forests at mid and higher elevations. Thinning is proposed for all these forests on the assumption that fire suppression created unnatural fuel buildups, and thus is responsible for high intensity fires. However, it is questionable whether there is a significant amount of the land in this area that isn’t naturally in at least a mixed severity fire regime, much less dominated by a stand replacement fire regime.

Plus recent research into ponderosa pine forests in Colorado, the Black Hills, the northern Rockies and Cascades questions the assumption that stand replacement fires are always abnormal among the ponderosa pine forests in these locations. And dense pine forests may be as much as a consequence of favorable germination conditions (wet spring ) and a period of generally wetter conditions overall that is unfavorable for fires than as a consequence of fire suppression. Even if we all agreed that thinning of ponderosa pine might be justified in some places, that doesn’t mean thinning is justified in this location since most of the forests proposed for logging here are not even in the ponderosa pine zone. So the under lying assumption that somehow the forest here is out of whack due to fire suppression can be debated, yet TWS doesn’t even raise this as a potential issue.

But beyond those ecological factors concerning fire regimes and consequences for forest stand composition, thinning is still logging. Let's call it what it is. And logging is not a benign activity—it’s impossible to do logging without significant ecological impacts. And these impacts were nowhere mentioned in the economic report that I read. There is wildlife disturbance associated with logging. Sensitive animals like grizzly bears will avoid roads used by logging operations for years. There is the spread of weeds--this alone might cost more than all the presumed positive economic benefits. There is soil compaction. There is sedimentation from logging activities in streams.

One of the more important consequences of logging is the loss of biomass from the forest ecosystem and so forth. Thinned forests typically have fewer snags—and a net reduction in opportunities for cavity nesting birds, small mammals, bats, etc. And biomass on the forest floor is important for ants that are among the major predators on insects that prey upon trees. Fallen logs are important for mollusks that among the major herbivores in the forest ecosystem. I could go on, but it seems that all these costs are ignored. Just the presumed benefits are articulated, but none of the costs.

In yet another area the report suggests that thinning would improve growth rates of ponderosa pine. So what? Faster growing is only a benefit to the timber industry. Slow growing trees have denser wood, and when they die, they don't decay as fast, thus providing a longer period of benefits if the trees are snags or fall to the ground. In any case, the assumption that faster growth is a positive is again something that a good ecologist might question.

Plus even if thinning of the forest were desirable, that doesn’t mean it has to be done by logging. In our national parks across the West, the National Park Service effectively manages to reduce fuels in forests without commercial logging. They do it with prescribed burns. And prescribed burns avoid many of the ecological negatives I mentioned above. Why isn’t TWS promoting the least invasive methods for accomplishing a goal—if indeed, the goal is even correct—which it may not be as I have suggested. Instead it buys into the FS mantra that logging is the cure for everything that ails the forest.

And I do not accept the assumption in the report that thinning would improve water quality if the real impacts associated with logging are included, etc. At least this is another debatable assumption.

It is also questionable whether thinning will reduce fires as suggested since it ignores a growing body of evidence that suggests that thinning may actually increase fires, especially under severe fire conditions—which are the only conditions that matter since under less than severe fire conditions of high winds and drought, fires are easily contained and squelched if that is the desired goal. Thinning will open up the forests to faster drying of fuels, and increases wind velocity. Both of these are major factors in the spread of fires.
Of course, another bias in this analysis is the idea that fires are something to be prevented. Severe burns are ecologically important. We are not having enough severe burns compared to historic averages, so the assumption that we would want to prevent them--if this were possible--is not something that I expect TWS to be promoting.

Elsewhere in the analysis, TWS suggests that doing thinning will reduce “fire fighting costs”. Again this assumes that it’s desirable to fight fires. Why isn’t TWS questioning this assumption, and pointing out that most of the justification for fighting fires in the Seeley Lake area is because people have unwisely built homes in the forests and urban-wildlands interface. Here’s a real chance to make the point that it is inappropriate development that is driving public policy. Instead TWS adopts the basic assumption that we should be fighting fires in such a place—and thus if thinning really works (which it may not as I argue above) than it is a net benefit to thin.

And the analysis goes on to say that studies show enhance land values in thinned forests compared to burned forests. It says that recreation users prefer to use thinned forests rather than forests with crown fires. So what? Many recreational users also don't like having grizzly bears around. Should TWS start promoting the elimination of grizzlies because many recreational users s prefer to be in bear free country? TWS is supposed to be an environmental organization. Fires are a net positive ecological function of the forest. Instead of accepting that people prefer thinning to burns, perhaps TWS should spend more time educating the public why burned forests are great places to recreate to change the existing perception, instead of validating a misguided perception.

Or the statement that the 2000 acre winter recreation (snowmobiling) will provide enhanced benefits is another flawed assumption. You might find that if there were fewer snowmobiles, there would be greater economic benefits because more people attracted by quiet recreation might use the area. And like the logging assumptions, this analysis does not mention any negative ecological impacts resulting from the so called "enhanced winter recreation." Please read the chapter I wrote in Thrillcraft on snowmobiles if you want a few ideas about how snowmobiles can impact the land--and costs all of us. Again to see TWS promoting snowmobiling as a positive good is very disheartening.

Basically this analysis externalizes most of the ecological costs and/or assumes thinning and logging are a positive effect on the land and only includes the so called benefits. It appears to be designed to substantiate a predetermined conclusion, rather than a genuine attempt to really figure out whether this is a public benefit or loss.

Furthermore, there is no context or comparison. What would be the economic benefits if you just designated the 87,000 acres of wilderness, and had no logging? Or designated 87,000 acres of wilderness closed the existing logging roads on much of the rest of the public lands and promoted quiet recreational uses? We aren't given any comparatives that might provide far more public benefits. Maybe this will ultimately prove to be even better for the local economy--especially if all the real costs of logging were considered. But this is not mentioned because TWS wants to make a deal with Pyramid Lumber.

Basically this analysis is like something I would expect from industry. It promotes logging and even some thrillcraft use without articulating any of the real harm and ecological costs associated with these activities. In fact, it seems to promote all of these harmful activities as net economic benefits, in part, because none of the negative environmental impacts are included in the accounting. By this kind of accounting, Plum Creek and Weyerhauser butchery of its forest lands should get accolades from TWS for their outstanding economic contributions to the PNW economies.

I can understand there is some logic to these collaborative efforts. One can assume that logging is going to occur anyway, and we (wilderness activists) might as well try to extract some protection for roadless areas out of the deal. But in validating things like logging, thinning projects that don't work and are unnecessary, snowmobile use, etc. you actually make it harder to protect forests in the end. I know this is a more difficult uphill battle to inform the public where logging, for instance, won't prevent large blazes and/or that logging, snowmobile use, ORVs, etc. have many nuanced, but important ecological impacts. But in the end isn't that what environmental groups are supposed to be doing--educating the public.

I want to see wilderness designated as much as anyone, but I don't want it to be done dishonestly. And I believe your economic analysis is--for want of a better word-- a snow job. It ignores and/or glosses over many of the real costs of logging, and ORV use in trying to put a happy face on this proposal. If TWS won't honestly state what costs are being externalized, who will?

I would be happy to give you more input on ecological costs if you are open to hearing about them. However, I get the sense that you are more interested in closing a deal rather than honestly appraising the real costs of this proposal. Please prove me wrong.

George Wuerthner

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


George Wuerthner

In the November 17th Science Section of the New York Times there was an article by Jim Robbins about the current pine beetle event occurring in the West.

There was a lot of good factual information in the piece about pine beetles and their basic ecology, and on the whole, Robbins did a good job of describing some of the concerns that people have about the beetle situation. Nevertheless, the tone and implied message conveyed an overly pessimistic and negative picture of beetles as well as wildfires. It was not so much that it had a lot of false statements as much as the way it was written. Taken together the various quotes, and background in the article leaves one with the perception that somehow beetles, as well as wildfires are “out of control” in the West's ecosystems.

What is lacking is perspective and context. As a writer myself I recognize that space limitations often affect the detail that can be contained in an article. Sometimes you can’t list all the exceptions, nuance, and provide the full context for a piece. Robbins got a lot of ecological information in his piece, and in that regard he did a good job.

However, it seems to me that the real “news” here isn’t that we are having large outbreaks of beetles, but that such events are probably quite normal when looked at from an ecological temporal and spatial perspective. Those who are asserting these are the largest outbreaks in history are only going back a relatively short time—perhaps the past 50-100 years for the context and perspective. At least some beetle researchers I’ve talked with believe the current infestation (infestation is pejorative and not a good word to use here, but I can think of nothing more suitable) is not that out of the ordinary when compared to other large events from the more distance past.

We are seeing unprecedented drought and much warmer temperatures as Robbins noted in the article. But what he did not do is connect the dots. Such droughts mean that our forests are overstocked for current conditions, and the beetles as well as wildfires are doing us all a great favor by thinning them at no cost. Instead of portraying this natural thinning process as a problem, a more ecologically informed perspective might suggest that the beetles are creating forests that are more in balance with available moisture, and other nutrients.

Now the global warming that is occurring may be unnatural--due to human caused climate change--but global warming is the problem, not the response of the beetles, fires, and forest to that climate change.

Large beetle outbreaks and wildfires in particular, rather than being “destructive” as insinuated in the article are the major ecological influences upon these types of forest ecosystems. The real “news” is that what people think about forests and wildfires,is not accurate.

For instance, dead trees do not necessarily increase fire risk, and in fact, green trees might burn better under severe drought conditions. And dead trees provide many ecological benefits—which were not even mentioned in the piece to balance the doom and gloom. This kind of information is really the “news” especially for the Science Section of the New York Times.

The piece also mentions fire suppression as one of the factors that has led to even aged stands of lodgepole vulnerable to pine beetle attack. (Pine beetle typically only attack larger trees so trees growing back from recent burns are not susceptible to attack) Rather than fire suppression contributing to these large beetle events, what is more likely occurring is a significant proportion of lodgepole pine stands in the West created by past large fires and/or beetle outbreaks a century or more ago are now the proper size and age to support sustained beetle population growth. As Robbins does note correctly, when they reach this size, and are stressed by drought, they are less able to extrude beetles attempting to lay eggs in the tree’s cambium layer.

One of the reasons that fire suppression is unlikely to have had much effect upon the region’s lodgepole forest vulnerability to beetles has to do with the typical fire regime of this species. Lodgepole pine usually burns infrequently at relatively long intervals between fires, and generally in stand replacement blazes.

Significant fires in lodgepole pine only occur when there is severe drought--conditions as we are experiencing now. So the idea that past fire suppression reduced fires in these kinds of forests is unlikely or at best probably has had little influence on total fires and acreage burned today. Lodgepole forests don’t burn simply because there are dead trees—whether those trees are a consequence of past fires or beetle attack. It takes specific climatic conditions to sustain a fire.

There is a widespread misuse of the Southwest ponderosa pine model fire regime which is too often indiscriminately applied to all forests. While Southwest ponderosa pine forests are characterized by frequent low intensity fires that may have been altered by fire suppression, this generalization should not be applied to other forest types like lodgepole pine which naturally have much longer fire intervals. Fire suppression simply hasn’t been effective long enough to alter the fire intervals in lodgepole forests.

The other factors listed in Robbin’s piece--drought and warm winters--are the main reasons for this particular spectacular beetle outbreak. And these are largely factors controlled by climate--likely human induced global warming-- rather than fire suppression.

Another factor that was not really addressed in the piece was the current condition of our forests is largely a reflection of either past fires and/or past beetle outbreaks. In other words, the extensive geographic extent of lodgepole of the proper age to make them vulnerable to beetles is a consequence of past events that created large stands of even aged pine.

There is data to suggest that previous beetle outbreaks every bit as large as and/or larger than the current one have repeatedly swept pine in the West. Put into that kind of perspective, the current events do not seem so extraordinary.

The problem is that we humans have such a short temporal viewpoint on ecological change. Events like large wildfires and beetle outbreaks that occur periodically, but only every century or two "seem" large because we are not witness to them but once every generation or two. That is why the Yellowstone fires seemed extraordinary to the country even though research has demonstrated that large blazes, often much larger than those in 1988, occurred in Yellowstone’s forests in centuries past.

Furthermore, just as a hundred year flood does a lot of the real hydrological work of a river in terms of channel morphology changes, these large fires and outbreaks of beetles are the major ecological force in their respective ecosystems. In other words, the small fires and outbreaks that occur on a more frequent basis really don't matter because they don't amount to a hill of beans. It's the occasional, but rather uncommon large events that are the real driver of ecosystems. This perspective was regrettably missing from the article.

Third, the idea that dead lodgepole increases fire risk is also more nuanced than presented. In most of lodgepole pine forests it is too wet to burn most of the time--regardless of the fuels that are present. That is why lodgepole forests tend to burn on long intervals—because conditions that make them dry enough to burn readily do not occur frequently. Just because you have a lot of dead trees, doesn't mean you will have a large fire or the fire risk is higher in those particular forest types.

Beyond that point, the overall fire hazard changes through time, and it is not as neat as presented in the article. Immediately following the attack and the red needle stage, flammability goes up. But what is the likelihood that there will be an ignition and that it will be wet enough for these trees to burn during that short period of several years. Well it turns out it is a very small probability.

Probability is an important factor in these discussions. The fact that you have a lot of red needles out there doesn't translate into higher fire risk unless the other factors that contribute to large blazes like wind, drought, low humidity, and ignition are also present. Getting all these factors together on the same piece of land at the same time that the forest is dominated by red needles is extremely rare--which is why lodgepole pine forests do not burn very often.

But after the needles drop, and small branches break off the trees, the flammability goes down for several decades--so even with drought, wind, etc. the probability of fire actually goes down over that which might occur if the trees were green and alive. In reality, a standing dead tree is not likely to burn except under very severe fire conditions.

Under severe drought conditions, green trees are more flammable than dead trees (where the small branches and needles are gone) because they have flammable resins. Thus under extreme drought conditions, your green forests are more likely to burn than a sea of dead trees at this stage.

The bulk of trees killed by fire or beetles do not fall over for several decades. Even then, what increases flammability aren’t so much the dead trees, but the rapid growth of young trees that take advantage of the opening in the forest canopy and reduction in competition. Since it is fine fuels that sustains fire, not large snags, it is the young trees, grass, shrubs, etc. that rapidly fill up the ground and can carry a fire that leads to greater flammability.

Big logs, as most of us probably know from trying to make campfires, are not easily ignited . If you don’t have a lot of “kindling” under the logs, ignition from a match, spark or any other source, won’t get the log to burn. The larger the log, the more preheating require to get it up to the burning point and keep it there. You need a lot of fine fuels and small branches to carry and sustain a fire. It is the rapid growth of smaller trees, etc. that provides this small fuels, which can heat the larger logs to the ignition point and help to sustain the flames.

Fourth, the article unfortunately had a lot of dire stuff about mudslides, floods, etc. which may or may not follow a fire, but even if it does, even these events must be put into perspective. Research shows these kinds of natural events are relatively rare. And at least in some places, research has shown that the bigger and most severe burns actually have contributed to higher biodiversity, more fish, etc. than lightly burned areas. In other words, contrary to popular perception, severe wildfires might not be “bad” from a biodiversity and ecological perspective—even for things we care about like the quality of the trout fishing.

Another problem with the piece was the use of pejorative language. In my book Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy I discuss at length about how language helps to promote the idea that wildfires are "bad" by using words like "catastrophic", “disaster”, “damaged”, and other adjectives used to describe wildfires. Such terms are really pejorative words since large fires are not deadly to the landscape or ecosystems as implied.

As mentioned at the beginning, most of the factual content of the article was accurate, but still the author weaved together a report that presented an ecologically inaccurate portrait of the situation. Context and perspective are critical to our collective understanding of ecological events, and without such information, we react with poor policy choices.