Thursday, September 18, 2008

Drill, baby, Drill

George Wuerthner

You’ve seen them, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, you glance over like I do. Besides the latest tidbits on who is dating whom these days, or where the latest UFO’s have been sighted, there is usually a headline on the tabloid that proclaims fabulous weight loss on some fad diet. Typically it says something like lose 50 pounds eating ice cream, implying that one can shed weight without having to suffer—indeed, you can continue to enjoy the same sweets that made you fat in the first place. The popularly of such fad diets demonstrates how vulnerable people are to wishful thinking. The only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories or exercise more so you burn up those calories. Ideally you do both. But people are always ready to believe they can get something for nothing—hence the popularity of ice cream and other so-called “no sweat diets”.

I was reminded of ice cream diets while watching the Republican National Convention. Candidates John McCain and, Sarah Palin were telling Americans that we could gain energy independence by additional drilling of domestic oil reserves. Though they gave lip service to the need for alternative energy as well, both candidates implied that if we only drilled our coastal areas, and places like Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we could garner oil independence.

In other words, Americans wouldn’t have to give up driving gas guzzling cars, curb sprawl, invest in mass transit, give up hamburgers (meat diet), and most of all, we would not have to change our vaulted American lifestyle built upon consumerism and waste. All we need to do, we are told, is drill, baby, drill. Even the Democrats have caved, recently introducing legislation to open up more coastal areas to off shore drilling as if this will magically cure our energy woes.


Like eating ice cream to lose weight, we won’t shed those energy calories unless we consume less energy. With only 4% of the world’s population the US consumes 26% of the entire world’s oil supplies. We import 61% of this oil, partially contributing to our huge debt, and enriching the coffers of countries not known to be our friends. According to best estimates, we have already depleted 86-88% of all known US crude oil reserves. Even with new technologies—and assuming that every acre of land containing even a hint of oil were opened to drilling including such cherished places as the coast of California, the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, the Book Cliffs in Colorado, and Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge--the US cannot drill its way to oil independence.

We simply do not have enough oil reserves under US soil to make a dent in our dependency on foreign oil. The fact is that most of the world’s remaining oil reserves are outside of our country’s boundaries. And what we have left is mostly tapped out. The US has 563,000 operating oil wells. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has only 1600 operating wells. Yet even with more than 360 times the number of operating wells, the US produces only 80% of the oil of Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia has barely tapped its known reserves.

The GOP mantra “Drill, baby, drill” may work to galvanize the party faithful, but even the most optimistic oil projections suggest that even if all known oil reserves were tapped, over the next 20 years the US would still be importing 80-90% of the oil it consumes by 2030. Playing upon people’s fears about terrorists’ attacks distracts Americans from the much greater threat posed by our current energy policies. If the major US energy policy continues to be one that emphasizes development, and ultimately use of petroleum, then there is no doubt that the US economic and national security will be in serious jeopardy.

There is a way to significantly reduce our oil dependency, but it doesn’t involve something as simplistic as a drill, baby, drill mantra. While alternative energy offers some relief, the area where we can realize the greatest return on our investments is energy conservation. After all, the oil we don’t burn is the oil we don’t need to import. So where are the best places to find energy savings?


Transportation is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the US, and thus any energy savings in this sector can translate into large energy savings. For instance, if vehicle miles per gallon were doubled--easily done with current technology—we could achieve a huge savings in oil consumption. Some estimates suggest this might reduce our oil consumption by 10-15%.


Heating, cooling, and lighting home and commercial buildings uses a third of all US energy (buildings use other energy sources besides petroleum such as coal-fired electric). Existing cost effective energy conservation measures could cut building energy use significantly. For instance, between 20-40% of all heat and cooling loss in residential buildings is the result of leaks. Windows are a source for 25% of all home energy losses. Modern windows are 4 times as energy efficient as those sold and installed 30 years ago. And the typical gas furnace in America is only 65% efficient, while new modern furnaces are 96% efficient. Lighting consumes 25% of all electricity. New light bulbs, as well as efficient appliances, are all cost effective measures that can be implemented today. Add all these energy conservation savings together, and you again get a large reduction in petroleum demand. Even turning down the thermostat at night could save significant energy. At present only half of the houses in America turn down their thermostat at night, yet it could save 17% on heat energy costs for homeowners.


Another area where we could experience significant energy savings is food consumption—this is one place where dieting could make a difference—at least a switch in diet. At present 13 kcal of energy are expended to produce 1 kcal of food. Two thirds of the energy in food production is for fertilizer and machine operation. Since the major use of agricultural land in the United States is growing grain crops, like corn, that are ultimately fed to livestock, a reduction in meat consumption offers yet another way to reduce energy use. Beef, in particular, requires far more energy than other meat to produce. Switching to a vegetarian diet--or at least a reduction in meat consumption—would offer a huge energy savings.


I haven’t mentioned many other measures that would save energy--from land use planning to reduce sprawl, or providing more public transportation--but my point is probably clear. The easiest way to garner energy independence is not by drilling for more oil, but in reducing energy consumption and waste. And we should not forget that all of these energy savings would be gobbled up if we continue to permit our population to grow without restraint. Without a major shift in our lifestyles we will never affect significant reduction in our energy consumption. And so-called oil independence will be no more than a meaningless slogan. “Drill, drill, drill” is poor public policy and one that will waste resources, squander our wealth, and compromise our future.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Living Behind the Bovine Curtain

George Wuerthner

We in the West live behind a bovine curtain. Like people living behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, we are inundated with propaganda that extols the virtues of livestock production in the arid West. Yet, like the people of eastern Europe whose leaders continued to tell them that communism worked despite the reality of empty shelves in the stores, we in the West are told by a host of livestock advocates that livestock grazing "improves" the landscape and is a relatively benign use of the land despite the reality of cow-blasted riparian zones, predator control, species extinctions, water pollution, and dewatering of our rivers.

Occasionally, radio free Europe broadcasts send us a different message from the "outside" world. The GAO and EPA and other organizations produce reports that paints a message quite different from the hoopla feed to us by the range managers, range "scientists", ranchers and others who have something to gain by maintaining the status quo. The EPA calls western riparian areas the "worst shape in history". The GAO suggests that most federal lands are "badly mismanaged". The Soil Conservation Service reports that a total of 410 million acres of rangelands (public and private) are in "unsatisfactory" condition. And so it goes. Reality doesn't jive with the propaganda.

A study conducted by the BLM of its lands in the late 1970's showed that the majority of its holdings were unsuitable for livestock grazing. But not surprisingly down came the bovine curtain, and the report was suppressed by western politicans and never released to the public. And even today, both the Forest Service and BLM frequently refuse to even consider the question of whether domestic livestock grazing is appropriate on any particular allotment. Instead, these public agencies spend more and more our money trying to make the land "fit" livestock. Hence we spend millions annually on fencing, stock ponds, pipelines, and other devices designed to "improve" livestock distrubtion and "mitigate" impacts.

And our tax dollars pay for the propaganda that continues to poar forth from the livestock industry. It's not that all of this information is wrong or that I believe most livestock advocates are purposely trying to distort the truth. I have no doubts that from their perspective, they believes everything they say is true. Some is. Most isn't.

Consider for example the common statement from the livestock industry suggesting the "vast majority of rangelands are stable or improving in condition". Sounds good until you examine the data yourself and discover that the vast majority of rangelands are in the "stable" category and stable in poor condition. Only a small percentage is actually improving and is matched by a nearly equal amount that is declining in condition, but by grouping stable with those acres under improvement, livestock advocates can say "the majority" of lands are improving. Of course, one could just as easily say the "majority" are declining as well. It is this is kind of misinformation and deception that characterizes so much of the information coming from the livestock industry and their lackeys in range "science".

This same deception is used when ranchers and other livestock supporters make the point that grazing benefits "wildlife". Unfortunately, an unconscious assumption of most ranchers and range managers in that "wildlife" equals a few big game species. There is much more to our wildlife heritage than these charismatic mega fauna. For dozens of species from the kit fox to the sage grouse to the Willow-Whitehorse trout, the influence of livestock grazing has been anything but positive, but these species are conveniently ignored when ranchers talk about the benefits of livestock grazing for "wildlife". In fact, livestock grazing is responsible for the extinction or near extinction of more species in the western United States than all other human activities combined!

But even the statements that livestock has lead to increases in big game species are deceptive. Many studies have demonstrated that livestock will displace elk, bighorn sheep, and other big game animals from pastures where cattle or domestic sheep are actively feeding. Frequently wild species are displaced into areas with less security cover, thermal cover, or foraging areas with poorer forage quality. Typically, these "costs" and questions about overall animal fitness are never reviewed by the researchers trying to prove that livestock "benefits" wildlife.

Another common myth is that elk, bighorn sheep, antelope and other big game species have increased since the 1960's and it is implied that improvements results from benefits associated with livestock grazing. While it's true that SOME big game species have increased in numbers, one needs to ask whether this is the result of livestock grazing or in spite of it. In reality, big game numbers have been increasing everywhere since historic lows near the turn of the century when overhunting coupled with excessive competition from livestock decimated most large ungulate populations. Since that time effective game laws, coupled with transplants, AND an overall reduction in livestock numbers, have all led to increasing numbers of these animals. Big game herds have increased in areas both in areas with livestock grazing and without. But they have increased more in areas without livestock.
To see the problem with such logic, let us turn to Colorado and its elk herd. At the turn of the century there were so few elk in Colorado due to overhunting that animals were transplanted from Yellowstone. Today there are more than a 300,000 elk in the state despite the fact that Colorado is one of the fastest growing states with a huge sprawl problem. But it would be wrong to imply that sprawl "improve" conditions for elk simply because there are more now than in 1900. Yet, this is exactly the same logic the livestock industry uses all the time to "prove" that livestock and wildlife are "compatible".

Such statements show a profound ignorance of how our ecosystems function. There are no empty niches. Each blade of grass that goes into the belly of a domestic cow is that much less forage that could be sustaining NATIVE species. The herbivore might only be a grasshopper, not a "good" animal like an elk. But that grasshopper will feed a rodent or a bird, which in turn may feed some other native species.

Besides consuming forage that might otherwise support native species, livestock "use" up space and water as well. Many species will, if given a choice, avoid areas under intensive livestock use. Water developments for livestock are not nearly as beneficial for wildlife as ungrazed ponds and springs. This is not to deny that one won't occasionally see wildlife using these developments, but in most instances, such developments destroy existing seeps, wetlands and springs which have far more beneficial use to wildlife than a mud-caked, cow-trashed development.

There is no doubt that "better livestock management" can mitigate some of the negative impacts associated with livestock grazing, but mitigation is different than suggesting that livestock grazing "improves" things. With few exceptions, the cumulative effect of domestic livestock grazing has a detrimental effect upon the landscape. Lessening those impacts is not the same as "improvement". So when a riparian zone is fenced and the riparian zone "improves" what we are really saying is that the absence of livestock or reduction of livestock is what "improved" the area. Yet most livestock propaganda has statements like "riparian areas improve with grazing". This is like suggesting that cars improved the air in LA after emission control devices were installed. Cars did not improve the air, and LA air shed would be better off with fewer or no cars.

Most environmentalists suggest we should work with ranchers for improved livestock management, but this is actually calling for the continued domestication of our native ecosystems. Just as timber management effectively makes our native forest ecosystems into tree farms, livestock management effectively turns our native rangeland ecosystems into feedlots for privately owned animals with all the profits going to the ranchers and the public left with the costs. Better livestock management almost always means more fencing, more water developments, more roads, more spraying, burnings, chaining, predator control and other activities designed to "better distribute" livestock. Better distribution is like building a taller smokestack. It spreads the pollution over a larger area so it is not as noticeable, but it doesn't necessarily mean there are fewer impacts.

There are plenty of opportunities for production of livestock on private lands in the United States. And for every rancher in Harney County, Oregon or Elko County, Nevada trying to make a living, there is a livestock grower in Georgia or East Texas trying to do the same. It's not like western ranchers are the only individuals attempting to provide consumers with meat. They are directly competing with livestock producers in other parts of the country. To suggest that we need to subsidize western ranchers so as to maintain rural economies is to sacrifice rural economies elsewhere in the country.

But rural economies are not the only thing we sacrifice by maintaining a western livestock industry. If we consider the ecological costs of meat production in the arid West with places like Georgia or East Texas, we find that ecological costs, while still substantial, are far less in the east or mid west than anyplace in the arid western U.S..

The reality is that cows are poorly adapted to live in dry climates. You can't get away from that fact. We can't afford to fence all the riparian areas in the West to protect them from cows. We shouldn't have to continue to dewater rivers to irrigate fields to produce crops to feed cattle. We needn't extirpate all the predators from public lands simply to make them safe for someone else’s privately owned cows.

Finally, many ranchers threaten to subdivide their property if they cannot continue to graze on public lands. The common assumption being that by permitting public lands grazing, we maintain the tax base, protect open space and prevent subdivisions from taking over valuable wildlife habitat. Yet, there is no evidence that access to public lands grazing actually prevents subdivisions or helps to maintain open space, except in a very few instances. In most cases, as demand for property increases, and the value of that land for other uses also increases, most ranchers eventually find the economic rewards of selling out too great to resist or simply have no choice as other uses making livestock production less viable. This has happened over and over again, suggesting that access to public lands grazing privileges is a poor substitute for strict zoning laws, conservation easements and other measures that can protect these values without sacrificing our public rangelands to support a few individuals. In many cases, the money being spent on administering, monitoring, and mitigating the impacts of livestock grazing would buy a lot of development rights or provide a significant amount of money for outright fee purchase of threatened lands.

We need to ask whether what we give up in things wild and free are worth the costs. If one looks at the cumulative effects of grazing on all "wildlife", on fisheries, on native plant communities, on watersheds, on soils, on recreation and on aesthetics, it becomes obvious that no human activity has had a greater impact upon our natural ecosystems than livestock grazing. And since livestock are exotic animals utilizing space, water, and forage that would otherwise support native species, domestic livestock use of these public lands is not compatible with maintaining native ecosystems and biodiversity.

We need to ask what this nation needs more. We can raise all the cows we need on private lands in the more humid areas of the country, but there are few places where we can protect large, intact ecosystems. Most of these areas are found in the West on public lands. As long as we have alien, non-native domestic livestock dominating the management direction of our native rangelands and using a majority of its forage, space and water, we will never realize the full potential of these arid regions.

Condos or Cows? Neither!

George Wuerthner

Throughout the country there is a growing fear that subdivisions and sprawl will eliminate open space, destroy wildlife habitat, and lead to ever greater congestion. To counter such a threat, many suggest that we should do everything we can to maintain existing land uses such as farming, ranching, and/or logging on the presumption that these economic land uses will preclude or at least slow development.

However, except in the most densely settled parts of the country, these land uses are the most significant sources for environmental degradation, biological impoverishment, and loss of wildlife habitat. Instead of championing or facilitating the continued biological impoverishment of the landscape by these industries, we should be trying to reduce and hold accountable these industries, while at the same time we seek to control sprawl and subdivisions.

Rather than a choice between condos and cows as is often portrayed, we ought to be saying no to both. Unfortunately far too many people accept the false dichotomy presented by ranching advocates who use the subdivision threat as a club to beat back any criticism or attempts to rein in this destructive land use.


Ranching advocates present a false choice when they assert we must preserve ranching or suffer unrestricted sprawl. It is a seductive argument that remains, for the most part, unexamined. Many, even in the environmental community, accept the notion that if we only support and even subsidize resource extraction industries like farming, ranching, and logging, sprawl will be contained or slowed because land owners won’t sell to developers.

Of course if this assumption were true, we would not have sprawl. Even the most productive and valuable farmland in the West—California’s Central Valley—agricultural lands are being sold for development So how can anyone expect some cow beat pasture along the Wasatch Front near Salt Lake City or outside of Boise to compete against development as a housing tract?

It is higher land prices that contribute to sprawl, not the mere availability of land. There are millions of acres of private land for sale right now in North Dakota that many there wish someone would buy. It’s cheap. It’s available. So why isn’t North Dakota being swamped by real estate developers anxious to subdivide? The reason is that almost no one wants to live in North Dakota and many of the people stuck there want to leave—if only they could sell their property to someone.

But if you own land where people want to live—places like Montana’s Bitterroot or Gallatin Valleys, Colorado’s Front Range, the deserts around Phoenix and so on, than your property can be sold for way more as a housing site than it can return growing cows. Not surprisingly, many ranchers and farmers find this an attractive way to fund their retirement or leave a financial legacy for their children.


There is no denying that sprawl is socially and ecologically detrimental to human and wildlife communities. Sprawl fragments wildlife habitat, raises costs for services, increases energy use, forces longer commutes, requires more roads, spreads weeds and causes many other negative impacts that affect everything from taxes to wildlife migration patterns.

Nevertheless, as bad as these effects are upon landscape integrity, the majority of development in the West occurs around urban centers, where jobs, educational opportunities and amenities are found. Most westerners may have an exaggerated perspective on land use changes that are occurring in the West because the vast majority of the West’s population live in urban areas where we experience these negative impacts daily.


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture own figures, only 3.5 percent of the lower 48 states is developed—this includes all the highways, shopping malls, and housing tracts in the country. By comparison livestock production impacts 60-65% percent of all land area in the U.S. This figure includes public and private lands that are grazed, and farmland used for forage crop.

Looking at the West, we see the same disparity between developed land and lands affected by animal agriculture. For instance, a GAP analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that only 530,000 of Colorado’s 66 million acres are affected by development, whereas 33 million acres are grazed by livestock.

Worse yet, more than 15,722,500 acres of Colorado’s farmland are devoted to livestock forage crops such as feeder corn and alfalfa. These agricultural fields are every bit as disastrous as shopping malls for most wildlife. At best they are vastly simplified ecosystems. Hay or corn fields typically consist of a single species of exotic plant that are removed annually. Many of these crops are irrigated and guzzle precious water. Such fields effectively fragment and degrade more terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems than all urbanization and sprawl combined many times over.

Don’t take my word for it—get up in an airplane and stare out the window. I guarantee that if you fly anywhere over the West, once you leave the immediate area of a major urban area, what you will see is not subdivisions, malls, or anything else we call sprawl—instead what one will see for mile after mile of biologically impoverished lands used for ranching—either grazed lands and/or hay fields and other crops planted to sustain cattle.


As anyone who has flown over Montana or driven along its empty highways can attest that there’s a lot of undeveloped land in the state. Recent population figures indicate that 87 percent of Montana’s land area has fewer than 6 people per square mile! That’s the cut off figure used by the Census Bureau to define “frontier counties” in the 1890 census.

The sparse human imprint is supported by a recent GAP analysis which found only 0.17 percent (about 200,000 acres) of the state’s 93 million acres affected by development. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of the land is grazed, and more than 5.5 million acres consist of irrigated crops that feed livestock.

For all intents and purposes, most of Montana is still uninhabited. If “open space” were synonymous with good wildlife habitat, there would be no endangered species in Montana.

So why are prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, wolves, grizzly bears, swift foxes, sage grouse, Columbian sharp-tail grouse, Montana graylings and countless other threatened or endangered species unable to thrive in a place that’s practically deserted?
The problem is clear. Animal agriculture has devastating effects on species and ecological processes such as predation, fire and nutrient flow.


While ranching advocates are quick to point out the negative impacts of sprawl—as they should—they fail to apply the same critical analysis to the social and ecological effects of livestock production.

Livestock production involves crop production, water diversions, predator control, fences and many other activities that carry tremendous ecological costs. Livestock spread weeds, fragment wildlife habitat (particularly aquatic ecosystems because of water diversions for irrigation), transmit diseases to native wildlife, consume forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, trample soils, pollute water sources, degrade riparian areas and truncate nutrient flows.

The cumulative impact of livestock production across the West explains why it is responsible for more endangered species than any other land use. Livestock production is the largest source of non-point water pollution and soil erosion, the greatest consumer of water and a major contributor to wildfires. It’s also a chief reason why predators such as wolves and grizzlies have been reduced to token populations.


Turning a blind eye to ranching impacts won’t prevent sprawl. At best, the hope that livestock production can contain sprawl is a blunt tool. It is a passive, unfocused approach that occasionally results in “coincidental conservation.”

If we want to control sprawl, there are effective, active methods that work: zoning, planning, conservation easements and outright acquisition. Though all have drawbacks, they can restrict or guide development. States such as Oregon and California (through the Coastal Commission) have instituted statewide or regional zoning that has dramatically reduced sprawl. And of course the single best means of protecting important wildlife habitat or other public values is outright public acquisition. California, for instance, recently passed a $5 billion plus bond issue to fund, among other things, new park acquisitions. Voters in Nevada, Colorado and Arizona have also approved bond issues to fund land acquisition.


The argument that we must choose between condos and cows (or clearcuts and condos) is a false one. Neither is desirable, and both should be restricted as much as possible. If we enact proven land conservation policies like zoning and planning, ramped up public acquisition of critical lands, and simultaneously reduce the amount of land devoted to livestock production, the West will be a better place than it is today, even as more people discover its wonders and desire to live here.

Rethinking Forest Health

George Wuerthner

I just read through a portion of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) revised plan. Among the major components of the plan is support for “vegetation management,” a euphemism for logging. The BDNF plan calls for “treating” its forests by logging to “restore” its ecological health. It has become commonplace for the Forest Service to justify logging for forest health reasons instead of timber production. We no longer log just to get the raw material for lumber and profits for timber companies. We log the forest to restore ecological health, or so the agency suggests.

I personally don’t believe that the BDNF staff is purposefully using “forest health” as an excuse to log. There is a wide-spread assumption among many forest ecologists that past forest management, including past logging, along with fire suppression, has radically altered our forests. However, the agency may be unaware of more recent research that calls into question many of these previous assumptions about forest condition and health.

Even if the assumptions about forest condition are correct, that doesn’t mean that logging can actually restore the presumed “historic range of variability.” One could restore ecological health by permitting more fires to burn, and by the use of more prescribed burning. Since this doesn’t produce profits for the timber industry, the agency is under a lot of pressure to cut trees instead of using less intrusive means like prescribed burning and wildfire as a means of restoring the presumed forest conditions. To its credit, in its Alternative 3 of the forest plan the BDNF does recommend exactly that prescription—more wildfire and prescribed burning and limited logging. Unfortunately, for the public, Alternative 3 is not selected by the agency as its preferred alternative.

The problem for anyone advocating “restoration” is that we have few references about how the forest looked a hundred years ago. There are some historic photographs that provide a valuable perspective, but whether these represent just a point in time and at a particular spot, or are characteristic of the forest as a whole is unknown. Furthermore, there is always the potential for a selective bias in the choice of photographs by the researcher seeking to find evidence for a change in forest condition and composition.

The same can be said about written accounts. When someone asserts that the forests were so open they could ride a horse through them could again reflect a bias in the observer who either selected the easiest pathway through the woods, avoiding other denser forest stands, or even a failure to note when the forests encountered were densely forested. Also there is always the chance for researcher bias that ignores some references to forest condition, in favor of descriptions that fit one’s preconceived notions about how the forest appeared.

The further back in time you go, the murkier the record. Most ecologists must rely upon reconstruction of past “historic conditions” by proxy. One popular method involves looking at fire scars on trees, and trying to determine past fire intervals. The assumption is that low intensity fires do not kill trees, but rather leave a record of their occurrence by a scar. By reading the intervals between such fire scars, researchers can reconstruct past fire occurrence and severity and make some assumptions about the historic look of these forests. However, a recent review of this method by a number of researchers has called into question the validity of many of these studies.

For instance, William Baker from the University of Wyoming and colleagues did a review of fire history studies in ponderosa pine forests and found that nearly half of them depended upon only one or two trees. Such a small sample size is suspect. Furthermore, even when a larger sample is used, there is a tendency for fire researchers to sample trees where there is an abundance of fire-scarred trees. However, such a bias in sampling may not represent the historic conditions of the forested landscape as a whole. Baker’s research suggests that the occurrence of stand replacement fires may have been greater than previously assumed, even for low elevation dry forests.

Another study done by Forest Service researcher Paul Hessburg and associates looked at the temporal patterns of eastside forests in the Cascades. He started with the assumption that past conditions would be reflected by the stand composition of the present forest. Using randomly selected air photos to review forest stand composition, he determined that there was little evidence for so called “light, low intensity” burns or “open park-like” forests in dry low elevation and moist mixed forests as presumed. Rather partial and stand replacement fires appeared to be the norm—even before fire suppression was effective and presumably created a “fuels build up.”

A third study in Colorado done by Dominick Kulakowski and his associates critiqued the Forest Service’s assumption that there was wide-spread “decline” in aspen. Kulakowski was fortunate in finding a highly detailed and accurate 1898 map of forest type and occurrence of recent burns for a portion of the Grand Mesa area of Colorado. Digitizing the map, and then comparing it to the present vegetation type for the forest, he was able to determine that relative to the late 1800s, a larger portion of the landscape was covered with aspen today than a century ago. A rash of fires near the turn of the century as a result of more favorable climatic conditions for fires (i.e. drought), as well as burning by sheep herders, miners, and other settlers contributed to an increase in aspen throughout the 20th Century. So measured against people’s recollection of aspen abundance in the recent past century, there had been a decline in aspen. But what Kulakowski’s research showed is that the current abundance of aspen was not outside of the historic range of variability—and conifer cover was actually greater a hundred years ago than today.

A fourth study of wildfires in the northern Rockies by Penny Morgan, of the University of Idaho, found one more piece of evidence that can be used to question the assumptions about “historic range of variability.” She mapped known wildfires on national forests in Idaho and western Montana from 1900 through 2003. She found the majority of all large fires occurred in just 11 fire years. These fire years coincided with extensive drought. The first six big fire years occurred prior the mid-1930s and the last five years have been since 1988—the year that much of the Yellowstone ecosystem burned. Between the 1940s through the late 1980s, moister conditions resulted in virtually no large fires in the entire region. This has major implications for our assumptions about fire suppression and fuels.

Many people use the recent past as their point of reference. In other words, people talk about the large fires we are experiencing today as compared to the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s and presumed that the reason has to be a consequence of greater fuels. But what is intriguing about her research is that six of the large fires occurred long before anyone can claim that fire suppression was responsible for a “fuels buildup.” No one can reasonably assert that fire suppression and fuel buildup was responsible for the huge 1910 Burn that raged across more than 3 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana. Drought and wind drove those fires, as it has all recent big fires.

The more recent spate of large fires in the 1990s and 2000s are attributed to “fuel buildup” as a consequence of this fire suppression. However, the recent period of large fires also coincides with historically severe drought conditions across the West—the kind of climatic conditions that has always driven large blazes. Severe drought and overall warmer temperatures are also responsible for widespread beetle outbreaks. Beetle experts, however, do not see the large die-off of trees due to beetles as out of the ordinary—and many assume that such large scale beetles outbreaks have occurred in the past, again calling into question the assumption that our forests are “unhealthy.”

Temporal scale is an important factor in how we view current conditions—the longer the time frame of reference, the less current conditions seem unnatural. A study by Boise State University professor Jen Perce and colleagues looked at fire frequency and scale among ponderosa pine forests along the Payette River in Idaho. Using the geological fire history recorded by charcoal buried in soil sediment, she concluded, contrary to popular perception that low intensity blazes are the norm for low elevation dry forests, when viewed over longer time scales, climatic conditions like drought has led to significant stand replacement fires on occasion, even in ponderosa pine ecosystems.

What do all these studies and others suggest about the presumed “historic range of variability”? The message I take from these studies is that climate controls big fires and, when viewed on a landscape scale, our forests may not be out of balance as presumed. In fact our forests are very healthy and what we are seeing with both large blazes and large scale beetle outbreaks are within the “norm” for these forests if climatic conditions are taken into account. The large fires we are experiencing are “resetting” the ecological parameters of the region. There is no need to “restore” forest health—the forests are perfectly healthy and are restoring themselves—without the help of the timber industry, thank you.

Furthermore, even if it can be proved that some forests are somewhat out of “balance” that doesn’t necessarily mean that intrusive logging is necessary or can restore forest health, especially since logging has many other negative impacts that are often ignored or glossed over. These include the creation of access roads that decrease habitat security for wildlife, act as vectors to spread weeds, not to mention are a major source of sedimentation into streams (sedimentation from fires is short lived—while roads “leak” sediment for decades).

Logging operations seldom leave as many snags as naturally occur as a result of fire or beetles. Logging also removes snags which are critical to the survival of many species—for instance; more than a third of all birds in the northern Rockies are cavity nesters, not to mention use of snags by a host of other species from bats to snails. Plus, logs charred by fires take longer to decompose and last longer as a structural component in the ecosystem—with long term consequences for wildlife and nutrient flows. The presumption that logging “emulates” nature is a bunch of timber industry propaganda.

Finally, new research is calling into question the other major justifications for logging which includes the assertion that logging can stop or reduce large fire risk and/or insect outbreaks. Logging does not affect the conditions that drives large blazes namely drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and, most importantly, wind. In fact, there is even evidence to suggest that thinning the forest can substantially exacerbate these conditions leading to increased solar drying of fuels, and permitting greater penetration of wind. Even a five mile an hour increase in wind results in an exponential increase in fire spread. And removal of competing trees, leads to rapid regrowth of shrubs and smaller trees that are more flammable. The best way to reduce fire risk to communities is to fire-proof homes, not the forest.

Circling back to the BDNF plan, all of this research calls into question the Forest Service assumptions about what is “normal” for the BDNF as well as many other forests in the region. It is possible that the Forest Service assumptions about the forest conditions are accurate. On the other hand, there is more than a reasonable likelihood that our forests are well within the “historic range of variability” and need no intrusive management other than to get out of the way and allow fires, beetles, droughts, and other normal ecological processes to operate.

No Right Way To Do A Wrong Thing

George Wuerthner

Right now various National Forests and BLM districts are beginning to put together travel management plans. Most of these plans are focused on corralling the growing abuse of our public lands by thrillcraft—ATVs, dirt bikes, dune buggies, swamp buggies, jet skis, snowmobiles, and other associated toys used by neotenous adults. The underlying assumption of all these travel management plans is that some level of abuse and vandalism of our public domain by thrillcraft owners is inevitable.

I do not accept the premise that abuse of our lands is something that we must tolerate as inevitable. It is our land. It is our children’s land, and their children’s land. We have a responsibility to pass these lands on to the next generation in better condition than we found them. And we have a collective responsibility to protect our national heritage against the thrillcraft menace.

The real problem isn’t the machines. It’s not even the people. Many otherwise decent people ride thrillcraft, but when they straddle one of these machines they become participants in a dysfunctional culture. It is a culture that sees our public land as nothing more than a giant sandbox. Thrillcraft culture represents a lack of respect for other people’s property and the quality of their outdoor experience. What people do on their own property is not my concern, but when they ride their machines on public lands it becomes a societal issue. Our public lands are as close as our society has to shared “sacred” ground.

The operation of any thrillcraft has a disproportional impact upon the landscape, wildlife and other people. Thrillcraft pollute the air and water. They compact soils. They damage wetlands and riparian areas. They spread weeds. They displace wildlife. The noise, speed, and general disregard for other people by thrillcraft owners displace other non-motorized users of our public lands. Increasingly they threaten archeological treasures. How can any of this be considered “responsible” use?

You hear a lot about “responsible” ORV use and “a few bad apples” from thrillcraft promoters themselves, as well as some government bureaucrats. What is responsible about tearing up the land? It’s like suggesting we ought to promote “responsible wife abuse” or “responsible child abuse.” There is no level of violence against the land that is acceptable. Working with agencies to create designated routes or play areas is just helping to legalize public vandalism.

Most people would never allow thrillcraft to run across their lawns. They would not tolerate such noise in their neighborhoods. Would we allow thrillcraft to do wheelies in the Arlington National Cemetary, or crawl up the Lincoln Memorial? I think not. And I see no reason to permit similar antics on the rest of our public lands.

To those who think we have to accept thrillcraft because they are “traditional” activities, I remind them that the same arguments were once made about segregation, beating up your wife, about smoking in public places, and many other behaviors and cultural “traditions” that were once commonplace. Society now views these things as wrong, and has outlawed them.

There is no right way to do the wrong thing. Running thrillcraft on our public lands is wrong. It’s not good for the land. It’s not good for the air and water. It’s not good for wildlife. It’s not good for other people. It’s not even good for the people doing it. It’s time to ban these machines, not legitimize the continued destruction of our sacred public commons.

Wild Forests and Landscape Amnesia

George Wuerthner

In most of Vermont the forest cover is nearly continuous. The Green Mountains are indeed green due to the heavy forest cover. At one point in time, however, the vistas were more pastoral; most of Vermont’s hills were striped of trees and converted into farms and pastures. Estimates suggest that up to 85% of the state was converted to farms. Even the trees on the highest and rockiest slopes were cut for timber, firewood, and charcoal, leaving only a few small (often less than a hundred acres in size) scattered tracts of virgin old growth forest in the state. The slaughter of the bison on the American plains was no more complete than this slaughter of New England’s forests.

However, with the opening of the deep fertile soils of mid West to settlement, those interested in farming began to leave the rocky soils of the state behind. At first only the highest, least productive farms were abandoned, and converted back to forest. Over time, many of the lower elevation forests were given back to the trees as well so that today, farming only survives in Vermont on the best soils—primarily along the river bottomlands and gentle hills.

Despite the continuous forest cover, when I walk through these New England woodlands, I see an ecologically wounded and scarred landscape. One obvious difference is a loss of structural diversity that is characteristic of unlogged forests. In Vermont’s relatively young forest stands there is an obvious deficiency of big trees. In pre-settlement forests, disturbance was rare, and usually consisted of the death and/or toppling of individual tree or small groups of trees. Even the clearing of forests by Native Americans was concentrated in small patches near their villages. As a consequence the vast majority of forested stands had older trees.

The trees that dominate Vermont’s forests today are mere sticks and ghosts of the past glory. Ironically the largest individual trees I see in Vermont and elsewhere in New England now grace the yards of old farm houses or urban parks where logging and/or farming hasn’t occurred for centuries. Other indications of a sick, though perhaps not mortally wounded landscape, includes the lack of big old snags in the forest, limited numbers of large fallen logs on the forest floor, reduced micro topo relief created when large tree root wads have been pulled from the ground when trees fall in storms to create a pit and mound topography, and a general shortage of big logs in streams.

Most Vermonters now believe that their forests are “recovered”. In fact, some are worried that the forests are declining in health. I recently attended one public meeting convened to discuss the future of the state’s woodlands where person after person advocated more management of the forests. Finally one man stood up and began to express his views. He started by asserting that Vermont’s forests were facing an “old growth crisis”. Ah, I thought to myself, finally someone who understands the real problem. But he disappointed me when he went on to rant that the real problem with Vermont’s forests is that the trees were getting too old. Too many trees, he said, were “overmature” and “decadent”.

One of the problems for those of us advocating wild forests is that in many places people have lost the contextual framework to appreciate and view an unmanaged forest. One could call this landscape amnesia.

In New England I see references to the glories of the “working forest” coming not only from the timber companies and their supporters, but even many environmental organizations. Many of these folks believe that Vermont’s forests are “recovered”. Few have sought out the remaining small parcels of old growth virgin forest stands, for if they had, they would no longer believe the myth of the working forest. They would at least realize that the working forest isn’t working ecologically.

This is why points of reference we find in wilderness are so important. In the East, the forests were so thoroughly butchered that we have few “controls” by which we can compare the unmanipulated landscape with lands that are managed. Wilderness or “self willed lands” provides this point of reference and is perhaps one of its greatest value. I suspect that one reason extractive industries so often oppose wilderness designation is in part related to the fear that the more people see unlogged forests, the less tolerance they will have for the ecologically depauperate landscapes found in “managed” lands.

In the West people are willing to lie down in front of logging trucks and chain themselves to trees, in part, because they recognize immediately what is being lost when the forest is logged. In the East, people seem more compliant and willing to accept logging as something that may be messy for the moment, but that has no long-term ecological consequences. Anyone who has visited a truly wild forest would not believe such a thing for a moment.

Wilderness designation, along national park designation, are among the best ways to preserve forest ecosystems—including the ecological processes that shape such forests like wildfire, insect attacks, wind storms, droughts, floods, and whatever else affects the landscape in any particular area. In the West, we still have large chunks of roadless lands that need protection that could be afforded by recent legislative proposals like the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, Mount Hood Wilderness proposal, Utah’s Red Rock Canyons proposal, and others. These landscape scale wilderness designations would ensure that westerners don’t fall prey to the folly so pervasive in the East where almost everyone thinks that humans are intelligent enough and even more importantly, wise enough to manage forest ecosystems. Anyone who has spent a lot of time in wild places knows such assertions are pure human arrogance.

One of the great attractions of the West for me is that we have wild places that act as a constant reminder of how natural ecosystems function. Even though all are under some degree of threat from human impacts like global warming, they remain the best measure we have for comparing how the human influence does or does not affect landscapes. They provide not only an ecological reference point, but also inspiration. I only hope that Americans and their representatives in Congress finally have the insight and humility to set aside the remaining chunks of wildlands as congressionally designated wilderness so that we always have these places to learn and seek wisdom.

Working Wilderness and other code words

George Wuerthner

My former wife, Mollie, had many positive influences upon me. Among other things she also taught me the importance of words. Early in our relationship, I was telling her about some the “girls” in one my graduate school classes. She corrected me and told me that the “girls” were in their twenties and/or older and as such they were not girls, but women. “Yeah, of course,” I replied off handedly and somewhat annoyed by what I perceived as her politically correct position.

She could tell that I was annoyed and didn’t really “get it.” So she went on to elaborate why calling adult females “girls” I was in a sense helping to maintain the illusion that they were not peers in the adult world with men. Girls, instead of women, were code for implying power structures in society. You get the gist of the conversation.

Now whenever I hear someone referring to a woman as a girl, it is jarring to my ears. It sounds offensive. Though at first I merely changed my language to appease her, in the end I changed my entire perspective on words.

The use of words to foster a political and philosophical sub text is, of course, not new. George Lakoff has discussed this at length in his book Don’t Think like an Elephant. Lakoff uses the example of the right wing’s injection of the word “tax burden” in our common dialogue to create the notion that any taxes are a liability upon citizens instead of a responsibility of citizenship. Of course, using tax burden as a club is also part of a larger attack on government in general.

A similar adoption of code words has worked its way into conservation lexicon.
Words such as “conservation easements”, “working forests”, “working landscapes” and “traditional uses” promote a positive image of destructive practices and nature exploitation. George Lakoff warns when you are arguing against the worldview of the other side, do not adopt their language, yet even environmentalists now regularly celebrate the “working landscape” and actively support “traditional uses” and so forth.

Let me illustrate how subtle these changes are by giving some examples. Recently I visited the San Bernardino Valley near the Mexican border in Arizona where it joins New Mexico. The area is better known today as the Malpai Borderlands. Ranching apologists sometimes call the landscape exploited by the Malpai group and other similar ranching efforts a “working wilderness.” Never mind that livestock are exotic domestic animals, and that livestock grazing in such arid places, even if well managed, has many unavoidable negative ecological impacts that destroys wild nature.

“Working wilderness” is a term that was coined by ranching proponents to modify our view of the world. Most people view “wilderness” as well as “work” as positive phrases. By using two words that have positive responses from most people, the livestock industry seeks to evoke a positive response to ranching. In our mind’s eye we envision a benevolent cowboy herding his docile cattle over the land to enhance and benefit nature. But a “working wilderness” is anything but a wilderness. It is a place where ranchers control (at least attempt to control) the landscape to benefit people and exotic animals. It is a domesticated land. And the fences that are strung across the land are more than mere artifacts used to contain cattle movements, but are emblematic of human ownership and control. Such lands are anything but “self willed” lands as true wilderness is. It might be well managed from the perspective of a ranching operation—but it is not wild as someplace where natural forces call the shots.

For some the term working wilderness not only puts a positive spin on old fashion human manipulation and exploitation, but it by default also implies a negative view of wildlands. Such “self willed” lands that are not grazed by cows are somehow vast tracts of shiftless, lazy and presumably unemployed lands that do nothing worthwhile at all.

It’s not just ranching operations are “working”, but all resource exploitation. So we have “working forests” that are logged and managed to produce wood products. They are forests that will never acquire old growth characteristics, are laced with roads, and often subject to herbicides to reduce brush and other manipulations that can hardly be called benign. Yet, through the subversive use of the term “working forest” logging the forest has come to be equated with “protecting” the land even though throughout most of the “working forest” region, the biggest threat to forests comes from being worked over—i.e. logged.

Many of these “working landscapes” are “protected” by what are called “conservation easements”. Most of these easements should be more properly termed “open space” easements because in many cases on-going destructive commercial resource exploitation practices—logging, ranching, and/or farming--are permitted, and indeed, sometimes even encouraged. And the only thing that is prohibited is usually subdivisions. Natural ecological processes, wildlife, soil, water, and a host of other values often are degraded and may be not be conserved at all. Open space is valuable, but open space isn’t necessarily the same as good wildlife habitat, nor does it always protect biodiversity and landscape scale ecological processes.

People need to beware of the subtle but unspoken meaning behind word choices. Words do matter. Many of the terms coined to describe resource extraction activities like “working wilderness” and “working forest” are designed to change public perception of resource extraction. These terms are used to hide or disguise the real environmental degradation that often accompanies resource extraction, and to create a more favorable public perception of these practices.

Wildfire myths


With most science, it takes a while for the latest research and observations to be published, and then be assimilated into the public consciousness. Typically new science does not entirely invalidate the old ideas, but provides new insights and nuances. I see that happening now with fire ecology and how fire issues are reported in the media.

One of the frequently repeated “truths” is that fires are more “destructive” than in the past due to fire suppression. By putting out fires, we are told, we have contributed to higher fuel loads in our woodlands that is the cause of the large blazes we seem to be experiencing around the West.

But like any scientific fact, the more we know, the more we understand how little we really understand. While fuels are important to any blaze, the latest research is suggesting that weather/climatic conditions, rather than fuels, drive large blazes. In other words, you can have all the fuel in the world, but if it’s not dry enough, you won’t get a large blaze.

On the other hand if you have severe drought, combined with low humidity and high winds, almost any fuel loading will burn and burn well. Despite all the rhetoric about “historic” fire seasons, including several years where more than 7-8 million acres burned, the total acreage burned today is actually quite low by historic standards. As recently as the 1930s Dust Bowl drought years, more than 39 million acres burned annually in the US. And long term research going back thousands of years suggests that the past 50-70 years may be real anomalies in terms of acreage burned as well as fire severity. It may be that the limited fire activity between the 1930s and 1990s was more a reflection of moister climate conditions than due to any effective fire suppression.

Indeed, most fires just go out on their own with or without fire suppression if the conditions for fire spread are not conducive. Nevertheless, we take credit for putting out the blazes that may well have gone out without any intervention at all. At a recent fire forum I attended, a forest supervisor admitted as much when he quipped that his agency was “very good at putting out fires in wet years, but not very good at putting out fires in dry ones.” He was acknowledging how weather/climate controls fire activity and the success or failure of agency fire suppression efforts.

There undoubtedly has been some fuel build up in a few ecosystems due to fire suppression, particularly low elevation forests such as those dominated by ponderosa pine that burned at frequent intervals. However, most of the acreage burned in recent years has been either range fires influenced largely by the presence of the exotic and highly flammable cheat grass and/or higher elevation plant communities, which typically did not burn frequently. Stand replacement fires characterize these higher elevation forest communities. These forests types have suffered no fuel build up due to fire suppression because successful fire control hasn’t exist long enough to have affected the interval between blazes that typically dominates these forests.

What is missed in the “fire suppression” has created fuel build ups assertion is the fact that mixed to high severity stand replacement blazes are the “norm” for most western ecosystems including chaparral, aspen, spruce-fir, western larch, boreal forests in Alaska, lodgepole pine, and many other forest types. For instance, the lodgepole pine forest of Yellowstone NP typically burns every 300-400 years. Fire suppression has had no impact on fuel loading in these forests.

New research is even beginning to question the common assertion that low elevation forests dominated by ponderosa pine have all been affected by fire suppression. Researchers are finding more and more evidence for the occurrence of stand replacement blazes even in these forests—long before fire suppression could have had any influence on fuel buildup. In fact, it may be that all forest and plant communities will burn and burn well if we have the right conditions of wind, hot temperatures, and drought. The fact that recent fires are burning through clear cuts, thinned stands, and other forests that are supposed to be fire proofed, suggests that big blazes are, at least in some situations, the norm.

This has huge policy implications, especially in light of global warming. We are now entering a period of warmer, dryer conditions that creates conditions favorable to large uncontrollable fires. Public agencies like the Forest Service will increasingly find that like the forest supervisor admitted, they are not good at putting out fires in dry years. Furthermore, presumed “solutions” put forth by logging advocates such as thinning programs are unlikely to work effectively in drought years. And since nearly all big blazes occur in drought years, these are the only fires that are worth worrying about.

Beyond the fact that we probably cannot control large blazes, it is likely a bad idea to try. In terms of ecosystem processes, big blazes are needed—for the majority of ecosystem work done by fire annually is the result of less than one percent of all blazes. Despite tens of thousands of fire starts in a typical summer, the majority of all acreage burned is the result of no more than a few dozen fires.

We need to embrace large blazes and learn to live with them. Fire in the forest is not bad. Fire in our communities is. The real solution to the West’s fire woes is to reduce the fire risk of our communities through mandatory building codes designed to reduce the flammability of individual homes, and zoning that restricts sprawl in fire prone landscapes so that the inevitable large blazes can sweep across the land with a minimum of harm to humans.