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. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/18/science/18trees.html?_r=1

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.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


George Wuerthner

Lost in the political excitement of the Presidential election cycle was the recent introduction of the largest and strongest nationwide forest protection bill in U.S. history, The Act to Save America’s Forests 2008.

The Act, sponsored by Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and backed by the grassroots coalition, Save America’s Forests, is the latest attempt to change the US Forest Service from its former role as a handmaiden to the timber industry to a new role as caretakers of America’s public natural forest ecosystems. Among other things, the Act would prohibit clearcutting, preserve Ancient Forests and roadless lands, while mandating the agency protect and restore biodiversity.

The Act would also transfer the Giant Sequoia National Monument from the Forest Service, which persists in logging in the sequoia groves despite its national monument status , to the Park Service which has a good track record on preserving the sequoias in the neighboring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

The Act also gained an innovative new section this year which requires the National Park Service to conduct a comprehensive study of all U.S. ecosystems to determine where holes exist in our ecological protection of natural landscapes, and to propose creation of new national parks in all these areas to correct this deficiency.

The Act was first introduced into Congress in 1996 and has been reintroduced in each successive Congress since then, most recently this past September. With the new configuration of Congress and a new President in the Whitehouse, backers of this legislation feel the time is perhaps right to enact this sweeping legislation.

Besides protecting over 60 million acres of “core areas” – riparian areas, Ancient Forests and Roadless areas, the bill specifically bans logging and road-building in over a hundred other specially designated “special areas” mostly in eastern and mid-western national forests. These include areas with high biological value such as wildlife migration corridors, key habitat for rare species, rare habitats, and areas with high levels of biodiversity, among others. Other special areas include forests with high recreational, geologic, cultural, and/or scenic value. Even such things like opportunities for solitude that previously were not among the values given protection from logging impacts would be given consideration.

The Act also permits the nomination of additional federal lands for special areas designation.

However, the Act itself does not completely ban logging on all areas of the national forests. Small acreage of selection logging would be permitted on previously logged lands, outside of the core protected areas. However, such logging would occur only if tree cutting were furthering strictly defined ecological restoration efforts, as in the removal of non-native invasive trees. The Forest Service would be required to restore the millions of acres of monoculture tree farms sprawling across our national forest lands to naturally diverse old-growth forests.

This legislation is unprecedented in scale – over 200 million acres of federal lands – and unprecedented also in its requirements for full ecological protection and restoration of all native species of flora and fauna. This has led some observers to conclude that the bill is too “environmental” to gain serious traction in Congress. Yet the Act has been supported by some of the most powerful politicians in Congress, and gained over 140 House and Senate cosponsors in a recent Congress, demonstrating that its passage is indeed legislatively feasible. Some more notable current or former cosponsors include Nancy Pelosi, now speaker of the House; Rahm Emanuel, the next White House Chief of Staff; former Presidential nominee John Kerry; and Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer.

Based on the principles of Conservation Biology, the Act has received the support of over 600 world renowned scientists including E.O.Wilson, Peter Raven, Stuart Pimm, and Jane Goodall. It is worth reiterating some of the points these scientists made in a letter of support to Congress. “Clearcutting and other even aged silvicultural practices and timber road construction have caused widespread forest ecosystem fragmentation and degradation. The result is species extinction, soil erosion, flooding, destabilizing climate change, the loss of ecological processes, declining water quality, [and] diminishing commercial and sport fisheries…”,” (mudslides and death not so recent - over 10 years ago)

And they go on to note that: “Less than 5% of America's original primary forests remain, and these forests are found primarily on federal lands.”

The bill is expected to be reintroduced in both the House and the Senate in the next session of Congress and have committee hearings. The Act to Save America’s Forests could go a long way towards correcting a century of abuses and degradation of our public forest ecosystems and put them on a pathway towards ecological recovery and restoration. It deserves support of all of us.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Do rangelands need to be grazed?

Here's a response I wrote to a student who had read my Is Ranching Sustainable article and challenged me suggesting that since bison once grazed the West, our rangelands "need" to be grazed. It's a common argument, and one heard often from ranching advocates. His original email to me is below my comments.


Thanks for writing. Glad to see you are thinking about these things to some degree and that you are curious enough to look at it further. I think if you look into this issue more, you might find that the conclusions need greater refinement.

You raise the point about cattle replacing bison. I have an article on my blog (Wuerthner on the Environment) about that issue and it goes into more details, but bison are no more the same as cows as polar bears are the same as black bears--though obviously they are related. Cattle evolved in moist woodlands (like Georgia or Alabama) in Euro Asia. They have a host of evolutionary features that makes them unsuitable for western rangelands. Bison on the other hand have many features that makes them better adapted to the arid west. For instance, bison move all the time--whether they run out of food or not. They naturally spread their grazing impact over a much larger area. The hump gives them a fulcrum point that permits them to canter for long distances with little energy out put. Cattle are far less mobile not to mention that we have bred them to be fat and lazy. Bison can digest much less nutritious forage than cattle meaning they don't need hay produced by drawing western rivers for irrigation. Bison are better able to fend off predators meaning we don't need to kill predators like wolves because bison are perfectly capable of defending themselves. Etc. etc. etc.

So the assumption that we can replace bison with cattle is like suggesting that if polar bears were driven to extinction, we could move a bunch of black bears up to the ice floes and they would figure out to survive and eat seals. The only way we could raise black bear on the polar seas is with huge subsidies--both environmentally and economic--which is the only reason that ranching survives in the West.

But beyond that point, you may not be aware that most of the West's public lands were never grazed by large herds of grazing animals. Bison were found all the way to the East Coast, but they were seldom found west of the mountain front in the West. I.e. they were found on the plains of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, etc. but not beyond. Most of the public land in the West lies west of the mountain front in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, eastern Oregon, California, and so on. There were no large herds of bison in these places. (There are a few exceptions to this which again I won't get into here, but as a generalization, most of what is now public lands was outside of the normal range of bison. So cattle are not replacing bison, and more importantly, the plants that live in these parts of the West do not tolerate grazing pressure.

The Great Plains is a different story, but that is not where the bulk of public lands allotments are located.

Third, even at the levels of stocking that are done today, ranching isn't surviving in this region. What is surprising to most people to learn is that most of our beef is not produced in the West, and particularly not on public lands, but in the East. Virginia produces more beef than Wyoming--the Cow Boy State, and Florida has more cows than New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada combined. There is more beef raised in tiny Vermont than on all the public lands in Nevada. The reason? The West is a very unproductive place, particularly the public lands. These are generally the driest, most rugged, and least productive lands in America. You can feed a cow on a few acres in Georgia that would require several hundred acres of land in dry Nevada to sustain the same cow.

The point is that the West is too arid to support economically viable livestock production. Even the private lands in the West--which on the whole are more productive than public lands, can't sustain viable ranching operations. And that was the major point of the essay you read.

Now to your other point that these lands "need" to be grazed. What you will find is that most rangeland plants "tolerate" some moderate amounts of grazing. But keep in mind that there are all kinds of animals grazing on the grasslands whether there are cows on out there or not. For instance, in Yellowstone Park (where there are no cows) you have elk, bison, etc. grazing the plants. But surprisingly these animals are not the most important grazers on the plants. Grasshoppers and nematodes consume far more of the grass biomass than any of the larger animals. In most grasslands, even among mammals, small rodents like ground squirrels and prairie dogs (where they are not poisoned and killed by ranching interests) consume far more of the biomass than larger animals. We are so focused on the big animals that we forget that in most ecosystems, it's the small creatures that are really important. Even if there were not a single elk or bison in Yellowstone, the grasslands would be grazed. So the idea that we need cows to do something to those grasslands is absurd. Grasslands are grazed all the time, just not by cattle.

And there are important ways that these other grazers use the landscape that makes them far superior to domestic livestock. One can't assume that we can replace grasshoppers and ground squirrels with cattle and everything is hunky dory.

Please keep in mind that most range literature whether read by Michael Pollan or you is produced by range departments which have a vested interest in promoting livestock. So you have to look carefully at their studies. For instance, I recall a number of studies that purported to show that livestock grazing "improved" riparian areas. What the studies compared were areas grazed by high stocking rates of cattle with areas with fewer cattle. The areas with fewer cattle "improved". The range study proclaimed that "grazing improved riparian areas."

What the studies really showed is that less grazing was better, and other studies have shown that no grazing is even better than less grazing in terms of riparian area health. But these range professors did not have a control (a typical defect of range studies). It would be like a tobacco company showing that those who smoked one pack of cigarettes a week had less chance of lung cancer than those who smoked three packs a week, then suggesting that smoking could lead to improved health.

Keep in mind that response is not the same as benefit. In other words, grasses will grow more above ground biomass if cropped whether by a bison, cow or grasshopper. But that doesn't mean they "need" to be cropped. Typically range studies only look at the above ground parts of a plant because that is what they are interested in since that is what cows eat.

In fact, if the above grass biomass is cropped a lot there is a loss of biomass in the roots--making such plants more vulnerable to droughts--this is one of the reasons that livestock grazing can cause so called "overgrazing". The plants don't die directly from grazing. They disappear gradually because grazing by livestock diminished their root system, and eventually a drought killed them.

So this is an issue about what you are measuring. Is above ground biomass the appropriate measurement of "grassland health?" Well to the rancher it is important because they want more grass for their cows--so most range scientists focus on measures of this kind of thing. And at the same time, they typically ignore the loss of root biomass because that doesn't favor grazing by cows--which after all is what they see as their mission.

Let me give you another example of how not only what you measure, but how you interpret things affects your conclusions. I can show you lots of studies that show that if you kill coyotes they will respond by having more pups. Does that mean coyotes "need" to be shot, poisoned and trapped? Hardly. It just means they can cope with a certain level of exploitation. But I assure you that coyotes do just fine without being killed all the time by humans. They don't "need" to be killed. Yet if your goal was "production" of more coyotes, than you might conclude that coyotes need to be shot, trapped, and poisoned, since in the end this would produce more biomass of coyotes.

If you are really interested in learning more about this so you can have a more informed perceptive, I might suggest you visit my web site where I have at least some articles that address these and other issues.

Thanks for writing.

Alex Aizenman wrote:
> Hi George,
> I am sitting in my primate social behavior class at the moment, Which happens to be an incredible waste of time, So I took to scanning the Counterpunch website for some interesting articles to pass the time and I have just read your most recent output to the site, "Is Ranching Sustainable." Just from reading the title I knew what I what you were going to say- Ranching is most definitely not the future of public lands in the west. I am sorry to inform you, but I am really disappointed in your article and your conclusions about ranching. Ranching must must must be the future of western rangelands, for the lands health and our own.
> It is incredible to me, that such an educated person such as yourself is seemingly unaware of what many people are doing with their alloted public lands in the west, most importantly, what they are doing to it with the use of cows. Obviously you are correct in saying traditional ranching practice is unsustainable. We all know that (barring those traditional rancher perhaps, but they will know it soon enough). What you are not considering is that Rangeland is MEANT to be grazed. Our rangeland is evolved to have large grass eating ruminants on it, Most specifically- Buffalo. There is a symbiotic relationship we have got going on here- grass need grazers, grazers need grass. You remove part of that equation your going to get unhealthy land, and in this case the continued dessertification of west. It is a myth that if you leave land alone it will gain its maximum health potential. Read anything about holistic resource management and you will learn more.
> Anyways, So we got all this grassland or potential grass land but we ain't got the buffalo anymore. Well we got cows (which have been in th west for over 300 years). We can use these cows to our advantage and to the lands advantage as long as we do so with out violating certain rules, namely the rule of the second bite- you can read Michael Pollan for that one (or Joel Salatin for that matter). Just read anything by Allan Nation, Joel Salatin, or you can email eschewennessen@gmail.com and they will tell you everything you need to know, way better than I can about the importance and potential of ranching and holistically managed grazing. Humans can actually make the land better by intensive management ( hard to believe I know).
> As an environmental Science student at the University of Michigan, I have seen the limitations of traditional environmentalists and scientists with their leave the land alone and keep people out of nature mentality, as well as their reductive and break-down-the-world-in-to-manageable-parts scientific processes. If you really think there is a viable future in that I am sorry, But their ain't. Kids and students and old old people have to learn that we are part of nature, we have a role, we are all interconnected We will never break down nature into natures individual parts and think we can understand it that way. We have to look at the whole. What better future could you imagine than people getting back in touch with the land, becoming Holistic ranchers and farmers. That is the best future I can imagine right now and What I personally aim to do, And I sure hope there is some land that I can use to do it.
> Not to mention that holistically raised beef means healthy grass, healthy cows and healthy you.
> Thanks,
> Alex Aizenman