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.

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