FORESTS AND WILDFIRES
How to preserve forests and fight wildfire impacts on communities
By Dan Zalles
Forests and Wildfires Team Leader of the U.S. League of Women Voters
A. Saving U.S. forests
Forest preservation and wildfire protection are interrelated issues characterized by confusion and misinformation. In some cases, this confusion has led well-meaning climate-concerned environmentally-minded people to advocate policies that are quite destructive to our planet.
There is broad consensus that we need to limit carbon emissions to fight climate change. What is missing, however, is an awareness of how equally important it is to preserve natural resources that store carbon. And there is no natural resource better at doing this than forests.
President Biden recognizes this. On Earth Day April 2022, he signed an Executive Order calling for the conservation of “mature” and “old-growth forests,” recognizing that they are crucial natural resources for storing carbon and hence reducing the atmospheric carbon dioxide contributing to global warming. Logging of forests emits much atmospheric carbon and reduces its storage in trees. It also increases harmful water and soil runoff. Furthermore, it contributes to drought conditions because the tree destruction causes a chain reaction of less surface moisture, less subsequent evaporation, then less condensation into precipitation, then even drier surfaces, and so on.
The Executive Order did not specify what an old-growth or mature forest is. So, it has been left to the U.S. Forest Service to define that and then establish appropriate regulations for their protection. Unfortunately, there are people in government and the timber industry who gain from logging and have a vested interest in making the definition as narrow as possible. They can too easily define what needs to be protected in a way that does not protect most of them and in fact allows for expanding wildland logging. They use fear of fire as justification. They want people to believe that if you find an old tree in a forest, you’ll help protect it from being destroyed in a wildfire by cutting down all the trees around it. They also want to convince the public that we need to cut down trees to prevent wildfires from threatening people, when, to the contrary, evidence shows that the best way to protect people from wildfires is to help them to modify their homes and landscapes to become more fire resistant.
It is reasonable for the public and the media to be afraid of wildfires. Climate change and decades of wrongheaded fire suppression by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have contributed to large fires that are especially intimidating because, during those same years, more and more people moved into formerly wildland areas.
Some wildfires are caused by lightning, and these are natural and contribute to long-term forest health. Yet, most of the large fires of recent years started on private lands and were caused by people. As published in Nature Scientific Reports, scientists investigated 27 years of fires (1992-2019) that crossed jurisdictional boundaries, a total of 22,000 fires. The study area covered almost 141 million acres across 11 states, including 74 national forests. Of all the ignitions that crossed jurisdictional boundaries, a little more than 60% originated on private property, and 28% ignited on national forests. Most were started by people on the private properties. Of the most destructive wildfires (defined as those that resulted in the loss of more than 50 structures), only 25% of started on Forest Service lands. Yet, the impacts on Forest Service lands outweighed their lesser role as ignitors. The cross-boundary fires consumed just over 17 million acres during the study period, and about half of the burned area was Forest Service land.
This research provides evidence that when the objective is to protect people from fires destroying their homes and properties, money spent on logging in public wildlands is unlikely to impact a fire’s path and may even increase fire threats. It is possible that some selective logging and prescribed burning may lessen the severity of a wildland wildfire or divert it away from settled areas, but the odds of the winds causing the fires to even get near these treated areas are slim. Wildlands are huge and fire paths are unpredictable. Money would be better spent supporting the building of fire resiliency in homes and in the ignition zones around them (i.e., yards that are between 30 and 100 feet from the house). Protection strategies for the home are called home-hardening strategies. Research has shown that these home and yard strategies are far more effective than logging.
Evidence of the futility of logging public lands for fire prevention can be found in the outcomes of recent fire disasters. For example, in 2018, the tremendously destructive Camp Fire destroyed the California town of Paradise. The winds carried embers more quickly into town than would have occurred had there been trees in the way. Then, houses that could have been protected were destroyed by embers that flew into the homes through vents that should have been sealed off. Stands of trees that were spared the clearcutting stayed intact while un-resilient buildings burned.
B. Understanding the business of logging and its history in the U.S.
Despite this evidence, there is resistance to smart wildfire and forest policies, rooted in the economics of the timber industry and its relationship with U.S. forest agencies. Over the past two centuries, logging removed almost all of the primary forests of the United States. (A primary forest is a forest that has been untouched by human hands, though it may have been subject to naturally caused wildfires in the past). Depending on the time and place, logging may have occurred on lands owned privately by the timber industry, or on public lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service or by a state forest agency.
Public agencies sell to private companies the right to log on the public land. For the past several decades, there have been logging prohibitions on roadless public lands designated as “wilderness”. Yet, that still leaves much public land up for grabs for logging. Hence, over one million acres of old-growth forests in the U.S. lack permanent protection. The U.S. Forest Service’s mission is to fight fires but also support business interests in forests. The Service gets revenue from selling logging permits. So, it has been in its interest to combine its missions by connecting the business of logging to public fear of wildfires.
Historically, the volume of logging has fluctuated in relation to changing supply and demand, both domestically and internationally. Before 1945, when demand for U.S. wood was relatively low, it was in the interest of the timber companies, which owned their own tree farms, to discourage the U.S. Forest Service from issuing permits for logging on public lands. That would have brought unwelcome competition. After 1945 however, demands for wood products grew massively, especially due to the housing boom that occurred after WWII and into the subsequent few decades. This increased demand spurred the timber industry to increase supply, and that spurred U.S. Forest Service to start issuing permits. New timber companies arose that had no private land of their own and relied on these new public land logging permits for their business. They became competitors to the older timber companies logging on their private tree farms.
Then, in 1973, the Endangered Species Act passed Congress, which by 1993, resulted in a powerful reining in of logging on federal lands. Yet, in recent years, fear has stoked political pressure for once again ratcheting up public land logging. Though timber companies that maintain tree farms on their lands have started to practice more reduced-impact methods of logging and forest management, pressures have been building on government forest agencies to open up many more public lands for logging.
Even when public land logging is said to be done for the sake of wildfire prevention, a dubious assertion, the biggest, most carbon-rich, and most fire-resistant trees become subject to the axe. This is because public forest services need to contract with timber companies to do the logging. To maximize the profits they get from their efforts, it is in their financial interest to log the biggest trees. A report recently published describes instances of the U.S. Forest Service issuing new logging permits for federally owned old-growth and mature forests after the Biden Administration declared its support for their protection.
C. Countering spurious pro-logging arguments that try to make logging sound good for fighting climate change
1. The argument that young trees are better than old trees.
Some logging advocates argue that logging old growth and mature trees, then planting new trees in their place, is good for fighting climate change. They claim that young trees store more carbon than old trees. This claim is blatantly wrong. The rate at which young trees over time absorb carbon dioxide is greater than older trees, but rate is a relative concept that is not the same as the concept of absolute quantity. Older trees hold far more carbon than young trees and though the rate of young trees’ storage of carbon increases that is still a much lower volume given their smaller physical size. This is like arguing that a 10-year-old person weighs more than a 20-year-old because the 10-year-old is growing faster.
2. The argument that carbon storage in wood products justifies logging. Logging advocates also argue that much carbon is stored in manufactured wood products like buildings and furniture, thereby justifying logging. Certainly, anything made of wood maintains some carbon but there is no comparing how much carbon exists in a piece of wood compared to in a living tree, especially when one takes into account how much carbon it takes to cut down trees, process them in mills, and transport them in carbon-emitting vehicles.
3. The argument that biofuels are a renewable enough resource to justify logging. The concept of how one defines a renewable energy resource has been skewed by proponents of the biofuel industry. Some argue that biofuels are a renewable energy source because eventually, you can grow back the plants that you will ultimately destroy to create the biofuel. This argument is spurious because the renewability of this resource depends on growing new trees that take many years to grow before they can be productive for biofuel. This contrasts with truly renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, which provide immediate new energy. Furthermore, as this letter from scientists attests, the carbon footprint of biofuel production and burning is as bad, if not worse, than the footprint from fossil fuels.
D. Supporting changes to the timber industry and timber communities that will reduce forest destruction and climate change
One need not be anti-timber industry to be pro-forest protection. Commercial logging can be made less negatively impactful and be confined to existing tree farms. We should be ready to positively identify when timber companies are replacing clear-cutting on their tree farms with more responsible alternatives like these:
- Instead of clear-cut logging, conducting variable density thinning, which is where trees are selectively logged in different conglomerations to support the growth and maintenance of biodiversity
- More efficient uses of all parts of the logged trees by manufacturing and selling particle boards and cross-laminated wood (large-scale, prefabricated, lightweight yet strong wood panels with superior acoustic insulation properties and superior resistance to fires and earthquakes).
- Planting trees in areas that have not recently had any tree cover (afforestation)
- Planting trees in a forest where the number of trees has been decreasing (reforestation)
Another reduced-impact practice is logging in long rotations, which is when the trees are allowed to mature twice as long as they have typically been allowed to mature in the past. This practice yields more wood because by the time they are logged, each tree has lived much longer and is much larger, resulting in more forest maturation, greater carbon storage, and more diversity among the plant and animal species.
Yet, some timber companies resist adopting long rotations because with short rotations, they have more time to draw interest from financial investments they make from the sales, even though short rotational harvests yield comparatively lower profits than would be obtainable from the timber sales that would accrue from long rotational harvests.
To counter this resistance to long rotations, more economic incentives directed to the timber companies could help, like tax breaks, carbon credits, subsidies, or forms of public recognition that are similar to how consumers support organic farming and sustainable fishing through their shopping preferences. A report posted by the Sierra Club explains the economics of short vs. long rotations.
Also, it helps when incentives are in place to assist timber industry-dependent communities (a) transition to other means of income such as new alternative business investments and increased tourism in restored forest areas and (b) come to appreciate what improvements come to their environments, such as the lessening of the pollution and flooding comes from the excessive and unnatural runoff that logging brings.
II. WHAT YOU CAN DO AS A CONCERNED CITIZEN
Here is what you can do in your community to advocate for preservation of old growth and mature forests and reducing wildfire threats to people.
- Do some research. Is logging occurring on public lands near you? If so, why? If the stated reason is wildfire prevention, learn, broadly speaking, about how many trees are to be removed? Are any of them large old-growth or mature trees? And how are they to be removed? Are entire stands going to be removed (clear-cutting) or just selected trees (better than clear-cutting but possibly not helpful)? And, if big trees are being logged, how long have they been growing? And what is the history? Did loggers cut down the original forests and are the current forests former tree farms replanted with crowded stands of one type of tree? If so, chances of fire are greater there than in forests containing diverse naturally distributed species of trees.
- Understand which agencies control these public lands. If federal, that could be the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Or it could be a local, county, or state forestry agency.
- Is logging occurring on privately owned tree farms near you? If so, are the tree farms practicing more responsible, less destructive forest management practices like afforestation, reforestation, long rotation harvesting, variable density harvesting, and less wasteful uses of harvested wood via particle board manufacturing, cross lamination, and other no-waste practices?
- Is logging supporting the production of wood pellets that are then being sold for biofuel? Be critical of these productions, understand their economic benefits to the companies and the communities in the area, and see if there are reduced impact alternatives for their generating of revenue.
- To advocate for more responsible, less destructive logging and protection of old growth and mature forests, two interchangeable goals, understand the economic arguments described above that support further destruction of our forests and all the negative climate and environmental consequences. Understand why timber workers and the businesses supported by them may be supporting destructive practices, why timber companies may resist more responsible forest management, and why politicians may be resisting making policies that bring the economic advantages from more responsible forestry that can come both to communities and to the timber companies operating in them. Keep in mind the economics of the timber industry; how profit comes when there are optimal supplies to meet demand while keeping prices high enough to sustain the companies’ profits. Also keep in mind that it is to be expected that most shareholders will want to maximize short-term profit ahead of long-term gain, so incentives for investments that ensure high long-term gain should be available as a more attractive alternative. Otherwise, they are likely to continue to see it to be in their interest to resist government regulations that narrow the options of timber companies to log wherever they want, whenever they want to meet customer demand, and sympathetic anti-regulatory politicians may very well take their side.
- To advocate for policies that truly protect people who live in wildland-urban interface areas from threats posed by wildfires, learn what wildfire protections are offered by insurance companies or government agencies and see if those protections are contingent on people making changes to their properties to become more fire resistant. Also, learn what might be disincentives to carrying out such changes, such as lack of enforcement by governing authorities, lack of subsidies to help low-income property owners pay for the changes, and lack of action by reluctant neighbors or absentee landowners.
- Consider supporting community-centered fire resiliency programs such as:
- fire-proofing homes and structures
- building smoke shelters
- helping low-income & vulnerable communities install air filtration systems
- develop robust community first-response systems
- develop robust on-the-ground mutual aid networks in the aftermath of fires
- See what human conditions contribute to greater wildfire risks, such as lax enforcement of fire prohibitions at campsites and lax maintenance by utility companies of their power lines.
- Cite distinguished scientists who have spoken out in an open letter about saving mature and old-growth forests. In November 2021, a group of scientists wrote an open letter to President Biden and members of Congress stating that “…logging provisions are promoted as wildfire management and climate solutions measures, but commercial logging conducted under the guise of ‘thinning’ and ‘fuel reduction’ typically removes mature, fire-resistant trees that are needed for forest resilience. We have watched as one large wildfire after another has swept through tens of thousands of acres where commercial thinning had previously occurred due to extreme fire weather driven by climate change. Removing trees can alter a forest’s microclimate and can often increase fire intensity. In contrast, forests protected from logging, and those with high carbon biomass and carbon storage, more often burn at equal or lower intensities when fires do occur.”
- Cite an April 2022 letter to President Biden, in which scientists argued for recognizing the critical role that old-growth and mature forests play in fighting climate change. “Older forests,” they wrote, “provide the most above-ground carbon storage potential on Earth, with mature forests and larger trees driving the most accumulation of forest carbon in the critical next few decades. Left vulnerable to logging, though, they cannot fulfill these vital functions. The United States has a profound responsibility to lead by example on forest protections if we expect other, less affluent, nations to do their essential part. Fortunately, most remaining mature forests and big trees in the U.S. grow on federal lands. This means succeeding at home and leading abroad on the critical climate front is within the immediate control of the Executive Branch. Federal land managers, however, continue to fall short in doing what they must to secure these vast carbon and biodiversity reservoirs. Too frequently, they still authorize logging of older stands and sell off large, carbon-rich trees at the expense of climate and ecosystem values.”
- Use these poll-tested messages about forests to convince hearts and minds, courtesy of the Climate Forest Campaign.
a. Mature and old-growth forests take harmful pollutants from the air that can cause higher rates of asthma, heart disease, lung disease, and even cancer. These forests are powerful natural air purifiers that filter our air, release oxygen, and help people breathe easier.
b. Conserving mature and old-growth forests is one of the most affordable and effective tools for fighting climate change. No human-made technology can match big trees for removing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. If they are logged, most of that carbon is released into the atmosphere and it takes many decades or centuries for younger trees to recapture it.
c. Forests provide clean, reliable drinking water to many millions of Americans. Mature and old-growth forests provide natural water treatment that catches rainfall and filters out pollutants as water makes its way to the rivers, streams, and reservoirs that communities rely on for safe drinking water.
d. We are in the midst of a global extinction crisis, due to habitat loss, climate change, disease, and other impacts. We must protect mature and old-growth forests, which are vital refuges for many at-risk species and vulnerable wildlife.
e. We have lost most of our mature and old-growth forests due to past logging. This is a serious problem because healthy mature and old-growth forests provide drinking water to communities, protect fish and wildlife, and absorb and store vast amounts of climate pollution. To protect what we have left and recover what has been lost, we must protect both mature and old-growth forests from being cut down in the future.
f. Federal agencies and decision-makers should absolutely prioritize and focus on protecting communities from fire, especially the most vulnerable communities with the fewest resources to address these threats.
It is important to keep in mind that the scope of this paper is on forest and wildfire issues in the United States. Many other countries are beset by the same broad types of challenges, but the nature of the problems and solutions differ from country to country. Different climates and forest types and economics require varying strategies for protecting forests and reducing wildfire impacts on people and property.
(Note: all the links in the text also go to resources in this list)
American Lands, Forest Biodiversity Program, Portland, OR. Coast Range Association, Corvallis, OR. (11-10-1999). Long Rotation Forestry: Making the Most of Our Commercial Forests
Art, H.W., et al. (11-26-21). A Statement by Scientists and Economists on BECCS from Forest Biomass.
Cohen, Jack D. (1991). A site-specific approach for assessing the fire risk to structures at the wildland/urban interface. In: Nodvin, S.C.; Waldrop, T.A., eds. Fire and the environment: ecological and cultural perspectives: proceedings of an international symposium, Knoxville, Tennessee, March 20-24, 1990. Gen. Tech. Rep. SE-69. Ashville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southeastern Forest Experiment Station: 252-256.
DellaSala et. al (Sept. 2022). Mature and old-growth forests contribute to large-scale conservation targets in the conterminous United States. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. Vol 28.
DellaSala et al., (Nov 2022). Letter from scientists to the signatories of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use.
Federal Emergency Management Agency. Home Builders Guide on how to harden your home.
Headwaters Economics. Built to Burn on 99% Invisible podcast about home hardening.
John Muir Project (1-1-19). Logging Didn’t Stop the Camp Fire.
Law, Beverly E., Moomaw, William R., Hudiburg, Tara W., Schlesinger, William H., Sterman, John D., Woodwell, George M. (5-11.22). Land. Creating Strategic Reserves to Protect Forest Carbon and Reduce Biodiversity Losses in the United States. This paper synthesizes 90 plus key papers on all the key fire and federal land management topics, including numerous 2022 papers. It provides a review and comparison of strategies to increase forest carbon and reduce species losses for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the United States. It compares forest management strategies and actions that are taking place or being proposed to reduce wildfire risk and increase carbon storage with recent research findings.
League of Women Voters of the United States (2022). Letter that LWVUS signed in 2022 for protection of old growth and mature forests.(See the list of all the signatories below).
Northwest Natural Resource Group. (12/8/21). Longer Rotations and Carbon. https://www.nnrg.org/longer-rotations-and-carbon/.
Open Letter to President Biden and Members of Congress from Scientists: It is essential to Remove Climate-Harming Logging and Fossil Fuel Provisions from Reconciliation and Infrastructure Bills. (November 4, 2021). https://johnmuirproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ScientistLetterOpposingLoggingProvisionsInBBB_BIF4Nov21.pdf
Open Letter from 134 Scientists to Conserve Mature Forests and Large Trees. (April 20, 2022)
Oregon State University. A press that contains a pointed critique of the U.S. Forest Service’s 20-year Wildfire Strategy.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (7-12-16). Protecting your home from wildland fire.
White House (April 2022). Biden Executive Order press release on preserving old-growth forests: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/22/fact-sheet-president-biden-signs-executive-order-to-strengthen-americas-forests-boost-wildfire-resilience-and-combat-global-deforestation/#:~:text=Building%20on%20this%20directive%20and,approach%20to%20reduce%20wildfire%20risk.
White House (April 2022). Biden Executive Order: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2022/04/22/executive-order-on-strengthening-the-nations-forests-communities-and-local-economies/
List of other signatories to the 2022 letter that LWVUS signed.
- 350 Eugene Oregon
- 350 Salem Oregon
- Alaska Wilderness League
- Battle Creek Alliance & Defiance Canyon Raptor Rescue
- Californians for Western Wilderness
- Cascadia Climate Action Now
- Cascadia Wildlands
- Central Oregon Bitterbrush Broads Chapter of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness
- Central Oregon LandWatch
- Chattooga Conservancy
- Citizens for a Clean Black Lake
- Climate Law & Policy Project
- Climate Reality Baltimore Area Chapter
- Climate Reality Project Bellingham Chapter
- Climate Reality Project King County, WA Chapter
- Coalition To Protect America’s National Parks
- Colorado Native Plant Society
- Conservation Northwest
- Creation Justice Ministries
- Endangered Species Coalition
- Environment America
- Environmental Consultant
- Environmental Protection Information Center
- Evergreen Action
- Forest Keeper
- Forest Web
- Foundation Earth
- Friends of Big Ivy
- Friends of Miller Peninsula State Park
- Friends of the Bitterroot
- Gallatin Wildlife Association
- Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Bozeman Broadband
- Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Cascade-Volcanoes Chapter
- Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Willamette Valley Broadband
- Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Yavapai-Prescott Broadband
- Green Snohomish
- Highlands Nature Sanctuary, dba Arc of Appalachia
- I Heart Pisgah
- Inland Ocean Coalition
- Interfaith EarthKeepers
- Interfaith Power & Light
- John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute
- Kentucky Heartwood
- Kettle Range Conservation Group
- Klamath Forest Alliance
- League of Conservation Voters
- Los Padres ForestWatch
- Massachusetts Forest Watch
- Metro Climate Action Team
- Natural Resources Council of Maine
- Natural Resources Law
- New Jersey Highlands Coalition
- Northcoast Environmental Center
- Ohio Environmental Council
- Old-Growth Forest Network
- Olympic Climate Action
- Olympic Forest Coalition
- Oregon Wild
- Partnership for Policy Integrity
- Peoples’s Voice on Climate
- Polly Dyer Seattle Broads, Great Old Broads for Wilderness
- Presbyterians for Earth Care
- Rachel Carson Council
- RESTORE: The North Woods
- SAFE Alternatives for our Forest Environment
- South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership
- Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
- Standing Trees
- Sunrise Movement PDX
- Sustainable Rogue Valley
- The Ocean Project
- Thurston Climate Action Team
- Treekeepers of Washington County (Oregon)
- Waterway Advocates
- Wild Heritage
- WildEarth Guardians
- Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN)
- Yellowstone to Uintas Connection