When it comes to fire and forests, there are two conflicting narratives. The older and still dominant one is that fire was historically benign but turned destructive primarily due to misguided fire control.

Another uses all the science to show how forests in the southern Rockies were shaped historically by very large but infrequent fires that burned intensely during droughts. With climate change now triggering unprecedented overheating and droughts affecting fires, reducing flammable vegetation locally will become increasingly ineffective at taming fires.

Our top priority needs to be solving the root causes of the fire problem by first getting off fossil fuels, storing more carbon in natural forests to slow down runaway climate chaos, and preparing homes through defensible space and home-hardening measures. Backcountry logging does nothing to solve this problem.

The managers of the Santa Fe National Forest hold to the limited status quo. They see the forest for the “fuels,” easily ignitable, destroyed by intense wildfire, only to be tamed by chainsaws and continual burning that will cost millions of taxpayer dollars. Many scientists, on the other hand, recommend managing natural fire under safe conditions to rejuvenate fire-adapted, biodiverse ecosystems for free and without the carbon pollution generated by expansive logging.

In resolving these conflicting narratives, a key question is whether protected forests such as wilderness and roadless areas burn more intensely than those altered by logging, as often claimed by the timber industry and decision-makers. They want to greatly expand logging on public lands and reduce environmental review thinking that will reduce fires.

To answer this question, my colleagues and I examined more than 1,500 forest fires gathered over four decades across more than 35,000 square miles of burned forests in 11 Western states, including New Mexico.

We found with statistical certainty that forests with the most logging burned in the highest intensities, while those protected from logging burned much less intensely. A local example is the Cerro Grande fire in the Jemez that burned intensely through heavily logged terrain aided by extreme dryness and high winds in 2011.

Despite these findings, the Santa Fe National Forest plans to increase logging in remote areas while recommending less than 3 percent of eligible lands for wilderness.

Another peer-reviewed study questioned the dominant narrative that historic fires in the dry forests burned every decade or so and in low intensities. It found instead that the interval between repeat fires in the Santa Fe National Forest was as high as 55 years and included severe burns during droughts. This is important because forests altered too frequently by logging and prescribed fire can become weed-infested savannas, damaging soils, eliminating native plants and leaving few trees vulnerable to blow down.

The dominant narrative gets both the problem and solution wrong. The real problem is not “unhealthy forests” per se, but rather the buildup of greenhouse gases, including those contributed by logging. And the best solution is not cutting millions of trees that remove and store heat-trapping gases but preserving unlogged forests and focusing on preparing communities for fire.

In our fire-dependent forests, that will mean tapping the brakes on overly zealous forest treatments to allow more time for the next generation of trees, shrubs and flowering plants to rejuvenate. Large remote areas should remain free of chainsaws and roads and treatments surgically applied nearest homes. It means closing and decommissioning some roads to reduce unwanted ignitions, and limiting intrusive livestock that pollute streams and bring in flammable weeds. To do otherwise damages the forest and the climate, while increasing risks to homes.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., has written more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and books on biodiversity, climate change and forest management.

(5) comments

Khal Spencer

The Cerro Grande fire was in 2000. The 2011 fire was the Las Conchas fire. Trouble is, so much of the forests are nothing like they would be if not for human intervention. We have to back out of bad practices skillfully.

Robert Funkhouser

Great article. The Forest Service needs to do a full Environmental Impact Statement on their plans for heavy thinning in the Santa Fe National Forest, and they need to include the research that Dominick DellaSala and other colleagues have done.

Emmy Koponen

DellaSalla is one of many scientists opposing the destructive FS practice.

As a citizen i cannot believe, with all our ecosystems in danger, that the best the FS proposes is to thin and burn, when shading the ground and keeping the forest networks functioning really leaves me so very saddened of late. Dead trees serve their purpose for the covering and layering of the earth. hen the forests are gone there goes our air and water. Our reservoir will surely be under 20% capacity soon. Trees break the wind, shelter our poor declining species.

The opinion piece needs be read and sense need return before dum dee dum...

Sam Hitt

Dr. DellaSala tells a humbling story. Forests are vast, complex and self-willed ecosystems to which we must adapt. Guided by true science we can learn to live with fires big and small as we are learning to co-exist with grizzly bears and wolves. Attempts to tame and domesticate the wild based on fear of what we can't control will fail and leave us all improvised.

Sarah Hyden

I really hope the managers of the Santa Fe National Forest will utilize the more updated fire and forest ecology paradigm Dominick DellaSala describes, as they make plans for the two proposed large-scale "fuel treatment" projects. Trees and understory are essential elements of living ecosystems that need to be preserved and protected, not fuels that need to be eradicated. Scientific studies increasingly demonstrate that widespread and aggressive thinning and prescribed burn treatments do not keep our forests, or our homes, safer from fire.

We all know fire hardening homes, and strategically reducing fuels, especially fine fuels, in the surrounding 100+ foot perimeter is critical. That is what really does protect our homes, and ourselves from fire. And it is important to address human-caused ignitions in our forest by closing and decommissioning obsolete forest roads and increasing fire patrols and law enforcement in the Santa Fe National Forest.

I hope the time will soon come that more of our elected representatives will stand for our forest, and for a science-based forest management paradigm that supports, upholds and honors life.

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