The people who died in the Paradise, Calif., wildfire were assured that fire breaks and commercially “thinned” forests would keep them safe. More recently, the mountain towns of Greenville and Grizzly Flats burned to the ground despite decades of “fuels management” in the surrounding national forests.
These tragedies should have been a wake-up call. Clearing and burning vegetation rarely prevents wildfires.
But lawmakers from both parties can’t get beyond the timber industry’s echo chamber. They have slipped a provision into the otherwise progressive bipartisan infrastructure bill that would spend an unprecedented $2.7 billion and log 10 million acres of federal forestlands while weakening a host of environmental laws. The Democratic reconciliation bill, if passed, would toss another $14 billion in the pot.
For decades now, the skeptical public has been told that forests are sick and that removing trees on a massive scale would make them healthy. Misleading terms like “ecosystem management” and “resiliency” obscure the fact that millions of trees are being cut. It is never mentioned that perpetual logging and intentional burning releases far more carbon into the atmosphere than occasional wildfires.
The rugged forests adjacent to the Pecos Wilderness are a target. The deceptively titled Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency project uses the word “catastrophic” 46 times to justify eliminating millions of trees that remove and store atmospheric carbon. Eight inventoried roadless areas will be affected, potentially making them unsuitable for future wilderness designation. Human-caused fires will increase as little used roads are upgraded. The biological stronghold of nearly 70 species of imperiled songbirds will be lost. Logging the backcountry will not save lives or property from wildfire. Fire safety requires regular removal of dry grasses, dead needles within a 100-foot perimeter of the house and commonsense measures like covering exterior vents to prevent flaming embers from being blown into a structure.
Wilderness legislation is needed now to protect our roadless forests that are about to be logged. Preserving intact wild forests — less than 7 percent of existing U.S. forests — is the key to solving the climate emergency. The Santa Fe National Forest is proposing wilderness protection for less than 3 percent of eligible lands it manages despite the fact that logging now produces more greenhouse gas emissions than coal. This is nothing more than bureaucratic climate denial.
The timber industry without fail claims that intensively managed forests stop climate-driven fires and control their spread. Large studies of dry forests in the West finds this rarely happens. The reason is that fuel treatments are time-limited, lasting about a decade before flammable shrubs, grasses and small trees grow back. It’s very unlikely that a wildfire would be stopped by a fuel-reduced tract before it becomes a tinderbox. This is why more acres burn every years despite billions spent in fire prevention.
My dad was a forester and knew that logging large tracts makes wildfires burn more intensely and spread faster. Clearing trees and other vegetation converts forests to open, park-like savannas littered with combustible logging debris and flammable weeds. Studies show that dense, mature forests found in wilderness and other protected areas tend to burn less intensely because the higher canopy cover creates a cool and moist microclimate and trees act as a windbreak, buffering gust-driven flames.
Forests can be a mighty partner in solving the climate crisis if allowed to self-repair and adapt to the warming world. Our lives depend on it. Go to santafeforestcoalition.com to learn more.