On June 4, 2008, the Mustang Daily published an article “Why environmentalists hurt the environment” by Jennifer Gilmore. This was an opinion piece, and as such it was open to wide interpretation.
In the article, Jennifer missed some important aspects of wildfire management. For example, it is correct that thinning a forest does usually reduce wildfire hazard. But she is mistaken when she goes on to suggest that “a little bit of logging” will also reduce wildfire problems. Her article accuses environmentalists of regurgitating what has been printed in the liberal media. She seems to be unaware of her own bias toward the timber industry.
Historically, logging is the root cause of our present wildfire problem in the Western United States. Starting in the 1930s and accelerating after World War II, the U.S. Forest Service came under heavy pressure from the timber industry to extinguish all fires for commercial logging.
This fire policy was too successful, and a mix of thick forest and brush grew up. These thick tree and brush stands were ideal fuel. Next, the very thick forest was made-to-order for insect and disease epidemics that created more fuel. Finally, in many western areas, a large number of expensive homes were built in these thick forest sites, adding another fuel layer.
The process of thinning as a wildfire hazard technique has been abused by many commercial timber companies. In some situations, a stand that is supposed to be thinned ends up looking like a “seed tree” harvest. Most professional foresters agree that responsible wildfire management does require appropriate tree removals – but, not very often a full-scale timber harvest.
Economics and culture are the two reasons why more thinning is not accomplished. Thinning is a very expensive operation to do by hand. So, some less successful attempts to lower cost by controlled burning and use of herbicides have been used in some places. Culture is a part of the thinning problem in those situations where the USFS has attempted to pay (at prevailing rates) unemployed loggers to thin forest stands. A decade ago, in Oregon, not a single logger signed up for thinning work, because it wasn’t “big timber.”
While I was teaching forestry, I always told my students that sustainable forest management had to include responsible tree removals. If Jennifer hasn’t already taken a natural resources course, she might find it helpful if she writes any more fire-related articles. Her article was a good attempt, but not quite on target.
Tim O’Keefe is an emeritus professor of forestry and a Society of American Foresters Certified Professional Forester.