California fires spark debate over forest management

Can most of the blame for California’s devastating wildfires be attributed to the state’s forest management? Fire scientists recognize a larger effect from climate change in promoting abnormally dry conditions and dead trees. The first nine months of 2018 have been the fourth-warmest on record for California. This past summer was the second-hottest on record in the state. An additional factor is the encroachment of urban development on wildlands.

Most of California’s forests are under federal or private control. US agriculture and interior secretaries Perdue and Zinke are pressing for farm bill authorizations in the current House version of the bill (Forestry Title of H.R. 2) which includes amendments mandating a controversial expansion of “categorical exclusions,” which allow land managers to fast track forest management projects and largely bypass environmental review. Read the transcript for a National Public Radio interview with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

Leading experts in forest ecology management think the Forest Title in the House version of the Farm Bill  does not properly address science-based prevention programs such as controlled burning and fuel reduction in wildland urban interface areas as well as the critical role of climate change. Instead it focuses on accelerated commercial logging and road building which generally exacerbate fire risk. The House bill’s forestry provisions also expand post-fire “salvage” logging which they contend contributes to ecological recovery in the disturbed area. New “categorical exclusions” limit input from state wildlife agencies among others. Read more 

Greg Aplet, science director for the Wilderness Society in Denver, takes the view of many wildfire behavior scientists: If the goal is to protect communities and lives from fire, the emphasis first needs to be on clearing out those dried out fine fuels, the understory, from the forest floor, not the green live trees. “The Forest Service often lacks the personnel and the resources to do the types of landscape-scale restoration work that needs to be done,” says Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit forestry group. Read more

According to Dr. Chad Hanson, director and principal ecologist for the California-based John Muir Project, logging, including many projects deceptively promoted as forest “thinning,” removes fire-resistant trees, reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy and leaves behind highly combustible twigs and branches. Read more:… The California fires took place in some of the most heavily logged areas of the Sierra Nevada range.

A study by Hanson and others of whether increased forest protection corresponds to higher severity in frequent-fire forests of the western US found that forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading. Some of these researchers have hypothesized that as forests mature, the overstory canopy results in cooling shade that allows surface fuels to stay moister longer into fire season. This effect may also lead to a reduction in pyrogenic native shrubs and other understory vegetation that can carry fire, due to insufficient sunlight reaching the understory.

In general, their findings—that forests with the highest levels of protection from logging tend to burn least severely—suggest a need for managers and policymakers to rethink current forest and fire management direction, particularly proposals that seek to weaken forest protections or suspend environmental laws ostensibly to facilitate a more extensive and industrial forest–fire management regime.