Companies are Responsible for the California Wildfires
By Brian Leitner
timber interests and the pro-industry politicians that are
supported by them love to blame environmentalists and preservationists
for wildfires every year. This year's particularly bad fires
in California have, not unexpectedly, led to even greater
PR pushes aimed at increasing commercial logging and trashing
environmentalists who are attempting to protect our last national
The irony is that it's not the environmentalists that are
responsible, but the timber companies themselves. This article
will address several myths about forest health and wildfires
and expose the lie behind the industry spin that the only
way to save the forests is to kill them.
Why natural wildfires are not bad for the environment
Wildfires are a natural phenomenon that not only are not
inherently bad for the forests, but are actually crucial for
healthy forests and the propagation of certain species. Wildfires,
in a natural setting, clear out dead vegetation and make room
for new, healthy vegetation to grow. Fires also return nutrients
to the soil, and certain trees, such as the lodgepole pine,
have adapted to depend on fires to spread their seed. The
lodgepole pine produces a cone that is glued shut by resin,
but when heated by a wildfire, opens up and releases its
seed. The black-backed woodpecker requires recently burned
habitat to survive.
Evidence suggests that wildfires have been burning in American
forests for thousands of years. Natural wildfires burn in
a mosaic, which leaves a central stand of undamaged growth
that provides seed for regeneration in the burned areas. When
the burned areas grow back, they are healthier than before
Large dead, fire-killed trees are absolutely essential to
several plant and animal species. They provide shade, moisture
and nutrients for vegetatian regeneration, and help stabilize
slopes susceptible to landslides. They take centuries to grow,
die, and then decompose into proper habitat and we have no
technology that can effectively recreate what they provide
for the ecosystem. They are irreplaceable.
By working to put out the natural wildfires, we created
a situation where the forest needs to burn and we have
an overgrowth of easily flammable, small fuels. It's a classic
example of man blindly interfering with nature, despite good
intentions, and completely screwing things up.
Why commercial logging is only making the situation worse
There are two main types of commercial logging practiced
in America's forests, clearcutting and thinning. Clearcutting
consists of the total destruction of an area of forest.
Those who would argue that this form of logging has any positive
effects on an ecosystem are clearly misinformed. This type
of logging has side effects related to wildfires, first and
foremost being that the lumber companies aren't interested
in hauling out all the smaller trees, branches, leaves, pine
needles, sawdust, and other debris generated by cutting all
these trees. All this debris is left on site, quickly dries
out, and is far more flammable sitting dead on the ground
than it was living in the trees. Smaller, non-commercially
viable trees are left behind (dead) as well - creating even
more highly flammable fuel on the ground.
The clearcut areas are then susceptible to invasion from
weed and non-native vegetation which usually burns more easily.
When trees finally start growing back, they're all the same
age - making them also more susceptible to fires.
Thinning, heralded as the "compromise" by pro-industry mouthpieces,
is not really any better. What the logging industry refers
to as "thinning" means, essentially, taking the largest, healthiest,
and most fire-resistant trees they can find and leaving the
smaller, more flammable trees behind. Many species of trees
in our remaining old-growth forests have developed very thick
bark that protects them from fire, the older and larger the
tree, the more fire-resistant it is. The younger trees catch
fire much more easily and act as "ladders," helping the fire
reach the canopy of the forest. Yet commercial "thinning"
takes the larger trees, and leaves the small trees. Obviously
the lumber industry has little use for small trees, so this
argument is fundamentally flawed.
Furthermore, by taking the larger trees, the logging industry
reduces the canopy of the forest. In doing so, more sunlight
reaches the ground and winds are increased. This creates less
humidity and accelerates the drying of fuel on the ground,
increasing the risk of that fuel catching fire and creating
fires that are more intense and spread faster than if the
forest canopy had been left intact.
Another argument is that a lot of times, logging companies
are required to plant new trees where they cut trees. The
theory goes that it's not in the interests of the logging
companies to destroy all the forests, since then they'd have
nothing to cut, so they can be trusted to replant trees for
harvest at a future date. What this argument is referring
to are called timber plantations.
Timber plantations are large stands of densely-stocked,
even-aged trees, planted by the timber companies to grow evenly
so they can be harvested at the same time. Widespread monoculture
(large numbers of one species of plant) planting is not healthy
for the ecosystem, degrades the soil, and spreads disease.
Further, since these trees are all the same age, height and
maturity, as well as planted so close together, they are far
more vulnerable to fire. Timber plantations, when hit by a
wildfire, usually end up with a 100% rate of tree mortality.
Making things worse for quick money
The timber industry is interested in one thing and one thing
only: quick money. They have a lot of resources, powerful
friends in Washington, and their propaganda is widely accepted
as "common sense" (less trees, less fire) when even just a
little research reveals the lies lurking just beneath the
surface. They are not the least bit interested in helping
protect people from wildfires, and they and their pro-industry
co-conspirators in Washington should be ashamed of themselves
for exploiting the victims of wildfires.
Blind, ignorant and arrogant interference by humans in the
natural ecosystem is what has led us to this situation. Stepping
up our interference with legislation such as Bush's "Healthy
Forests Initiative" will certainly not help anything, and
will in all likelihood make the wildfire situation far more drastic.
The fact is that unless we're willing to completely sacrifice
our national forests and just cut them all down completely,
like we did in the eastern U.S. in the past, the only solution
to the wildfire "problem" is to find a way to work with
nature rather than against her.
We cannot continue to arrogantly mess with millions of years
of evolution, adaptation and intricate give-and-take that
makes up the complex web of life that is desperately trying
to hang on in the west. Wildfire is a natural part of a healthy
forest - we can either figure out a way to live with it, or
we can continue to fight it and watch as things only get worse
over the years, especially if the approach taken to "fighting"
it is one of those listed above, which will, undoubtedly,
only make the fires progressively worse as time goes on.
The wildfires we see today in California are, most certainly,
far worse because of decades of mismanagement of our forests
by the government, industry, and well-meaning but misinformed