Logging Companies are Responsible for the California Wildfires
October 30, 2003
By Brian Leitner

Commercial 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 forests.

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 it's 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 the fire.

Large dead, fire-killed trees are absolutely essential to several plant and animal species. They provide shade, moisture and nutrients for vegetarian 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.

Source: Russian River Residents Against Unsafe Logging

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 most certainly 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 uninformed environmentally-minded folks.