Recently, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), claimed that 2015 was a record fire year, with wild fires having spanned 10 million acres in the United States. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month, they used this statement, and hyperbolic claims that fire destroys forests and other wildlands, to promote a widespread commercial logging program to remove dead trees, or “snags,” throughout California’s forests, claiming that snags increase the chances of fires breaking out.
Photo by Chad Hanson
Similarly, in a recent State of Emergency proclamation about the increase of tree mortality in 2015 in California’s forests due to the ongoing drought cycle and native bark beetles, California Governor Jerry Brown claimed that the 2015 “die-off is of such scale that it worsens wildfire risk across large regions of the State.” Brown’s proclamation encouraged a huge increase in logging and removal of snags in California’s forests, ostensibly to reduce the spread and intensity of wildfires.
The arguments used by Feinstein, Brown, and CalFire are, unfortunately, inaccurate and misinformed. For example, the 10 million acres of wildland fire in 2015 was not even remotely close to being a national record. In the early twentieth century, before implementation of increasingly industrialized fire suppression programs, it was common for 30 million acres or more of wildland fire to occur annually in the US, according to federal land agencies. The Department of Agriculture has openly acknowledged that “30 million to 50 million acres still burned a year at the start of the 1900s” in the United States. The simple fact is that natural, normal levels of wildland fire are considerably higher than current levels, which are kept artificially low by increasingly expensive annual fire suppression programs — the great majority of which are largely vain attempts to suppress fires in backcountry forests far from homes.
Further, the notion that standing dead trees, or “snags,” increase fire intensity and spread is a myth, and is strongly contradicted by current science. A comprehensive study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the annual area burned in the western United States has not increased as a result of trees killed by drought and native bark beetles.
Other studies have investigated whether forests with higher numbers of dead trees from bark beetles burn more intensely, and over and over again they have found no such increase in fire activity. The US government and university ecologists, using satellite imagery and working in conjunction with NASA, have found that forests with higher levels of snags from beetles tend to burn at lower intensities. The reason for this is that, once trees die, the combustible oils in the needles of conifers rapidly begin to dissipate, and then the needles begin to fall from the trees, making it more difficult for crown fires (intense fires) to occur. After making these discoveries, one of the researchers, Roy Renkin, observed:
“Disturbances like insect outbreaks and fire are recognized to be integral to the health of the forests, and it has taken ecologists most of this century to realize as much. Yet when these disturbances occur, our emotional psyche leads us to say the forests are ‘unhealthy.’”
More fundamentally, the notion used by Feinstein, CalFire, and Brown to promote increased logging — i.e., that wildland fire destroys forest ecosystems — is profoundly outdated. In September of 2015, over 260 scientists from across the nation wrote a letter to the Obama Administration and the US Senate urging them to oppose proposed legislation that would weaken environmental laws and encourage destructive logging under the guise of fire and “fuels” management. The scientists observed that “numerous scientific studies tell us that even in the patches where forest fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most ecologically diverse on western forestlands and are essential to support the full richness of forest biodiversity.” In fact, many wildlife species, such as the imperiled black-backed woodpecker, have evolved over millennia to depend upon the unique “snag” (standing dead tree) forest habitat created by mixed-intensity fire, and which includes an abundance of snags.
Sadly, due to fire suppression, and rampant logging of snags, many western US forests, including those of California, have a deficit of snags relative to minimum needs of cavity-nesting birds and other snag-dependent wildlife species — many of which have become rare and are now declining.
Based upon past assumptions about forests, it may seem as though the snags created in 2015 in California’s forests might be harmful to our forest ecosystems, but an abundance of current science is strongly telling us that the opposite is true. Current research indicates that we have a deficit, not an overabundance, of dead trees in forests of California, relative to the needs of the numerous cavity-nesting wildlife species that depend upon these snags for both food and homes.
According to the US Forest Service, in 2015 the ongoing drought and beetles created just under 27 million new snags, about 7 or 8 inches in diameter and larger, in California’s forests. That’s 27 million of some 2.88 billion trees of this size in the state’s 33 million acres of forestland. In other words, the new snags add up to just 1 percent of the trees in California’s forests.
Prior to the recent pulse of new snags due to bark beetles, forests in California had an average of just 4 snags (of about 8 inches in diameter and larger) per acre. The 27 million new snags in 2015 added about one more snag per acre of forestland. The number of bigger snags, of diameters larger than 15 inches that are most important to cavity-nesting wildlife species, were substantially lower — at about 2.4 such snags per acre. Cavity-nesting species in general need a bare minimum of 3 to 6 big snags per acre, according to the forest plan standards for national forests in California. The rarest and most imperiled cavity-nesting species generally require much higher levels.
For example, the California spotted owl depends on dense, old forests with about 10 to 20 snags per acre for nesting and roosting habitat, and often even higher levels for foraging habitat, because snags and downed logs (after the snags fall to the ground) create excellent habitat for the owl’s small mammal prey species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that Endangered Species Act listing of the owl may be warranted due in part to threats from logging of snags. The rare black-backed woodpecker depends upon areas with at least several dozen snags per acre in order to have enough food to survive, since the birds feed on the larvae from native beetles found almost exclusively under the bark of dead trees. This woodpecker species too is being considered for listing under the ESA due to habitat loss due to logging of snags. The mink-like Pacific fisher, also proposed for listing under the ESA, depends upon forests with an average of about 10 to 20 snags per acre.
Periods of drought are natural in the western US, and most dead trees result from occasional pulses of drought and fire. Native forest beetle species, like bark beetles and wood-boring beetles, require recently dead trees to survive, since their larvae depend upon the unique microhabitat and food conditions found under the bark of recent snags. Woodpeckers depend upon these beetle larvae for their food, and the woodpeckers need snags, which are softer than live trees, so they can excavate nest cavities to raise their chicks.
Every year these native woodpecker species, like the black-backed woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, and white-headed woodpecker, create a new nest cavity, allowing the previous cavities to be used by dozens of other species — such as bluebirds, nuthatches, wrens, and even small mammals like flying squirrels and pine martens — that also require nest cavities but cannot create their own. Raptors like the northern goshawk and Cooper’s hawk depend upon these birds for their food.
Where pockets of dead trees occur, increased sunlight spurs the growth of native shrubs, which produce flowers and edible berries. These shrubs require high levels of sunlight, and cannot survive under the shade of a dense forest canopy. The flowers attract native flying insects — bees, wasps, butterflies and moths — which in turn provide food for fly-catching birds and bats. The berries on these shrubs are essential food bears need to eat to fatten up before the long, cold winter, and the leaves on the shrubs provide forage for mule deer. The shrubs also create important nesting habitat for many shrub-nesting birds, many of which are becoming increasingly imperiled due to habitat loss. Small mammals create dens in the shrubs and downed logs, providing a core food source for spotted owls.
Thus the entire ecosystem and many of its inhabitants depend upon these native beetle species and an abundance of snags. No snags, no beetles. No beetles, no woodpeckers. No woodpeckers, no bluebirds, nuthatches, or other secondary cavity-nesters. No woodpeckers, bluebirds, etc., no hawks. Without an ample supply of snags, and healthy beetle populations, bears and deer also suffer.
An ecologically healthy forest has a lot of dead trees. In fact, patches of snags, resulting from native beetles and drought, or fire, are known as “complex early seral forest” (a.k.a., “snag forest habitat”), which is the rarest, most wildlife-rich and biodiverse, and most threatened forest habitat type in the forests of California and the western US. A high percentage of the native forest birds associated with this habitat have now become rare, and/or are declining, due to lack of habitat, and rampant logging of snags, encouraged by both state and federal governments.
The truth is that, ecologically speaking we do not need to be afraid of fire in our forests, but we do need to do much more to protect rural homes from wildland fire.
Scientific studies are consistently finding that the only things that help protect homes from wildland fire are using fire-resistant building materials and creating “defensible space” within 100 feet or so around each individual home, including removing lower limbs on larger trees, and reducing density of smaller trees and shrubs adjacent to houses. With these actions, more than 90 percent of homes survive wildland fires. Meanwhile, forest management activities far from homes do nothing to protect human communities, and backcountry fire suppression diverts scarce resources away from true home protection and unnecessarily puts wildland firefighters at risk.
We need a scientifically literate and well-informed discussion about wildland fire policy, not misinformation and hyperbole, erosion of environmental laws, or more subsidies to the commercial logging industry.
Senator Feinstein and Governor Brown should re-think their views on this issue, in light of current scientific evidence. If they fail to do so, their policies will do nothing to protect homeowners, but would cost taxpayers countless millions of dollars in destructive subsidies to the timber industry, and would further threaten already imperiled wildlife species.
What You Can Do: If you are in California, please call Senator Dianne Feinstein at 202-224-3841, and Gov. Brown’s public comment line at 916-445-2841, and tell them that removing snags (dead trees) would threaten many wildlife species in California’s forests. Please also urge the Governor to withdraw his misguided emergency proclamation.
If you are outside of California, please call the capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, ask to be transferred to the offices of your US Senators, and urge them to oppose increased spending on backcountry fire suppression, and focus spending on directly protecting homes from wildland fire instead.