‘New Conservationists’ Push for Logging to Prevent Wildfires

Critics speculate there’s another reason for firing up the chainsaws: biomass energy

The Nature Conservancy’s Russ Hoeflich might not like the spotlight, but he’s among the vanguard of a new conservation movement hoping to move beyond conflicts with the timber industry to find common ground on forest management.  

Abandoning the long-time environmentalist focus on wilderness, “new conservationists” such as Hoeflich want to strike a balance between natural ecosystems and people by creating “working landscapes,” where only limited forms of extraction are allowed.

Photo of Deschutes National ForestPhoto by Oregon Department of Forestry Logging in Deschutes National Forest in Oregon.

Over his 27 years as director of the Oregon Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Hoeflich helped reinvent the role of conservationists by allying with the timber industry to promote restoration logging in both public and private forests. Hoeflich has made ample use of his smarts and charisma in an effort to alert the public and elected officials to what he calls the “ever degrading forest condition” of national forests, Bureau of Land Management tracts, and industrial timberlands, thanks to high-grade logging, livestock grazing, and wildfire suppression.

These unhealthy forests, according to Hoeflich, are at high risk of devastating wildfires, which threaten ecosystems and human communities alike. His solution is the expansion of “fuel reduction” logging to restore forest health, protect homes from burning, and provide a source of renewable “biomass” energy. 

In 2014, Hoeflich’s focus shifted from Oregon to the US as a whole, as he took on the role of vice president and senior policy advisor for the $6 billion organization’s Restoring America’s Forests Program, the main goal of which is to “accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration.” Hoeflich certainly has his work cut out for him, what with Forest Service estimates that up to 82 million acres of national forests are in need of restoration. 

However, not everyone’s on board with the new conservationists’ agenda. Some forest ecologists, hydrologists, and more traditional, wilderness-centric conservationists contend that groups like The Nature Conservancy aren’t helping the forest, but instead are doing the bidding of the timber and bioenergy industries by inflaming fears of natural wildfire and “greenwashing” logging as restoration. Far from a forest remedy, they see this “log the forest to save it” mentality as a major threat to the nation’s carbon-storing forests, one of our best buffers against climate change. (See earlier Journal articles on the importance of wildfires here and here.)

Has The Nature Conservancy found a more realistic, and ultimately effective, approach to conservation by teaming up with an industry long despised as the enemy? Is Hoeflich, as some of his toughest critics suggest, merely an industry shill in environmentalist’s clothing? Or is the rift the result of two very different views on the relationship between humanity and the natural world? 

Forest Healthcare

Crystal clear about his career goals from early on, Hoeflich’s first job of out college in 1978 was with The Nature Conservancy. Three short years later he became founding director of TNC’s South Fork Shelter Island Chapter. In 1987, he was offered a position with the Oregon chapter, making it possible to return to family roots on his father’s side, and he’s been in Oregon ever since. Hoeflich’s proudest accomplishments include TNC’s acquisition of “many of Oregon’s last great places,” such as Zumwalt Prairie, Siletz Bay, and Bandon Marsh, among many more.    

Hoeflich is “passionate about finding synergy and common ground among diverse stakeholder groups,” said Mark Stern, who worked with Hoeflich as forest restoration program director for TNC’s Oregon chapter.

Aside from his “strong understanding of forest management issues,” Hoeflich knows the importance of “forging critical alliances.” Stern pointed towards Hoeflich’s work to “cultivate and develop open dialogue with industry,” agency staff, elected officials, and conservation groups.

Forest health is the piece Hoeflich has zeroed in on the most in his new gig with TNC’s Restoring America’s Forests Program. His take, along with those in the new conservation camp, is that western forests are ecologically out of whack after decades of industrial logging, livestock grazing, and “nearly a hundred years of overzealous fire suppression.” Hoeflich described “doghair thickets of sickly trees and brush,” blaming these degraded forests for the “megafires plaguing the West” today, which put ecosystems and communities at risk.

While he does think that “fire is absolutely natural, normal, and needed in our forests,” he says he is concerned about the impact of big wildfires. 

The crux of his work is to advocate for, and implement, restoration to “save forests from continued deterioration and loss from unnaturally severe and frequent fire.” He believes that these “hazardous fuels” need to be thinned — selectively logged — and, while controversial, commercial logging is an “important tool” to make this happen economically. He wants to see an end to the grudge between conservation groups and the logging industry, and believes restoration is the way forward. 

“Working together we can find more ways to successfully get projects done,” Hoeflich says, “which can help both the forests and the forest products industries.”

To accomplish this, he was an original member of the Federal Forest Working Group, which seeks to expand restoration logging on federal lands by removing “policy and financial barriers.” 

While the implementation of policy is crucial to Hoeflich’s vision, he said that most solutions “don’t exist in the halls of Congress, but in our forests themselves.” To that end, he pointed to 13 forest demonstration sites managed by TNC as stepping-stones towards the organization’s goal of doubling the amount of forest restoration nationally. The organization is also a part of the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) program, which tries to enhance forest health, reduce the risk of “uncharacteristic” wildfire, and bolster rural economies.   

Science Under Fire

Hoeflich and The Nature Conservancy are gaining a lot of traction with their restoration logging program, in large part due to concern about wildfires and the role that forest fuels are believed to play in their ignition.  

Yet emerging science disputes conventional notions that wildfires are larger, more damaging, or more frequent than they were in the past because of “overgrown” forests. Instead, a number of scientists believe climate, not fuels, to be the primary driver for large fires.

Ecologist George Wuerthner, publisher of 38 books on environmental subjects, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, has studied and written extensively on western fire ecosystems. He explained that while we’re seeing some large, intense fires, it’s not for the first time.

“During wet periods,” Wuerthner said, “you have few fires, the sizes tend to be small and trees grow denser.” Then, when the climate gets dry, warm, and windy — as it is these days, exacerbated by human-caused climate change — the big fires come, as they always have over the millennia. It’s weather, not fuels, that is the main driver. 

Dr. Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, also blames climate for the big burns. Co-author of The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix (along with Chad Hanson of Earth Island’s John Muir Project), DellaSala said that when he wants to figure out where the next big wildfire will be, all he has to do is look at the drought index in the spring. Not only aren’t big fires unusual for the climate, DellaSala said that “fire rejuvenates ecosystems. It’s part of the cycle of life.”

While Hoeflich acknowledges that large wildfires have occurred “periodically” over the past centuries, he says “more frequent, less severe fires were the norm.” He also understands the role climate plays in igniting large wildfires, however, he maintains that the most vulnerable forests are still those with “fuel loads are outside of their range of variability.” 

But Wuerthner says, it’s these large fires, not the small ones, which produce more dead wood in the forest, nourish soils, and make a diverse forest ecosystem critical for wildlife habitat. Instead of harming forests, big fires “help to thin the forest, recycle nutrients, and act like wolves in an elk herd to keep the forest healthy.” In fact, Wuerthner says, it’s not only that logging doesn’t reduce the likelihood of large wildfires during dry, warm, and windy weather, but  it can actually do the opposite, “increasing fire spread… by opening the forest to more wind and drying air.” 

Shannon Wilson, director of Eco Advocates NW, and former chair of the Sierra Club Oregon chapter’s Many Rivers Group, was one of the first conservationists to call attention to the ecological impacts of fuel reduction logging in the Pacific Northwest.

“[Such logging is] not benefiting the ecosystem at all,” he says. “They might call it restoration, it’s just a cover for more logging.”

Andy Kerr, an Oregon conservationist with a career spanning nearly four decades, is a strong advocate for “judicious ecological restoration thinning” in public forests, with commercial logs as a byproduct.

However, Kerr, head of the for-profit conservation organization the Larch Company, makes a distinction between “ecological restoration,” which typically seeks to vary tree species and age classes, and “hazardous fuel reduction,” or reducing forest density in an attempt to prevent wildfire. Forest restoration can sometimes have the added benefit of reducing fuels, noted Kerr, but “fuels reduction in and of itself is not a legitimate goal.”

And that’s nowhere near the end of the controversy. Even if logging were proven to be effective at stopping large wildfires, and were it a good idea to stop these fires — studies have shown the chance of a large wildfire coinciding with a parcel that has been recently thinned is extremely unlikely.

Jon Rhodes, a conservation hydrologist based in Portland, Oregon, co-authored a 2008 study demonstrating a thinned forest has just a 2 percent chance of experiencing a severe wildfire during the 20 years when fuels are somewhat reduced. 

Thirty-seven years in the field (and stream) have led Rhodes to believe that, aside from “extremely speculative benefits,” fuel reduction logging has significant “collateral costs.”  He authored a 2007 report assessing aquatic impacts from thinning, which often requires a massive network of roads, documenting “impacts to soils, runoff, erosion, sedimentation, water quality, and stream structure and function.”

Though Rhodes agrees with Hoeflich that forests have been degraded, he doesn’t believe logging is a way to restore them. “Nature is a very effective and cheap agent of restoration,” he said. “If you eliminate the impacts, things come back over time.”

Ounce of Prevention

It’s one thing if scientists aren’t worried about fire’s impact on forest ecology, but what about the people living in and near the forest?

The first, simplest, and ultimately most effective action an individual can take to prevent a home from burning, according to Wuerthner, is to reduce its flammability, 

A 2014 study in the International Journal of Wildland Fire concluded that the best protection against fire is to make a sixty foot area around a home “firewise,” which involves some yard work and common sense construction choices, such as substituting metal for shake roofs.  

Jack Cohen, scientist with the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station Fire Sciences Laboratory, found these basic measures alone can ensure a home survives 95 percent of large fires.  

An even more comprehensive solution, according to DellaSala, would be to tackle land use zoning to discourage more people from moving into the forest. Focusing on the areas where people live makes the most sense when dealing with wildfire danger, said DellaSala, not logging in backcountry forests. 

The Biomass Factor

With much of emerging fire science conflicting with the new conservationists’ push for fuel reduction logging, some speculate that there’s another reason for firing up the chainsaws: biomass energy. 

During his time with The Nature Conservancy’s Oregon chapter, Hoeflich was a leading advocate for utilizing forests, particularly public lands, to fuel biomass energy facilities. 

As a member of the Oregon Forest Biomass Working Group, Hoeflich assisted in the effort to educate and advise industry, policy makers, and government agencies to increase the use of biomass energy in Oregon. On multiple occasions, Hoeflich has testified before the Oregon state legislature in favor of expanding biomass energy in Oregon. 

In fact, Hoeflich was so influential in his advocacy that Duncan Wyse, executive director of the Oregon Business Council, has said he was first turned onto the potential of biomass energy by Hoeflich personally. 

“The woody debris that results from restoring healthy conditions to our forests is a tremendous source of renewable energy,” Hoeflich said in a 2009 statement supporting Seneca Sustainable Energy, a controversial 19.8-megawatt biomass power facility owned and operated by Seneca Sawmill just north of Eugene, Oregon. Construction of the facility was opposed by environmental and air quality groups, but it began operations in 2011. 

Hoeflich was quoted as saying that “we need biomass burning facilities to restore health to Oregon’s forests.” He also supported another contentious biomass energy proposal in Lakeview, Oregon, that was later scrapped.  (Earlier this month, the Oregon legislature passed the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan, which would phase out coal power by 2025 in favor of incentivizing “renewable” sources, including biomass energy.)

If You Build It, They Will Cut

Some conservationists worry that biomass energy is a major driver of more logging in western forests.

Samantha Chirillo, volunteer director of Our Forests, a nonprofit organization based in Eugene focusing on impacts from industrial logging, has been tracking biomass energy in Oregon and nationally for years, focusing on what it means for forests on both public and private lands. 

“Burning wood for energy is a major threat to federal forests,” Chirillo says. “This added pressure means more logging on private forestlands to produce energy here and abroad, which inherently increases pressure on public forests.”

Though a supporter of some forms of biomass energy, Andy Kerr fears that the construction of biomass energy facilities and their demand for wood can mean that, even if thinning operations begin as legitimate restoration efforts, eventually, a more dubious rationale to log may be employed to fuel the facilities. Kerr also explained that, in order for a biomass facility to make money, it is “often built at a scale that then has to [economically and politically] demand wood that it should not have.”

Much of the push for biomass energy comes from a purported effort to address climate change and move away from fossil fuels. Yet numerous studies have demonstrated that logging and burning carbon-storing trees can actually be worse for climate change.

“Every time you take wood out of the forest you remove carbon stores, and reduce carbon in that forest that adds to greenhouse gas emissions,” DellaSala says.

Forest and climate issues aside, biomass energy carries a lot of public health baggage.

In 2012, a contingent of medical doctors briefed Congress on the health impacts from biomass energy, noting emissions of particulate matter, which can cause lung disease, volatile organic compounds, which are carcinogenic, and many other toxic pollutants.

Dozens of medical professionals and societies, such as the American Lung Association, have also voiced concerns that this form of “renewable” energy is actually as harmful — or even worse — to human health as the fossil fuels it’s supposed to replace.

Building Bridges

Despite the pushback from within the environmental community, Hoeflich believes “conservation could always use more friends.” Pointing out that half of forests are privately owned, he thinks not engaging with the timber industry is “pretty silly.” His main concern is that, with “over 44 million residential units situated close to forests and cities…letting fire run its natural course is not a practical option in most geographies of our nation.”

“We don’t want to stand by and let the unhealthy conditions created by people years ago to drive the destruction of our forests, wildlife, and the water today,” he says.  “It would be irresponsible to let that happen.”

Walking the talk, Hoeflich sits on the Federal Forest Management Working Group with industry and agency partners, tasked with increasing restoration logging in Oregon and enhancing the economic return for the state. Another member of this group is “timber baron” Allyn Ford, CEO of Roseburg Forest Products, and the biggest landowner in Oregon.

Hoeflich and Ford might seem like strange bedfellows, but in March 2006, they co-wrote an opinion piece for Eugene, Oregon’s Register-Guard, outlining common ground between the timber industry and conservation. In the piece, the conservationist and timber magnate shared their concerns about forest health, and agreed that management is the “positive solution to an urgent and vexing problem.” Industry, they wrote, with the help of increased government tax subsidies and private investments, would be able to solve the forest health crisis through restoration logging, and use the “byproducts” to generate electricity — presumably also at Roseburg Forest Products’ biomass energy facility in Dillard, Oregon.   

TNC’s conservation model has long involved purchasing forestland from timber companies, protecting some of the acreage and allowing the rest to be logged. In 2006, Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest timber companies in the world, made a $1 million dollar donation to the organization.  

More recently, TNC has helped bring the timber industry, federal and state agencies, and some conservationists to the table to craft national forest logging projects in what are known as “collaboratives.” Has this approach ended the decades-old standoff between industry and conservationists, or just added more fuel to the fire? 

Cost of Collaboration

For years, Karen Coulter, project director of Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, participated in eastern Oregon collaboratives, along with TNC, in an effort to “find common ground with loggers and the local public for a more democratic management of the forests.”

However, over time, Coulter couldn’t help but notice how the process moved away from seeking consensus to become more about benefiting the timber industry. Her concerns centered around what she saw as a “rush to log in the name of restoration.” In fact, when she started to take a look at the logging projects following completion, she was often “appalled” to find they no longer resembled natural forests.

“In collaborative groups, there is constant pressure on environmentalists to compromise,” Coulter says. “The starting point is always compromise.” 

“They were not easy to work with at all,” said Asante Riverwind, formerly with Blue Mountains Diversity Project and the Oregon Sierra Club, of his relationship with TNC.

In his opinion, TNC was “regurgitating Forest Service pseudo-science” and logging industry rhetoric. Riverwind says one collaborative project in the Deschutes National Forest, Deadlog, was particularly egregious. It was logged so extensively that Riverwind found it be “atrocious, far from restoration.”

Despite the critiques of the new conservation movement, even staunch wilderness activists can’t deny the fact that The Nature Conservancy, as Russ Hoeflich has pointed out, has “helped put more forest into private and public conservation than any other NGO in the world.” It’s hard to argue with numbers: Since its founding in 1951, TNC has helped conserve more than 20 million acres in the US, much of that forest.

Perhaps the best way to address the divide between traditional and new conservationists is to acknowledge how each camp represents a different view of the relationship between humans and natural ecosystems. Whereas traditional conservationists tend to be planet-centric, new conservationists typically put near-term human interests first.  

Since well-funded and highly influential promoters of working landscapes, such as Hoeflich and TNC, aren’t likely to shed the term “conservationist” anytime soon, the pro-wilderness camp might want to stake out new territory by choosing another label for what they’re doing, maybe something along the lines of “ecosystem advocates.”

With this clear delineation, the American people might better understand the differences between the two viewpoints, more accurately weigh the pros and cons of each philosophy, and make an informed choice as to which camp to support.

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