Project Report: John Muir Project

Wildfires have spanned over seven million acres this year, mostly in California and Oregon. Dozens of lives have been lost, with numerous towns devastated. People are desperate for solutions. Unfortunately, amidst the unfolding human tragedy, some pro-logging politicians are attempting to exploit hardship, loss, and confusion. Instead of focusing on approaches proven to save homes and lives from wildfires, such as home-hardening and “defensible space” pruning within 100 feet of homes, they are promoting logging bills in Congress. This would only make matters worse.

The most comprehensive scientific study of the relationship between logging and wildland fires found that the more trees that are removed from our forests through “thinning” and “fuel reduction,” the hotter and faster fires burn. Photo by Calibas / Wikimedia.
The most comprehensive scientific study of the relationship between logging and wildland fires found that the more trees that are removed from our forests through “thinning” and “fuel reduction,” the hotter and faster fires burn. Photo by Calibas / Wikimedia.

For example, US Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently introduced Senate Bill S. 4431, with a House version, H.R. 7978, introduced by Representatives Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Oroville). Under the deceptive guise of “public safety,” the bill proposes an extreme rollback of environmental laws on national forests to facilitate increased logging in remote areas, far from towns. Mature and old-growth trees could be increasingly targeted and removed, and the bill would allow clearcutting of vast areas.

Another logging bill, by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), proposes an enormous funding increase for logging on federal lands. If passed, Senate bill S. 3684 would triple expenditures for logging on federal lands through a supplemental appropriation of $6 billion. The bill proposes only $100 million to help vulnerable communities become more fire-safe, prioritizing logging over community safety by a 60-to-1 ratio. The Wyden bill attempts to camouflage itself by using benevolent-sounding terms like “Civilian Conservation Corps” to describe the army of new loggers that would be set loose on our public lands. A House version, H.R. 7264, introduced by Representative Joe Neguse (D-Lafayette, CO), includes some apparently well-intentioned provisions designed to somewhat soften the environmental blow of the increased logging, but all such provisions are written in discretionary, non-enforceable language, making them meaningless.

What is missing in this fog of cynical political opportunism is a candid and honest discussion of the science. The most comprehensive scientific study of the relationship between logging and wildland fires, which I co-authored, found that weather and climate factors, and therefore climate change, primarily drive and determine forest fire spread. We also found that forests across the western US burn the most intensely where there are fewer environmental protections and more logging. In other words, the more that trees are removed from our forests through logging operations, which are often deceptively packaged as “thinning” or “fuel reduction,” the hotter and faster fires burn. And more frequently do such fires head toward towns and other populated areas.

We saw the catastrophic consequences of this for communities in Northern California during the Camp Fire of 2018, which swept rapidly through several thousand acres that had been subjected to extensive postfire logging and commercial thinning on private and public lands in previous years. The fire raced through this heavily logged landscape, reaching the town of Paradise so quickly that people had little time to safely evacuate. At least 85 lives were lost and over 14,000 homes were destroyed.

With the most recent wildfires, we are seeing a similar role of prior logging in exacerbating fires driven by extreme weather, such as the Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada and the Holiday Fire in western Oregon.

Why does logging intensify fires? Logging operations, including so-called thinning projects, remove many mature and old trees, reducing the cooling shade of the forest canopy, creating hotter and drier conditions, and undermining the wind-break effect that denser forests have, which allows the winds to sweep fires faster through the forest. Where “salvage logging” of dead trees and downed logs occurs, much of the kindling-like “slash debris” — coarse and fine woody debris generated during the process — is left behind. Such logging spreads invasive grasses and is followed by artificial planting of dense tree farms. This creates more combustible conditions, since fire sweeps faster through grasses than any other vegetation, and homogenous, crop-like tree plantations facilitate steady and unimpeded spread of fires, more than natural, heterogeneous forests.

Importantly, contrary to popular myths, if forests are left alone, and are not logged, the densest forests and forests with the highest numbers of dead trees tend to burn less intensely than other forests. It’s about weather and climate, not forest density or dead trees. Nor do dead trees “explode,” as President Trump falsely claimed recently — that is simply a myth. In fact, shortly after trees die, their needles and small twigs fall and decay into soil, after which there is not much left to carry flames, and downed logs on the forest floor absorb and retain large amounts of soil moisture, like giant sponges.

Learn more about Earth Island’s John Muir Project at: www.johnmuirproject.org

In a recent letter to Congress from over 200 scientists, led by the nation’s top climate scientists and ecologists, experts urged lawmakers to oppose logging bills, noting that logging is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, and emits 10 times more carbon annually in the US than all wildfires and other natural disturbance processes.

Despite the hollow rhetoric in these logging bills about protecting communities, decades of scientific research has made clear that the only effective way to protect homes and lives from wildland fire is by helping people make their homes more fire safe, including fire resistant roofing, rain gutter guards, ember-proof exterior vents, exterior sprinklers, and annual defensible space pruning of vegetation within 100 feet of homes, as well as by increasing warning and evacuation systems for vulnerable towns.

Fortunately, the Wildfire Defense Act, S. 2882, introduced by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), which the John Muir Project supports, would provide that very sort of needed and life-saving assistance. The House version of this good bill, H.R. 5091, was introduced by Representative Jared Huffman (D-San Raphael).

People are suffering. This is a time for compassion, and a focus on protecting lives and properties. It is not a time to seek legislative advantages for logging industry campaign contributors.

Take Action: Please call your senators and congressional representative (Capitol Switchboard: 202-224-3121) and urge them to oppose the logging bills, S. 4431 and S. 3684, in the Senate, and oppose the logging bills, H.R. 7978 and H.R. 7264, in the House. Also, please ask your senators to support and cosponsor the community protection bill, S. 2882, and ask your representative to support and cosponsor H.R. 5091.