Logging forests after they're chewed up by bark beetles won't cut fire risks, new report says

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An interesting study out today (PDF) concludes that logging in Western forests ravaged by pine beetles not only doesn’t do much to prevent wildfires – it also wastes precious government dough that could be used instead to actually protect the homes of those folks foolish enough to build in fire-prone forests.

This particular study comes out of Colorado, which is described as the “epicenter” of the pine-beetle outbreak, although I think I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble finding folks in British Columbia who would dispute that characterization.

 And it’s reminiscent of the findings in Oregon following massive fires there a few years ago: That coming in and “salvaging timber” actually disrupts the natural processes that govern forests the way God made them.

This newest report, spearheaded by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, points out that insect outbreaks have been a part of forest ecology in the West for millennia. It also details how it’s climate, high temperatures and the sparse amount of water in our changing Western climate that are primarily responsible for the beetle outbreaks. Harvesting beetle-mauled trees does not head off climate change. Perhaps even the opposite is true? 

It's particularly damaging to do this kind of post-beetle tree-cutting in roadless areas, sacrificing longterm ecological integrity for short-term profits and roads that pierce into formerly intact wilderness areas, the report argues.

 And, the report says, cutting trees after the beetles have hit ‘em – this seems *so* obvious, but I guess it needs saying – doesn’t do anything to stop the beetles.

 No, the report argues, what would make a lot more sense would be to spend the money the government does processing these post-beetle timber sales to instead cut back brush around vulnerable homes and install fire-resistant materials instead of the wooden roofs you see so often on houses in the woods.

 A press release describing the report includes the following quote, which sums up the thrust of the report pretty well, from scientist and co-author Dominick Dellasala of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy:

"The science is clear. Unless preventive measures are aimed at creating defensible space around homes, the federal government will be shoveling taxpayer money down a black hole. Logging in the backcountry will do little to prevent insect infestations or reduce fire risks, and it will not solve Colorado’s concerns over dying trees. Colorado’s pristine roadless areas are best protected for their clean water and unbridled fish and wildlife recreational opportunities.”

Now... as for those folks who are so in love with the woods that they build homes there.... we'll surely return to that another day. For now: I love the woods, too. But especially with climate change, locating at the site of a likely future inferno may not be the brightest decision.

-- Robert McClure


I'm a wildland firefighter, sitting here trying to remember the number of times I've watched wildfires burn in ways some chair-bound academician said wouldn't or couldn't happen. I've lost count. Nature doesn't seem to give a levitating rodent's patootie about what educated fools think or write. Obeying relatively simple laws of physics and chemistry, Nature just does it's own thing despite reams of silly papers to the contrary. One day, hopefully, it will occur to some of these academicians to ask *firefighters* how fires burn. I've never been so questioned by an academician nor fought a wildfire next to one; neither has any firefighter of my acquaintance--and yes, we often discuss such things because the academicians and the politicians and the mis-named "enviromentalists" invariably make our jobs considerably more difficult. And infinitely more dangerous. I wouldn't really expect them to publish what we'd say anyway, because we're honest about it--not politically correct--and answer only to Nature's fury, not the self-serving bureaucrats and funding-providers they answer to. Park and forest administrators love these disingenuous reports because they can, and do, use them as an excuse to divert more of their funding toward attracting and coddling tourists and away from proper forest-management, (ask me about the National Park Circus'...um...Service's...$1,000,000--yep, six zeros--outhouse; better yet, google it). If there's a bad fire, the officials will simply blame the report or the weather guessers or the ranger who told him this would happen if something wasn't done. They'll point the finger at anybody or anything--anything but their own negligence and dereliction of duty. Been there, seen that, got covered with soot. More than once. As a wildland firefighter, the *best* I can say about this disagraceful report is that the irresponsible negligence it encourages puts not only my life and the lives of my fellow firefighters in danger, but likewise endangers the families living in or near areas in which those hundreds--sometimes thousands--of dead trees abound. Carried by the winds, a burning firebrand can travel farther than a rifle bullet, with tremendously more destructive--often, deadly--results. Leaving--nationwide--millions of parasite-killed trees standing is as dangerous as leaving an open bucket of gasoline in the smoker's lounge: It isn't a question of IF it will result in a tragedy but WHEN. To even entertain such an idea is malicious if not downright criminal. There are 4 possible ignition sources for wildfires: Lightning, men, women and children. Inevitably, one of those ignition sources will meet up with the fuel. It may be sooner, it may be later, but it WILL happen. It takes only grade-school logic to understand that, if you remove the fuel, a fire is impossible. That is a word I rarely use but it here bears repeating: If you remove the fuel, a fire is IMPOSSIBLE. No one can die in it, no one's home can be reduced to smoldering rubble, because without fuel, fires simply *cannot* happen. Period. The *worst* I can say about this outrageous, politically-tainted report is that it is a bald-faced lie. Someone will die, horribly, painfully, as a result of it. I hope it isn't me. Or you. Or your children. By the way: I'm a *volunteer* firefighter. I don't get paid one red cent to fight a fire--in fact, it costs me money out of my own pocket; to take time off to fight fires, to drive sometimes a couple of hundred miles round-trip to take courses (from firefighters, not academicians) in fire behavior, or incident-command structure, or standards, or survival or EMT certification. We're not even given the $8 "Incident Response Pocket Guides" we constantly refer to at a fire, we have to buy them. What I have said here is based on experience, observation and conviction, not conflict-of-interest or political agenda.