Opinion: Don’t clearcut in fire-adapted, mature forests

01 November 2021

Published by https://missoulian.com/

USA – With each summer becoming hotter and drier than the previous, why would the Kootenai National Forest’s Black Ram project in Yaak plan to “clearcut with reserves” what they call “warm/moist” VRUs (vegetative response units) far from homes or town, when the U.S. Forest Service’s own published data and science show that clearcuts actually increase the intensity and severity of subsequent wildfires?

On USFS’ website, in a paper written partly by a USDA research forester, USFS claims, “Our results show that, perhaps counter intuitively, heavy harvest can increase subsequent fire severity … Given the damages in both dollar and acreage, it would seem to be in the best interest of timber companies to implement thinning treatments and/or prescribed burning programs, rather than clear cutting.

“One example of this issue can be seen in Montana during the 2003 fires. At the Cooney Ridge fire complex, an extensively and homogeneously logged watershed burned severely and uniformly due to remaining ground slash (which had attained low fuel moisture after overstory removal) and severe fire weather (low relative humidity and strong upslope winds). This contrasted with a mosaic of burn severities in an adjacent watershed with higher fuel loads yet greater heterogeneity in fuel distribution at the stand and landscape levels. Harvesting timber does not translate simply into reducing fire risk.”

Additionally, according to Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) and senior wildland fire ecologist certified by the Association for Fire Ecology, “Studies show that forests that have been degraded by past commercial logging, livestock grazing, or fire suppression typically burn more severely than native forests that have not been subjected to these past land abuses and are more resilient to fire.”

Such mature boreal forests that are slated in Black Ram to be clearcut have been shown to hold up to 80% more carbon than adjacent forests, and for the USFS to claim the replanting of these ancient forests with more hot and sun-tolerant species, specifically larch and western white pine, will make the forests more “resilient,” a vague word used repeatedly in their environmental assessments, is abject and contrary to science. Ironically, since these old forests absorb more carbon dioxide than any other natural process known to us, by clearcutting them we are hastening the rate of global warming and aridification, and thus increasing the propensity for wildfire.

Black Ram’s “Unit 72” near Rampike Creek is a key example of the Kootenai National Forest’s large-scale desire to “shift” away from shade-loving and shade-tolerant species and forests and to replant these areas with sun-tolerant trees, a decision which clearly speeds the effects of climate change and robs the forest of the chance to survive it deserves. Keep in mind, a slow and natural “shift” over many years is quite different than clearcutting a wetland/shaded environment and planting species that are desirable to the agency but not the specific forest.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: don’t clearcut in fire-adapted, mature forests, such as Unit 72, but instead focus fuel reduction in the immediate vicinity of communities and homes, not miles away on remote forestland. This not only will save homes as our world becomes hotter and drier, but it will create more long-term logging jobs, as opposed to boom-and-bust jobs of the current timber proposals.

Matt Holloway is a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.

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