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The Myth of the Managed Wildfire: How US Forest Service Policies Perpetuate Deadly Wildfires

It’s time to rethink US wildfire policies.

Tanker helicopters fight a wildfire on October 16, 2017, in Oakville, California. At least 42 people were killed and many are still missing. At least 8,400 buildings have been destroyed. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

Research is clear that the wildfires the US experienced this year are more widespread and increasingly intense as our climate heats up. Consistent with the US government’s head-in-the-sand approach to the climate crisis generally, our national wildfire “management” policy flies in the face of science and reason. If we don’t learn to adapt to climate change’s growing coastal catastrophes, chronic droughts, lengthening wildfire seasons and disappearing glaciers, we will be saddling all future generations with a Pandora’s box of unmanageable scenarios.

The US’s dysfunctional response to the increasing intensity in wildfire seasons mirrors our emotional reactivity to the changing climate — though it triggers a different limbic response (“fight” vs. “freeze”). The result is a rather frantic and unnecessary expenditure of billions of dollars every year, and a call to roll back environmental safeguards, as well as a mounting toll of fatalities among “smokejumpers” — mostly seasonal Forest Service employees who are the first to respond in an effort to “contain” massive wildfires until the first snows arrive to extinguish them (naturally).

This year — on pace to break every temperature record except those set last year, and with greenhouse gas emissions still on the rise — the US has gotten a heavy dose of what the future holds in store, with warming, churning seas and hotter climes. Intense hurricane seasons on the coastal areas, where human populations are concentrated, and persistent smoke from wildfires burning all across the West and into Canada, where most wildlife and wild lands are found.

Just as we reflexively ignore the long-term implications of climate change for our oceans and cities, our primal response to wildfire is a compulsive need to battle and control it. While we “freeze” in the face of global climate change, and “flee” from hurricanes, when it comes to wildfires, we “fight.” This need to gain an upper hand is understandable from an evolutionary viewpoint. After all, it was our Promethean impulse to bring wildfire into the cave that separated us from the animal world — and eventually, thanks to coal and oil, lighting the whole world aflame.

Since controlling fire is hard-wired into our identity, it should come as no surprise that the National Forest Service — having long ago run out of the big money-trees that seeded its budget for decades with logging revenues — has undergone an extreme makeover into the National Forest-Fire Service. More than half of the Forest Service budget is directed at wildfire response, and combined with annual emergency appropriations, we spend $2 to $3 billion a year fighting wildfires in the US. Ironically, the more we fight wildfires — which is the whole point of “Smoky the Bear” — the worse they become, and the more expensive this fire suppression-and-fighting policy becomes. It is like responding to hurricanes by building more homes on the beach.

Under the cover of smoke-filled skies and industry-sponsored propaganda, these politically driven, unscientific and emotion-based forest management policies are fueling political efforts to undermine the very laws that protect wildlife and ensure science-based forest management. The problem is not wildfires so much as the science of fire ecology that points a finger at logging as part of the problem. Forest planners prefer instead a reductionist approach that focuses not on wildfire ecology, but rather on “fuels” (formerly known as “trees”) and “fuels reduction” (formerly known as “logging”), while paying only lip service to science and climate change.

And don’t believe the canard that we need to protect the “wildland-urban interface” by thinning forests. The science has been settled for some time that the only way to prevent loss of homes is by creating defensible space around the homes themselves. The US Forest Service’s own scientists have long cautioned that “effective residential fire loss mitigation must focus on the home and its immediate surroundings.” Wildfire mitigation focused on structures and their immediate surroundings is the most effective way to reduce structures ignitions.

Thinning forests through logging — “fuels reduction” — only increases the rate at which fires spread, and does almost nothing to save people’s homes. As former US Forest Service Ranger and conservation scientist George Wuerthner, author of Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, succinctly puts it:

While there will always be exceptions, and no doubt occasional fuel reductions do work, most thinning projects fail under extreme fire weather conditions. Why is this an important qualifier? Because all large fires burn under extreme fire weather. So the very fires we most wish to control are those that are burning under conditions when fuel reductions repeatedly fail.

It may sound counterintuitive to let wildfires burn in our national forests. But consider for a moment what is known as the “wildfire paradox.” While the Forest Service pretends that logging is the answer to wildfire, their own scientists tell us otherwise: The more we try to control wildfire, the more destructive the next wildfire becomes. Mark Finney, a research forester at the US Forest Service Lab in Missoula, Montana, recognizes the problem in a way our politicians seem incapable of grasping: “By thinking fires are bad, by attempting to suppress them because we are afraid of them … we basically make the next fire worse.”

And fire suppression has been Smoky the Bear’s policy for over a century now — mainly at the behest of the timber industry, which views trees as economic assets, not wildlife habitat, and considers wildfire a waste of resources, not the forest’s way of rejuvenating itself. As a US Forest Service brochure entitled “Our Changing Forests” puts it, “Since the arrival of western settlers to present day, we have fought nature’s way of managing forests by putting wildfires out.”

The hubris of that statement! We can manage forests better than nature?

Snuffing Out the Fire Industrial Complex

Our wildfire-fighting policies make no sense, ecologically or economically, than would the establishment of a National Hurricane Fighting Service. Forest fires are called “wildfires” for a reason, and the idea that they can be controlled by humans is a dangerous myth — especially in the face of climate change. In fact, according to the best available science on wildfires, we’d be better off letting nature take its course. It turns out that fires are not the disasters depicted on the evening news, but are instead an important part of a forest’s natural cycle. We’d not only save billions of dollars by ending this fight with nature, we’d also reduce firefighter fatalities to zero. There have already been more than 100 fatalities in this decade alone, and over 1,000 since we began dropping smokejumpers into the flames after the massive fires of 1910.

Most people know that digging deeper is no way to get yourself out of a hole. But the National Fire Service’s prescription for forests suffering from over a century of wildfire suppression is … more suppression of wildfire! Not just continuing to suppress fires when they start and to fight wildfires where suppression fails, but also to “fireproof” our national forests by “thinning fuels” with — you guessed it — more logging. This, in spite of the fact that scientific studies consistently show logged forests burn hotter and more destructively than unlogged forests. Anyone who’s ever hiked through a dense forest with multiple canopy layers will appreciate that these “crowded” (unlogged) forests are much cooler and damper than the “open, park-like” forests favored by our forest managers.

Thinning forests allows sunlight to dry out the forest floor, and for winds to whip through the remaining trees when fires burn — increasing their destructive capacity tenfold. This problem with “forest thinning” strategies has become acute with the increasing drought conditions brought on by climate change in temperate zones like the Northern Rockies. As the Nobel Laureate ecologist Steve Running points out, “[People] don’t seem to realize that these big wildfires under these extreme conditions are absolutely unstoppable.” And, “We expect these conditions to worsen in the future” — thanks to climate change, according to Matt Jolly, the lead researcher for the Rocky Mountain Fire, Fuel and Smoke Science Program.

While forest laws require adaptive management based on science, the Forest Service prefers to keep digging the hole they’ve created with a century of excessive logging and suppression of natural wildfire. Thus, to appease the timber industry and the politicians who do the bidding of the logging industry, we have the real wildfire paradox: forest managers who ignore the advice of their own research scientists.

Of course, if we allowed nature and climate change to have their way, we will end up with a lot of burned forests, and that’s bad — right? Who wants burned forests? Richard Hutto, one of the country’s leading experts on wildfire ecology, used to feel that way, too. Then, around the same time James Hansen was informing Congress that CO2 emissions were warming the planet, Hutto decided to study the effects of the “catastrophic” wildfires in Yellowstone National Park. He discovered that fires do not destroy forests, and forests are not “lost” when fires burn. Instead, they are restored and rejuvenated.

Like the rest of us, Hutto “was raised to believe that all fires are bad.” After decades of thorough research, what he found instead was whole communities of fire specialists that have evolved to take advantage of wildfire habitat, but have become quite rare due to Smoky the Bear’s crusade to stamp out fire in the wake of 1910s big burns in Idaho and Montana. Species in decline due to National Fire Service policies that remove the most vital ecological component from burned landscapes — large dead trees, or “snags” — include black-backed woodpeckers, boreal toads and mountain bluebirds, to name just a few. “After a fire burns a forest is when the magic happens,” Hutto says. “If the public knew how special these burned areas are, our perception might change.”

Perhaps the most shocking discovery of all is that a burned forest supports as much biological diversity of species, or “biodiversity,” as old growth habitat — the holy grail of ecological concern. Scientists have even coined a new term for this: “pyro-diversity.” As Peter Stickney, a long-time plant ecologist with the Forest Service pointed out to The Washington Post, “Life doesn’t end with a forest fire…. The trees of the forest may be destroyed, but the forest community isn’t destroyed — it’s rejuvenated.”

In the wake of these wildfires, industry-funded politicians pressure the Forest Service to remove what Hutto characterizes as the “most critical component of a biologically diverse post-fire ecosystem” — large burned trees. This, too, is no longer called “logging.” With a nod to George Orwell, it’s called “forest restoration.” But just as there is no science supporting fire suppression, there is no science that supports salvage logging as “restoration” either. In fact, 540 independent scientists signed a letter to the United States Congress in 2006 noting that “No substantive evidence supports the idea that fire-adapted forests might be improved by logging after a fire.” That same year, Science Magazine published an article called “Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk.” A subsequent letter to Congress in 2015 from 264 scientists put the matter succinctly: “Post-fire logging does far more harm than good to public forests.”

Considering that wildfire suppression (snuffing out fire starts and fire-proofing forests), wildfire fighting and post-fire logging are the three primary management tools of our National Forest/Fire Service, one begins to appreciate the mind-boggling scope of mismanagement of our country’s natural legacy. Given the relationship between the US Forest Service and the timber industry, it is a bit like placing Phillip Morris in charge of fighting lung cancer, or Exxon in charge of combatting the climate crisis.

According to the results of a multiyear study by Harvard Business School, “Our political system has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address.” The Harvard study concluded most of us would be “shocked by the extent to which our democracy has been hijacked by the private and largely unaccountable organizations that constitute today’s political industrial complex.”

I can attest to this “political industrial complex” running roughshod through our national forests. To cite just one example, I’m currently litigating a challenge to an enormous industrial logging project on the Colville National Forest in Washington State, where all of the environmental studies were farmed out to the logger’s own paid private consultants, effectively privatizing an 85-square-mile swath of public land pursuant to a 10-year franchise granting exclusive rights to the logging company.

When Congress passed the National Forest Management Act of 1976, they intended that our forested wild lands would be managed according to sound science, and they required the Forest Service to review their scientific findings in environmental impact statements prepared by public servants. Except that it isn’t. While the Colville project will fill over 30,000 logging trucks — a line of trucks that would be 240 miles long — the logger’s contractor determined that there were no significant environmental impacts worth studying from removing all those trees, and thus no environmental impact statement was needed. That is what a “hijacked” democracy looks like when used to liquidate public forests for private gain.

The political climate is hostile to science now that Congress bends over backwards to relieve the agency of the “onerous” twin burdens of careful scientific review and public involvement in managing public lands. Now, with a changing climate crashing in on us — swamping our coastal cities, drying out our national forests, and melting ice caps and glaciers — it has become politically expedient in the US to substitute ignorance and emotion for science and reason.

Thus, preying on the public’s fear of fire, politicians sponsored by the timber industry relentlessly push amendments to these statutes to allow even more of the logging that fans the flames of wildfires. In my home state of Montana, the chief of the Forest Service accepted the governor’s request to authorize more than 5 million acres of “forest thinning” with no environmental assessments, and there are now bills in both houses of Congress to make this the norm.

Is this really what we’ve become? A country that ignores scientific reality in order to maximize short-term profits at the expense of long-term survival? If policy makers are not willing to listen to reason, then maybe it’s time we voted scientists into office.

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