Before the arrival of settlers in the latter half of the 19th century, and the logging and fire suppression practices that followed in the subsequent decades, fires in western U.S. conifer forests were the result of lightning strikes in summer storms and burning by Native American tribes, who used fire to (among other things) maintain and enhance food sources such as berries and acorns, as well as to improve hunting areas for deer and elk by increasing the fire-following vegetation upon which they feed.
Despite a widespread popular belief that there is now an unnatural excess of wildland fire, the landscape burned far more often prior to the arrival of settlers. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the National Forests of the United States, has repeatedly claimed that the 2015 fire season, at 10.1 million acres of wildland fire, was “unprecedented” in U.S. history. But contrary to the claims by Secretary Vilsack, the 10.1 million acres burned in 2015 were nowhere near a record.
Even as recently as the early 20th century, before the advent of modern industrial fire suppression policies, it was common for 30 million acres or more of wildland fire to occur each year in the U.S., according to federal land agencies. The Department of Agriculture itself has acknowledged that “30 million to 50 million acres still burned a year at the start of the 1900s” in the United States.
Vilsack and some in Congress want a budgetary change to prevent “fire-borrowing”, whereby the federal wildland fire suppression program often borrows funds from other programs during fire season, if appropriated money for fire suppression runs dry. While there is legitimate concern about this practice, Vilsack has struck an bad deal with logging interests. In exchange for legislative language to address fire-borrowing, and an increase in federal funding for fire suppression, Vilsack has been willing to promote destructive logging measures added to the fire-borrowing bill by some of the biggest recipients of logging industry campaign contributions in Congress.
The three logging measures, H.R. 2647, “The Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act of 2016, and a similar, but in some ways more extreme, proposal by Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would override the nation’s most important environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, eliminating most environmental analysis of adverse impacts of logging, and curtailing public participation.
Under these proposed bills, intensive commercial logging — including clearcutting and logging of old-growth trees — on our federal public lands would be facilitated and increased, under the deceptive guises of “fuel reduction”, “forest health”, and “restoration.” But are the central premises of these legislative proposals true?
The 20th-century image of homogeneously “open and parklike” forests maintained almost exclusively by very low-intensity fire has been replaced by a deeper understanding of forests and fire regimes. Now, there is abundant evidence that historical forests were highly variable in their density and successional stages, and the complex mix of Native American cultural burning and lightning fires created highly heterogeneous conditions across western U.S. forested landscapes, including both small and occasionally very large patches of high-intensity fire—including some that were thousands, or even tens of thousands, of acres in size.
When John Frémont and Kit Carson traversed the forests of eastern Oregon in 1845, for example, Frémont’s journals discuss forest density conditions 18 times; in two-thirds of these Frémont explicitly notes “dense” forests, often with such “thick” understories that his crew made painfully slow work cutting small and medium-sized trees for miles just so the expedition could pass through.
John Leiberg, a 19th-century U.S. Geological Survey researcher, issued a report to Congress in 1902 on forest conditions of the northern Sierra Nevada, and made frequent observations about the mosaic of forest structure and habitat maintained by mixed-intensity fires. Leiberg noted, for example, the following: “All the slopes of Duncan Canyon from its head down show the same marks of fire — dead timber, dense undergrowth, stretches of chaparral, thin lines of trees or small groups rising out of the brush, and heavy blocks of forest surrounded by chaparral.”
This mix of conditions helped maintain the full range of native biodiversity and healthy wildlife populations in historical forests. Many forest birds depend upon patches of “complex early seral forest”, also known as “snag forest habitat”, for survival.
Many woodpeckers need an abundance of snags (standing dead trees). Native wood-boring and bark-beetle larvae live and develop under the bark of dead trees, and woodpeckers feed on them. These woodpeckers excavate new nest cavities each year, creating homes for secondary cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds and nuthatches. Other birds nest in the early-successional understory vegetation—native shrubs, and conifer and oak regeneration—stimulated by high-intensity fire patches. Due to modern fire suppression and post-fire logging practices, many of these bird species have now become rare, or are declining.
California spotted owls also benefit from varied habitats created by natural, mixed-intensity fire regimes, nesting and roosting in dense, mature/old forest and preferentially hunting in snag forest habitat created by high-intensity fire, since the small mammal prey base is best in such habitat. Scientists call the owl’s association with this juxtaposition of different post-fire habitats and successional stages the “bed and breakfast effect.” Despite some misleading information presented in studies funded by the U.S. Forest Service, which actively promotes commercial logging and post-fire clearcutting on National Forest lands, and retains most of the revenue from selling public timber to private logging companies, the strong weight of scientific evidence indicates that spotted owls tend to maintain their populations quite well even in large mixed-intensity fire areas.
Watch Tending The Wild's segment on cultural burning.
There has long been recognition about the role and value of low-intensity fire, but increasingly scientists have also stressed the importance of patches of high-intensity fire too, as evidence about historical fire regimes and wildlife habitat needs has increased in recent decades. Over 250 scientists recently sent Congress a letter concluding that snag forest habitat is an ecological treasure that should be protected, not logged. The scientists concluded:
[S]cientific studies tell us that even in the patches where forest fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most ecologically diverse on western forestlands…The post-fire environment is rich in patches of native flowering shrubs that replenish soil nitrogen and attract a diverse bounty of beneficial insects that aid in pollination after fire. Small mammals find excellent habitat in the shrubs and downed logs, providing food for foraging spotted owls. Deer and elk browse on post-fire shrubs and natural conifer regeneration. Bears eat and disperse berries and conifer seeds often found in substantial quantities after intense fire, and morel mushrooms, prized by many Americans, spring from ashes in the most severely burned forest patches. This post-fire renewal... is quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests…Moreover, it is the least protected of all forest habitat types, and is often as rare, or rarer, than old-growth forest, due to extensive fire suppression and damaging forest management practices.
We need to learn from what current science is telling us about the past, and not let the potent combination of fear, misunderstanding, and economic opportunism that dominates the present political climate dictate future management of our forests.