Playing God in the woods

  I just read your article about how environmental groups are working with loggers to thin forests in New Mexico. While I am not opposed to thinning trees near communities to increase their defensibility against wildfires, I do think we need to examine the assumptions that underlie thinning programs.

There is an implicit assumption that large blazes are somehow undesirable or unnatural. Thus the entire premise of thinning is to reduce or stop such blazes. While there is no doubt that low-intensity blazes are common in such forests, big blazes were not unheard of, if you take a long-enough perspective. There are worse things that can happen to a forest than a fire — like logging.

And that is another problem with the HCN piece. It starts with the premise that thinning is beneficial for the forest. But any logging introduces disease and weeds and human activity that can impact wildlife. Logging roads are long-term sources of sedimentation and often the newly established route for ORVs. Logging equipment compacts soils and can alter hydrological patterns.

Furthermore, the concept of thinning to decrease large blazes starts with a flawed assumption about big blazes. Large blazes are driven by climatic conditions, not fuels. Low humidity, high winds and severe drought are the ingredients behind every large fire in the West. Under these conditions, fires can spread through even scattered trees, much less only partially thinned forests.

Even if thinning did work, it is a program that has no end, in part because most agencies still engage in the practices that have altered fire regimes — fire suppression, livestock grazing and logging.

The best thing we could do for the majority of our forests in the West is to get out of the way. Let them burn, or die from insects or drought, if they will. Stop trying to play God in the woods.

George Wuerthner
Author of Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy
Richmond, Vermont