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

Dec 11, 2006 12:47 PM

This publication should make a clear distinction between logging a forest and thinning a forest.  The articles and letters to date tend to confuse the two activities.  In my experience, thinning does work and is sometimes necessary for public safety as well as for forest health.

I emphasize, however, for thinning to work, there must be strict guidelines and supervision.

Several years ago, the fire department in Red River, New Mexico (altitude 9,000 ft.) received grant money to cover the expense of thinning over 500 acres of forest in a populated area with a single exit.  Following are examples of some of the guidelines:

1) All aspen were left standing.

2) All spruce and pine trees with trunk diameters of 10 inches or greater were left standing. 

3) Branches on these fir trees were removed up to six feet above the ground.

4) Most dead trees, standing and fallen, were left alone as habitats.

5) Seedlings were left alone although thinned where appropriate.

6) The remaining slash was ground into mulch, burned, or cut into firewood lengths for first come, first served residents.

In the beginning, fire department experimented with heavy equipment that damaged the forest floor, so the department switched to manual labor to minimize the damage.

Here are some results of this thinning that took place five years ago:

1) The 500+ acres are less susceptible to forest fire. 

2) The remaining trees are more exposed to wind so many have been blown over; those still standing thrive.

3)  The forest floor, despite the recent drought, is filling in with grasses, ground cover, and wildflowers.

4) The residents have lost some privacy since views are now unimpeded, but more wildlife is visible.

The drought has taught those of us in the high desert (altitude 7,000 ft.) and the alpine regions  that thinned forests are healthier and safer as demonstrated by the death of tens of thousands of pinyon trees throughout the West.  Pinyon trees should be roughly ten feet apart for good health.  Fewer pests and less competition for water is the happy result.

This is not a call for action because as Mr. Wuerthner astutely advises, "the best thing we can do for . . . our forests. . . is to get out of the way" and let nature take its course, but judicious forest thinning in selected populated areas does have important advantages.