Burning issues

  • Tom Bonnicksen


Name Tom Bonnicksen
Age 67
Occupation Retired forestry scientist
Spent childhood Outdoors sliding down the Indiana Dunes, canoeing the upper Wisconsin River, living at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.
On how he gathers data "I walk through the woods. I know every inch of these places I study. I'm on the ground all the time. And if I'm not there, I know all about it."
Most recent book America's Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery
Honors 2002 Bush Excellence in Public Service Award

Late in the afternoon on the first day of summer, black-bottomed thunderheads zapped lightning down onto the parched Northern California landscape, igniting one of the state's worst fire seasons. Four months and 1.5 million scorched acres later, fires were still exploding -- now near Los Angeles, forcing thousands of residents to flee.

Tom Bonnicksen is not above saying, "I told you so."  A bespectacled, athletic forest research scientist and retired Texas A&M forestry professor, Bonnicksen has been warning of catastrophic wildfire in California and throughout the West for over 30 years. The reasons are simple and everyone knows them, he says: Too much forest fuel and too little logging on public lands.

"Wildfires are bad and getting worse every year because of a misguided public belief that all fires are good and all management is bad," he says.

Far more is at stake than charred landscapes. In March, Bonnicksen published a carbon emissions study that identifies wildfire as one of the primary sparks for a climate doomsday scenario lasting into the next century. He found that four California wildfires, burning in the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades between 1992 and 2007, released carbon dioxide at levels a whopping 19 times greater than previously accepted scientific estimates. Each acre of burned forest emits greenhouse gases equal to the annual exhaust from 48 cars, according to his research. His conclusion? Reducing the size and severity of wildfires may be the single most important action we can take to fight global warming.

His method? More logging.

Thinning crowded thickets and removing undergrowth created by a century of fire suppression will, he says, reduce the threat of what he calls "monster fires." Bonnicksen's model forests would replicate the historic landscape by creating natural firebreaks in a mosaic of openings interspersed among patches of older and younger trees.

A straightforward and uncompromising man, Bonnicksen has authored scores of op-eds -- many of them funded by the timber industry -- touting chain saws instead of natural fire to maintain giant sequoia stands, and railing against "extremists" who use "hyperbole… and myths" to oppose logging burned forests. Bon-nicksen is also an avid outdoorsman who has worked for the National Park Service and championed park and wilderness designations.

But his fiercest advocacy has been for heavier logging. Bonnicksen's forest-management proposals have so infuriated the research community that in 2006, four of the most prominent forest scientists sent an open letter to the media questioning his academic qualifications and his credibility. That prompted a response from yet another group of forest scientists, decrying the "attack" on their colleague.

Ever the contrarian, in his recent study Bonnicksen challenges the generally accepted view that forests continue to store significant amounts of carbon even after fires. Unlike most forest carbon studies, Bonnicksen's -- which was partially funded by the Forest Foundation, a nonprofit organization supported by Sierra Pacific Industries, Georgia Pacific and other timber companies -- measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by the decay of dead, burned trees. Of the 38 million tons of gases released from the four fires, he estimates that two-thirds will come from decomposing forest debris over the next century. Most of the sequestered carbon will be back in the atmosphere within 50 years, Bonnicksen says.

Those findings drew a harsh rebuke from Philip Rundel, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Bonnicksen ignores post-fire growth, which pulls enough carbon dioxide out of the air to offset increased emissions from decaying trees, Rundel says. Rundel, who signed the open letter to the media, calls Bonnicksen's carbon argument "a red herring" and dismisses his calculations as "naive and dangerously misguided."

Bonnicksen has also caused a stir among U.S. Forest Service scientists who are working on their own carbon-cycle studies. Mark Nechodom, the agency's climate science policy coordinator for the Pacific Southwest region, believes Bonnicksen overestimated the greenhouse gas emissions from the four fires he evaluated. But he also credits him for challenging scientists to find out more about how forests are affecting the carbon cycle. Bonnicksen's work is sure to drive new scientific studies, some of them designed simply to prove him wrong. "We may disagree with Tom's intensive management, but this is a good debate to be having, even if it makes some of us nervous," Nechodom says.

Bonnicksen shrugs off both the compliments and the criticism. "I tend to be conspicuous," he says. "It's not a function of ego. I really believe in what I do. I'd rather be fishing than anything else, but I do this because I care."

William C Lawton
William C Lawton
Nov 11, 2008 01:42 PM
Corporate conflicts of interest are the bane of science.
Ignores grasslands
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Nov 17, 2008 09:36 PM

Beyond the questionable CO2 data, Bonnicksen knows full many California wildfires are due to either chaparral brush (the Southland) or grasslands that normally dry out in the summer, and do so even more in especially dry years, and NOT due to trees.
Why give Bonnicksen the Space?
Rob Edward
Rob Edward
Nov 18, 2008 01:36 PM
From Rick Brown's (Defender's of Wildlife) 2008 paper titled The Implications of Climate Change for Conservation, Restoration, and Management of National Forest Lands:

"Depro et al. (2008) calculated that if all timber
harvest ceased on national forests, the rate of
carbon storage on those lands could be increased
by an average of about 30 percent over the next five
decades, compared to a “business as usual” scenario,
including stores in wood products. Returning to
high logging levels of the 1980s would dramatically
lower the rate of carbon storage. Depro et al.’s (2008)
estimates include an assumption that future losses
to disturbance from fire, insects and disease will be
similar to those of the recent past."

Depro, Brooks M., Brian C. Murray, Ralph J. Alig, and Alyssa
Shanks. 2008. Public land, timber harvests, and climate
mitigation: Quantifying carbon sequestration potential on
U.S. public timberlands. Forest Ecology and Management
255: 1122–1134.
Bonnicksen's PhD is in policy, not science
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Nov 18, 2008 01:47 PM
The following guest commentary by someone who - unlike Bonnicksen - actually has a PhD in ecology might be of interest to readers. It was written in response to one of Bonnicksen many opeds, which as HCN points out, are funded by the timber industry.

Logging Industry Misleads on Forest Fires and Climate
By Chad Hanson, Ph.D.

The recent guest column by timber industry spokesperson Tom Bonnicksen is a wildly misleading attempt to promote increased logging of national forests in California under the guise of reducing wildland fires and mitigating climate change.

Bonnicksen makes numerous scientifically-inaccurate assumptions about fire, which I suppose is to be expected, since Bonnicksen’s Ph.D. is in forest policy, not forest science. For example, Bonnicksen states, “The wildfire crisis is becoming more serious each year. Fires are getting bigger and more destructive, killing wildlife and polluting the air as well.”

The fact of the matter is that there is far less fire in our forests now than there was historically. The total area of forest annually affected by fire currently is only about one-tenth of what it was prior to 1850, due to fire suppression (Stephens and others 2007, Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 251). Over the past few decades, fires have increased somewhat, but still remain well below their natural levels in western forests. Increasingly, forest managers are realizing that, despite increased spending on fire suppression, fires cannot be indefinitely kept at unnatural levels in ecosystems that are adapted to frequent burning.

Historically, fire regimes in California’s forests included a mix of low, moderate, and high severity effects (Beatty and Taylor 2001, Journal of Biogeography, Vol. 28). While flames several stories high make dramatic and sensational images, and tend to be the focus of coverage on television, the majority of areas burned each year in California generally experiences low or moderate intensity effects.

However, in the areas where most of the trees are killed by fire, scientists are making some of the most interesting and counter-intuitive discoveries. Far from being “destructive” and killing off all wildlife, these areas show some of the greatest rejuvenation and ecological richness. In such areas, natural conifer regeneration occurs, often with thousands of seedlings per acre after the fire. Some conifer species, in fact, require high intensity fire in order to release their seeds and reproduce.

Moreover, some of the highest levels of biodiversity are found in the most heavily burned areas for both wildlife and plants. Many flowering plants and shrubs depend upon fire for germination and reproduction. Numerous flying insect species are attracted to these flowering plants following fire. In turn, many bird species depend upon these burned forests because they feed upon the insects. As odd as it may sound, a larger number of native wildlife species are found more in heavily burned forest – where most or all of the trees are killed – than in any other forest type.

Bonnicksen would also have us believe that forest fires are a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The California Air Resources Board’s data reveals that current emissions from forest fires in California are less than 1% of those from fossil fuel consumption in this state. Furthermore, fire converts woody material on the forest floor from relatively unusable forms into highly useable nutrients, which aids forest productivity and carbon sequestration. The rapid forest growth following wildland fire sequesters huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). Whatever carbon emissions occur from combustion during wildland fire and subsequent decay of fire-killed trees is more than balanced by forest growth across the landscape over time.

It’s important for people to know the facts about fire, ecosystems, and climate. Unfortunately, timber industry spokespeople are less interested in the truth than it is in misleading people to serve its own economic goals.

Dr. Chad Hanson (cthanson@ucdavis.edu) has a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California at Davis, where he conducts post-doctoral research on fire ecology. He is also the director of the John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org), based in Cedar Ridge.
Lynn Jungwirth
Lynn Jungwirth
Nov 19, 2008 05:28 PM
seems like the bits of truth Bonnicksen tells, mixed with the bits of truth Jerry Franklin tells, mixed with the science and experience of JoAnn Fites and the fire scientists could be used
to help us figure out what to do. I'm pretty tired of killing the messenger because we don't like the guys who paid for his track shoes.
Industrial logging to combat global warming?
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Nov 20, 2008 07:47 AM
Lynn, While pointing out the flaws of someone's research and questioning their motives (especially when they are being funded by the big boys in the timber industry) might be something you consider "killing the messenger," I believe others would simply call it public education and full disclosure.

I also have a hard time believing that industrial logging practices will combat global warming as Bonnicksen is so fond of advocating.

In order to seriously and honestly consider such a proposal one would clearly need to have a full and accurate accounting of the tremendous amount of carbon that is released by the entire process (from start to finish) required to do industrial logging and then use the current industrial logging infrastructure (based on heavy fossil fuel consumption) to products produces (which have all gone down sharply in demand since the profound economic crisis).

So, if Bonnicksen is advocating we do more industrial logging to combat global climate change his proposal must look a little something like this (and this is only really a portion of the process):

1) Send logging crews up into the forests in big diesel trucks, using big diesel equipment, firing up 2-stroke chain saws, cutting down trees, driving back into town in their big diesel trucks, doing the same thing the next day, the next day, etc.

2) Then you need to send big diesel logging trucks up into the forest, using big diesel equipment to load the logs, driving the logs to mills located, in some cases, hundreds of miles to the very centralized mills in our region.

3) Meanwhile the trees were just sitting in the forest, supposedly causing global climate change.

4) Next, you need to run those big fossil fuel burning mills, get all the mill employees to drive their vehicles to the mill, make the trees into some wood products.

5) Then, you need to ship those wood products via truck or train to markets around the country...more fossil fuel consumption. And at this point should we even discuss if these products are part of an over-consumptive, unsustainable development paradigm?

6) Next, building contractors drive their big diesel trucks to Lowe's, Home Depot, etc, to pick up the wood products and drive those wood products out to the job site, head home for the day and do the same thing the next day. Of course, the building contractors also have to drive their big diesel trucks to pick up all the other toxic products that are needed to make a modern home, etc.

7) This fossil fuel burning cycle could go on and on and should really include the energy needed to make the big diesel trucks, chain saws, milling equipment, hampers, nails, roofing shingles, cooper wire, windows, etc.

8) Meanwhile the trees were just sitting in the forest, supposedly causing global climate change?

Given this reality I really have a hard time believing that cutting down forests for building products in order to sequester carbon pencils out by any rational, full cost accounting measure.
Logging to prevent global warming
Adam Crane Guilford
Adam Crane Guilford
Nov 20, 2008 01:01 PM
My name is Adam Guilford. In recent years we have watched the lodgpole pines of the Fraser Valley, and many other parts of Colorado succumb to the pine beetle's voracious appetite. This has resulted in a tinderbox just waiting for the right conditions to all go up in flames, if it were to all burn at once, it would be disastrous for the Colorado River watershed. I have no faith that timber companies would do the right thing and thin the dead trees without also taking the healthy ones too. However we do need to do something to mitigate the danger of it all burning at once, doing nothing is also not an option. How about finding a middle ground where firebreaks are established in these areas so that when they inevitably do burn, it will burn section by section rather than all at once? Perhaps we can avoid a disaster that way. Maybe common sense will prevail, and we will reach a compromise that will protect the watershed, and even allow some of the lumber to be salvaged, this will not happen by allowing the logging companies to do whatever they want. However some on the other side are unreasonable as well, and if something is not done soon, we could have a real disaster. Perhaps this could be overseen by the Forest Service to be effective. A compromise may not make either side happy, but would probably be best for the forest, the wildlife, the residents and the millions of people who depend on the Colorado River for their water....we need to work the details out soon or it will be too late !
New Report on CO Beetle Situation
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Nov 20, 2008 02:31 PM
Hello Adam,

You may want to check out the following report titled, "Recent Forest Insect Outbreaks and Fire Risk 
in Colorado Forests:  A Brief Synthesis of Relevant Research." It's available at http://www.cfri.colostate.edu/docs/cfri_insect.pdf.

The report, from some of the leading researchers on the topic, answers many common questions such as:

Do outbreaks of mountain pine beetles and other forest insects increase the risk of severe wildfires?

Does a large insect outbreak constitute an “emergency?”

Are forests with large amounts of insects and dead trees “unhealthy?”

Are recent wildfires in some of Colorado’s dense forest stands unusually severe compared to pre-20th century fire severity?

I think some of the answers presented in this report may surprise you. Good luck.
potentially bunk link...
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Nov 20, 2008 04:42 PM
Seems like the period at the end of the sentence above got included as part of the link to the pdf, making it useless..So try this one: