Forest Thinning: Deforestation or Fuel Reduction?

Karen is pointing at before and after. Un-thinned left, thinned right, slash piles waiting to be burned.

After hearing the sound of helicopter logging in the Ashland, Oregon watershed, I started to look into our practice of forest thinning and its pros and cons.

Before Southern Oregon discovered tourism and retirement there was gold, logging and then Christmas pears. Each exit off of Interstate 5 from Ashland to Grants Pass was originally a timber mill. Towns grew around the mills. The region’s forests were cut to ground, plantation trees have grown into single-age forests thickets.

With old growth trees gone, hot fires now burn everything. Logging and fire suppression has ended the era of cool fires and ushered in the era of hot catastrophic fires. Ashland, Oregon was built into the post-logging high-fuel forest interface. Any fire could be catastrophic. As the fires rage in Los Angeles today, this is a serious matter in many respects. I am finding there is more however to this story.

Southern Oregon forests are on the cusp between arid California and moist Pacific Northwest. A single valley can have scrub white oak savanna on the south facing slopes and Douglas fir on the north. We have some of the highest biodiversity in the world here. We can drive a 2-3 hours east and see pinion and juniper and go the other direction and be in old grow redwood rain forest.

Because these ecosystems are small and adjacent to each other, each is fragile and just on the bubble. Damage to the moist ecosystems can push them into an arid climate. When settlers discovered logging after the gold boom, they cut the ridges first to use them as roads. The ridges along the Siskiyou Crest are now barren and have never reforested. This is a Class-1 error, it can never be repaired.

Thinning: Before and After

This is what the forest looked like before thinning. Moist, mixed Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, madrone, manzanita, sword ferns and a few redwoods.

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Intact forest pre-thinning, all vegetation layers are present, floor covered.

This is what the forest looks like after thinning, below. Arid, 4 out of 5 vegetation layers are missing, sun now directly heats the topsoil.

Important, I have to be clear, these two photos are taken in the same location on the Horn Gap road 3 miles above Ashland. I took the photo below of the thinned forest then just turned around and took the photo of the un-thinned forest. Look at the thinned landscape to see missing forest layers, diversity, ground cover and lack of regeneration.

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Post-thinning, made more arid, most layers are missing, forest is not regenerating.

Manual Thinning

The process begins by selectively logging to pay for the operation. Then the remaining small caliper trees and brush are gathered and burned in slash piles. This is a tremendous amount of work.

As you walk up the north facing Horn Gap road trail from Ashland, you see two forests. One that belongs in Oregon, moist multi-layered. The other looks like arid California. The remaining trees are tall and weedy because they grew in too much density. It is stark how these two ecosystems are literally on different sides of the same road.

Vs. Natural Fire Ecology

Manually thinning for fuel reduction skips essential steps for forest health. Fire naturally regenerates the forest. Standing and fallen trees are mammal, bird, plant and fungal habitat and built topsoil. A healthy forest has five or more layers of vegetation.

Listen, is the forest silent or is it teaming with life? What species should you be hearing? What does the ground feel like, is it soft and loamy or is it hard or eroded? What aspect is the landscape, should it be shaded and moist or hot and dry? How old are the trees, is there a mix of tree ages, are all of the layers of the forest present including standing dead snags? Don’t take for granted the forests around you. Learn what species are native and non-native.

Pros

  1. Immediate fuel reduction and reduced threat of catastrophic fire.
  2. If selective timber cutting is included, the operation can pay for some of its costs. Ashland is lucky, it is a wealthy, well-connected city and is capable of writing grants that most municipalities cannot afford.
  3. Native forests can be restored if non-native species are removed.

Cons

  1. If too much selective logging is combined with brush thinning, it can result in a permanent shift to a more arid ecosystem or even deforestation.
  2. Natural fire is not used to reduce fuel, so the forest does not naturally regenerate. The fire ecology that built the forest is short-circuited.
  3. Biodiversity crashes. Only one of five layers of the forest is left. Gone are understory trees, brush, ground covers, vines, most soil biology, snags and fire-resistant legacy seed bearing old growth trees. Most of the plant and animal species die off because they have no food or habitat. Its a long list from owls, to rodents, weasels, porcupines, carnivores, moss, sword ferns, are reduced or gone.
  4. Exposing forest floor to direct sunlight kills soil biology. The topsoil over heats, dries out, stops growing and collapses.
  5. Plastic slash pile covers are burned with the debris adding to air pollution.
  6. Actually the threat of fire starting is greater in a more arid post-thinning forest. A moister forest is slightly less likely to burn initially.

Solutions

We have an expanding acreage in Southern Oregon that is not regenerating after logging. Forests are being replaced by permanent savannas. Logging is causing desertification in just a few generations.

Here some adjustments to thinning practices to reverse the trend.

  1. Fell the denser non-native trees and brush and leave them to protect and build topsoil. Don’t remove the biomass. Get it down on the ground to start rotting.
  2. There are many lifetimes of work, aka jobs,  for foresters to remove or drop non-native species planted in American forests.
  3. The down side of not conducting a timber sale is that the thinning operation may not be economical. On the other hand, fire ecology is free.
  4. Leave the snags for bird, mammal, fungal and mossy habitat. An ecosystem is an interwoven net of species.
  5. Stop building housing in the forest interface and let fire run its natural course. Or notify home owners and insurance companies that their buildings are outside of the fire suppression zone.
  6. You can’t long-term repair a human-created damage with human solutions. You have to get out of the way and let nature heal herself.

Take Action

Love where you live, defend what you love.
Klamath-Siskiyou Wild

Take action, become a green politician, join the Green party, join your local environmental watchdog nonprofit, buy less. Educate yourself, visit the intact old growth ecosystems to see what earth really looks, smells and sounds like. Take a permaculture course. Learn to look at the word through whole system eyes: what is there, what is missing and what would be there naturally?

No Price to Pay

Civilization has always justified continuing at any cost and exploiting just because we can. But at some point that logic has to end to save our soul. There is no forgiveness for the destruction of entire ecosystems to meet our unnecessarily expanding population or consumption.

It is time we “civilized” people start taking responsibility for our existence.

Sorry I am so to the point, I am tired of watching society do as it pleasures just because it can. Forests are not “resources” but other species homes. We should only tread as a visitor. We do not have any right to modify ecosystems because it is more convenient for us. Each species has an equal right to their lives without threat of human destruction.

Postscript

Will anyone listen now? We need to end fire suppression and even consider stop building permanent cities. Old growth 1000-year old forests sequestering oceans of carbon and water must be restored to the planet.

Below is what Ventura County, California looked like on December 5, 2017. Brown shows the burn scar (center), green shows plants, gray shows urban areas, and orange shows active fires. This is just one of many fires burning around Los Angeles. In just a few days the LA fires have become bigger than NYC and Boston combined.

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Photo: European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite, December 5, 2017.

Huge fires are becoming common almost 12 months a year from drought and fire suppression. Smoke reached Southern Oregon today from fires 800 miles away in Southern California.

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Photo: Smoke from LA fires covers the Rogue Valley, Oregon, December 13, 2017.

I don’t think civilized people will ever “get it”. They are far too under educated about the environmental, ecology, biology, botany, have forgotten the past derive their living from domesticated plants and animals instead of the wild, which they now cluelessly destroy with every turn of the shopping cart and click of the mouse.

Chuck Burr