Forest Thinning: Fuel Reduction or Deforestation?

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 looked into forest thinning’s pros and cons. Here is what I found.

Southern Oregon Resource History

Before Southern Oregon discovered retirement and tourism, there was gold, then logging and then Christmas pears. Each exit off of Interstate 5 from Ashland to Grants Pass was originally a logging mill. Settlements grew around the mills. The railroad made stops for each town; then came highway exits.

The region’s forests were cut to the ground. Repeated clear-cuts have left a variety of highly-flammable forest landscapes from dense single-age stands to thickets. In either case, these industrial forests are the cause of most of the west coast’s summer fires and smoke. Fires are probably 10x greater in these dense young forests than in the original old-growth forests.

With old growth forests gone, hot fires now burn everything in their path instead of dancing around the bottom of mature trees. Logging and fire suppression have ushered in an era of hot catastrophic fires. The City of Ashland, Oregon was built into the post-logging high-fuel forest interface. A fire could be catastrophic. As the fires rage in Los Angeles today, this is a serious matter.

Fragile Ecosystems on the Edge

Southern Oregon forests are on the cusp between the arid California and the moist Pacific Northwest. A single valley can have a white oak savanna on the south aspect and Douglas fir or Ponderosa Pine on the north. We have some of the greatest biodiversity in the world here. We can drive three hours East and see Pinion and Juniper high desert. Three hours drive West will bring us to old-growth Redwood rain forest.

Because of our proximity to arid California, damage to the small moist ecosystems can easily push them into an arid climate. For example, when settlers discovered logging after the gold rush, they cut the ridges first for roads. The ridges of the Siskiyou Crest, which runs East to West from the Rogue Valley to the Pacific, have not reforested and remain barren. This is a Class I error. These forest ridges can not be repaired and deprive the lower forest of gathered moisture from the missing fog-broom affect.

Thinning: Before and After

This is what the forest looked like before thinning. Moist, mixed Douglas fir, with some Ponderosa pine, Sword Ferns and a few Redwoods.

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

Below is what the thinned forest looks like — arid. These two photos are taken three miles above Ashland, Oregon on road 2060, in the same location. I took the top photo of the un-thinned forest, then turned around and took the photo of the thinned forest. You see two forests in one place: one moist multi-layered, the other hot and arid.

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

The thinned forest is now missing its ground cover and understory layers. The sun now shines directly on the topsoil. The soil fungal mycelium network is collapsing. In many locations, because logging companies don’t want them, Madrone trees are beginning to overtake the pine forest. There is much less biodiversity. Forest-thinning contractors also fell older standing-dead trees, eliminating habitat for owls and other species.

The thinned forests are hotter, dryer and literally silent of life. Animal species are getting thin here. Wolves are down to 6 or 7, even though no one has seen one for a while.[1] The only remaining Fisher is a statue of one at the bottom of the Bandersnatch hiking trailing in Ashland.

Thinning

Thinning begins with logging to pay for the operation. Ironically, larger commercial useful trees are removed, leaving smaller, more fire-prone trees. Then the remaining brush is gathered and later burned in plastic-covered slash piles. Which, by the way, is a tremendous amount of work.

Fire Ecology

Fire naturally regenerates the forest. Standing dead trees are animal, bird, plant, and fungal habitat and build topsoil. A healthy forest has five or more vegetation layers.

A healthy forest is a mix of both diverse ages and species, plus fire ecology. It is all connected. If fire is suppressed, the forest does not regenerate because fire is required for the tree seeds to germinate. If old-growth tress are taken away, catastrophic fires happen. If the standing dead trees are taken away, valuable habitat is lost.

Thinning Pros

  1. Immediate fuel reduction and fire suppression.
  2. If logging is included, the thinning can pay for some of its costs.
  3. Native forests can be restored if non-native species are removed. But, older native trees must never be removed.

Thinning Cons

  1. Exacerbates climate change by enabling continued clear-cutting and heats forests.
  2. If intensive, thinning shifts forest to a more arid climate or even deforestation.
  3. Forest does not naturally regenerate because fire is missing.
  4. 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 habitat. It is a long list: owls, rodents, fishers, weasels, porcupines, wolves, moss, sword ferns, are reduced or lost.
  5. Topsoil and mycelium death from exposure to direct sunlight.
  6. Air pollution from burning plastic.
  7. Increased fire danger from a more arid landscape.
  8. Cost. Fuel reduction is so expensive that it can only be afforded by wealthy municipalities. The cost of state-wide fuel reduction would exceed the total revenues of the forestry industry. If the social cost of an industry exceeds its revenue or even its profits, it should be discontinued.
  9. Ignores the only long-term solution of return of fire ecology and diverse old-growth fire-proof forests.

Thinning Suggestions for Improvement

Clear-cut logging is the cause of chronic catastrophic fires and causing desertification of Southern Oregon in just a few generations. Forests are not regenerating and are being replaced by Oak and Madrone savannas.

Here some adjustments to thinning practices to improve effectiveness and forest health.

  1. Target cutting non-native trees and brush.
  2. Do not remove or burn slash. Leave the biomass to protect and build topsoil. Get them down on the ground to start rotting. Thinned trees do not have to be removed to stop being a fire danger.
  3. There are many lifetimes of jobs removing non-native species planted by logging companies in American forests.
  4. The down side of not logging the thinning is loss of some revenue. On the other hand, fire ecology is free. Its cheaper to stop clear-cutting and let overgrown forest burn one time and return to healthy old-growth fire-proof ecosystems.
  5. Leave the standing dead for bird, mammal, fungal and mossy habitat. An ecosystem is an interwoven net of species.
  6. Stop building housing in the forest interface and let fire run its natural course. Notify home owners and insurance companies that their buildings are outside of the fire suppression zone.
  7. 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, join the Green party, run for political office, join your local environmental watchdog nonprofit, consume less, have a one-child family. Educate yourself, visit the old-growth Redwoods to see what earth really looks. Take a permaculture design certificate (PDC) course. Learn to look at the word through whole system eyes: what is is missing and what should be there naturally?

Postscript: LA Fires, December 2017

Will people listen now? Below is Ventura County, California on December 5, 2017. 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.

Smoke reached Southern Oregon today from fires 800 miles away in Southern California.

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Smoke from LA fires drifts 800 miles to cover Southern Oregon, December 13, 2017.

Forest thinning of clear-cuts puts off restoration of our forest ecology. Bring back natural cool-fire ecology and the old-growth forests to reverse climate change. Ancient forests are standing oceans of water sequestering carbon.

Pass it on.  Share on your social media.

Chuck Burr is author of Culturequake: The Restoration Revolution.

[1] Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Wolf Population.

Editor, Beth Brown.