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Megafires Not Increasing: New Research Shows Large High-Severity Fires are Natural in Western Forests

For Immediate Release, September 10, 2019

From Geos Institute andThe John Muir Project

Contact: Eric Podolsky, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., (415)585-2100, photos available via e-mail

“MEGAFIRES” NOT INCREASING: NEW RESEARCH SHOWS LARGE HIGH-SEVERITY FIRES ARE NATURAL IN WESTERN FORESTS

Case Study Rebukes U.S. Forest Service’s Post-Fire Clearcut Methods

ASHLAND, OR – SEPTEMBER 10, 2019 – A peer-reviewed study by leading experts of forest and fire ecology recently published in the science journal Diversity disputes the widely held belief that “megafires” in our national forests are increasing, preventing forests from re-growing, and that logging is necessary to prevent these wildfires. While many policy and management decisions in U.S. national forests are based on these assumptions, research shows that large patches of trees killed by wildfires—known as high-severity burn patches—have not been increasing. These findings thus show that taxpayer-funded logging projects on public lands are not only unnecessary, they are also counter-productive, as related research shows that such logging often increases fire severity.

Researchers analyzed the most extensive contemporary and historical datasets ever collected on large (over 1,000 acres) high-severity burn patches across 11 western dry pine and mixed-conifer forests over three decades. The findings dispute the prevailing belief that increasing “megafires” are setting back post-fire forest regeneration.

“This is the most extensive study ever conducted on the high-severity fire component of large fires, and our results demonstrate that there is no need for massive forest thinning and salvage logging before or after a forest fire,” says Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, lead author of the study and Chief Scientist at the Geos Institute. “The perceived 'megafire' problem is being overblown. After a fire, conditions are ideal for forest re-establishment, even in the interior of the largest severely burned patches. We found conditions for forest growth in interior patches were possible over 1000 feet from the nearest low/moderately burned patch where seed sources are most likely.”

DellaSala and co-author Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project used computer mapping (GIS) databases to investigate vegetation and fire severity trends in large, severely burned forest patches, out of which grow “complex early seral forests” or “snag forest habitats”—unique and ecologically rich areas that are comparable to old forests in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance. They analyzed these patches in four equal time periods from 1984 to 2015 using U.S. Geological Survey fire severity datasets. They found an increase in large burn patches only during the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by a flat pattern to the present day.

“We will use these findings to counter ill-conceived post-fire logging projects on the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada,” says Dr. Hanson. “The U.S. Forest Service, assisted by The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Nevada Conservancy, is proposing to clearcut several thousand acres of prime snag forest habitat based on their false assumption that the forest cannot rejuvenate on its own and is better off being converted to wood chips for biomass energy production, which worsens the climate crisis.”

The study concludes that over the past three decades, the interval between large, high-severity burn patches at the landscape scale averaged 12 centuries to over 4,000 years, allowing more than ample time for forests to regenerate and develop into old-growth areas. Evidence was found in historical records of even larger high-severity burn patches, countering claims that contemporary high-severity burn patches are unprecedented and forests cannot recover on their own.

“This paper is critical to wildlife conservation in fire-dependent forests, as it dispels notions that large, high-severity fires are unnatural and catastrophic,” says Monica Bond, a Ph. D candidate and researcher with the Wild Nature Institute, who was not involved in the study. “As a researcher, I have documented spotted owls, songbirds, and numerous woodpeckers using these large burn patches for both foraging and nesting. An entire community of under-appreciated wildlife depends on these large burns.”

See below for links to the study:

Abstract: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/11/9/157

HTML Version: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/11/9/157/htm

PDF Version: https://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/11/9/157/pdf

For more information on the Rim fire, visit https://bit.ly/2kaxpMF.

About Geos Institute:

Geos Institute is a science-based organization that is helping to make natural and human communities whole in the face of climate change. For information on their forest work, visit https://www.forestlegacies.org/.

About The John Muir Project:

John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org) is a forest conservation and research organization dedicated to ensuring that public forests are protected and managed for ecology and recreation, not commercial logging.

 

Scientists Oppose Draft Forest Service Rule

For Immediate Release, August 26, 2019

Contacts: Dominick DellaSala, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., (541) 621-7223 | Chris Frissell, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., (406) 471-3167

Over 230 scientists oppose Draft Forest Service Rule That Would Block Scientist Voices, Gut Bedrock Environmental Law

Washington, DC― Over 230 scientists submitted comments strongly opposing a draft US Forest Service rule that would overhaul regulations that implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one our nation’s landmark environmental laws. The proposed rule is designed to speed up logging and other damaging activities across the 193 million-acre national forest system, while cutting the public and independent scientists out of the vast majority of all national forest decisions.

The letter, signed by scientists with expertise in conservation biology, ecology and hydrology, raised concerns about the proposed changes saying they “would hamstring the agency from making informed decisions in an era complicated by unprecedented climate change and a legacy of land-use impacts to the national forest system.”

“In shutting scientists and the public out from forest planning decisions, the Trump Administration continues its reckless policies that will change the very future of our nations treasured forests and rivers, said Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist at the Ashland-Oregon based Geos Institute, and lead scientist on the letter. “The Forest Service is chipping away at public accountability with severe consequences likely to our national forests.”

For nearly half a century NEPA has guaranteed public transparency, federal government accountability and ensures that the best available science is considered in federal decisions on public lands. The current NEPA rules require that the Forest Service to notify the public of pending logging, mining, drilling and other projects on national forests and to require the public, including scientists, to comment on these decisions.

The rule would cut out scientist and other public voices from most extraction and development projects on national forests by ending early notification, called scoping, and by creating a host of new loopholes known as “categorical exclusions.” Among many new loopholes, two would allow logging up to nearly 7 square miles and bulldozing up to 5 miles of new logging roads at a time without any public engagement.

“Logging roads cause permanent, elevated levels of erosion and pollution of waters by sediment and nutrients, said Dr. Chris Frissell, a freshwater ecologist and watershed expert in Fisheries Science with 37 years of experience. “We now know how environmentally devastating these accumulated harms to water quality are around the world. The Forest Service’s irresponsible proposal to build more roads without strict limits on road construction and active restoration of the existing road system will increase harm to wild fish and our rivers and streams.”

Categorical Exclusions are reserved for categories of actions that do not cause significant harm either individually or cumulatively like campground modifications and parking lots. The new rules would now apply to mining and oil and gas drilling as well as pipelines and transmission lines that could permanently cut through national forests without any public engagement.

The Trump administration has ordered the Forest Service to increase timber targets to levels not seen in 20 years. The draft rule also weakens standards for categories of extraordinary circumstances such as threatened species, or the presence of wilderness when a more thorough environmental review is required.

“The national forest system stores massive amounts of atmospheric carbon and provides clean drinking water to millions of citizens in rural and urban communities. These values will be increasingly important in helping society slow and adapt to global heating and are unduly being compromised by the Forest Service,” added DellaSala.

Geos Institute is a science-based organization that works to make communities whole in the face of climate change.

Dr. Chris Frissell (PhD, MS, BA) is an ecologist and fisheries scientist and founder and principal scientist at the firm of Frissell & Raven Hydrobiological and Landscape Sciences. He holds an affiliate professorship at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana.

The link to the scientist letter can be found here - https://forestlegacies.org/images/scientist-letters/FS_NEPA_Comments_Scientists_Final.pdf

Related Coverage

Oregon Needs New Approach to Forest, Fire Management

For Immediate Release, March 13, 2019

Contacts: Luke Ruediger, Applegate Network, Klamath Forest Alliance, (541) 890-8974, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | Dominick A. DellaSala, Geos Institute, (541) 621-7223, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | Timothy Ingalsbee, Fire Fighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, (541) 338-7671, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity, (310) 779-4894, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Oregon Needs New Approach to Forest, Fire Management

Gov. Brown’s Wildfire Council Ignores Wildfire Science, Won’t Make Communities Safe

ASHLAND, Ore.― Conservation groups are urging Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to include proven methods for protecting communities and firefighters in the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. In a recent letter to the governor, the groups outline six recommendations as part of a proposed community protection alternative plan.

The governor should include expertise in defensible space and wildfire risk planning, climate change and forest-fire ecology on the Council, the groups said. Brown also should ensure a transparent process for the public and scientists to contribute to the council’s work.

“Our community protection alternative would most effectively accomplish the governor’s goals of keeping the public safe and protecting Oregon’s environment, which brings residents, visitors and businesses to our state,” said Luke Ruediger with the Applegate Network and Klamath Forest Alliance. “Unfortunately, public promises to eliminate smoke and stop wildfires are not realistic and are misleading. It may be counter intuitive, but we need more fire in the backcountry, where wildfires benefit forests and reduce fuels.”

Investing in home and firefighter protections will do far more to keep communities and firefighters safe than thinning backcountry forests. Research found that wildfires occur in only about 1 percent of U.S. Forest Service areas that have undergone fuel-reduction treatments. This suggests that landscape-scale thinning is not a cost-effective means of addressing wildfires.

“The chance of a forest fire encountering an area where fuels have been reduced is about 1 percent, but we’re 100 percent certain where there are communities at risk from wildfires,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Focusing resources on existing developments, rather than on logging in the backcountry, is the best way to protect communities with limited tax dollars.”

Wildfires are a natural and necessary ecological process. But a warming climate, fire suppression, clearcutting, and post-fire logging and tree planting practices have transformed portions of Oregon’s fire-resilient older forests to fire-prone landscapes.

Oregon also suffers from a lack of fire-safe building siting and construction practices. Homes that are easily ignited by embers are responsible for feeding urban conflagrations like those in Santa Rosa and Paradise, Calif. This risk can be greatly reduced by proven defensible space measures that prepare homes from the home outward instead of logging from wildlands inward.

“Thinning is appropriate in densely planted tree plantations that act as fire’s gasoline, but is being oversold as a panacea to stop fires and smoke that it simply cannot deliver on—especially in a warming climate where large fires overwhelm firefighting forces regardless of thinning efforts, said Dominick A. DellaSala, chief scientist with the Geos Institute. “Thinning forests away from houses does nothing to prevent those houses from burning.”

"Firefighters are needlessly being exposed to extra risk trying to protect vulnerable homes and communities, said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE). “If homes and communities are proactively prepared for fire, this dramatically improves their chance of surviving fire from any source or location, and greatly expands opportunities to ecologically managed fires in remote natural areas for the many benefits they provide in fuels reduction and forest restoration--virtually for free."

The Community Wildfire Protection Alternative recommendations:

  1. Emphasize reducing home ignitability and discourage new development in naturally fire-prone areas.
  2. Target thinning and prescribed fire in strategic locations surrounding communities on both public and private lands within a quarter-mile of residential lands. This will help provide safe spaces for wildlands firefighters.
  3. Address particulate pollution by improving state air-quality standards and restricting emissions from uses such as wood-burning stoves, automobiles and agriculture.
  4. Provide funding for fire/smoke shelters, tax rebates for HEPA filters and upgrades to HVAC systems, and aid to the most health-vulnerable segments of society by working with health care providers.
  5. Utilize both managed wildland fires in the backcountry and prescribed burns under safe conditions for multiple ecosystem benefits—including the most cost-effective way to restore forest ecosystems to have more natural amounts of burnable material.
  6. Prohibit logging practices that can increase unnatural wildfire risks such as clearcut/modified clearcutting, postfire logging, removal of large fire-resistant trees, excessive opening of forest canopies, and commercial logging operations that produce highly flammable, excess slash that is expensive and most often not feasible to remove.

235 Scientists tell the Forest Service to put the brakes on Tongass Roadless Area logging and development

tongass roadlessContact: Dr. Dominick DellaSala (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 541-621-7223)

Ashland, Oregon – over two hundred of the nation’s top conservation and natural resource scientists called on the Forest Service to suspend its efforts to rollback popular roadless area protections on over 9 million-acres of the nation’s most intact temperate rainforest in Alaska.

Considered the crown jewel of the national forest system, the 16.8 million-acre Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska contains thousands of near shore islands, spectacular glaciated mountains, and towering spruce-hemlock forests. Roadless areas (>5,000-acre areas lacking development) are the ecological foundation to some of the world’s most prolific salmon runs that support fish-eating bears, eagles, and wolves along with a vibrant outdoor and recreation economy that supports far more jobs and generates more money for local communities than the region’s extraction industries. Tongass old-growth forests, which the Forest Service intends to log, store more carbon than any forest in the nation, which is key to Alaska’s ability to prepare for unprecedented climate change already well underway.

According to Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist, Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and editor/author of Temperate and Boreal Forests of the World: Ecology and Conservation, “Forest Service would best serve the public by shifting timber supply to young forests where a wall-of-wood will soon be ready to support the timber industry, instead of a wall-of-opposition from the public concerned about the fate of rainforests.”

The Roadless Conservation Rule (2001) protects over 50 million acres of the nation’s last intact landscapes. At the time, over 1 million Americans provided comments in support of this landmark conservation achievement, including hundreds of scientists that wanted Tongass roadless areas to have national protections. The Tongass is unique in containing over 9 million roadless acres, which is over half this national forest and ~19% of the national total.

Retired Alaskan wildlife biologist, Matt Kirchhoff, noted “ancient cedars will be cut down and exported to the Far East, and ironically, the US Taxpayer will pay for it. It’s time to stop the madness. Protect the still intact roadless areas in America’s only temperate rainforest.”

Retired Alaskan wildlife ecologist and co-editor/author of North Pacific Temperate Rainforests, John Schoen added “the consensus of scientists, including two former Forest Service Chiefs (Mike Dombeck, Jack Ward Thomas) is the nation’s remaining old growth should be protected from developments. Excluding the Tongass from the national roadless protections will have an irreversible consequence to the vibrant fish and wildlife populations that depend on these areas in America’s largest national forest.”

The Forest Service is taking public comments, which closes October 15, and has a website with details on the Alaska proposal.

Media Coverage

223 international scientists call for urgent action to protect British Columbia’s endangered temperate rainforests

For Immediate Release June 28, 2018

Contacts: Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, President, Chief Scientist, Geos Institute,  Ashland, Oregon, Cell 541-621-7223 | Dr. Barbara Zimmerman, Director, International Conservation Fund Canada, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | Dr. Andy MacKinnon, BC Forest Ecologist, Cell 250-889-6453

Ashland, OR —The Government of British Columbia must take urgent and immediate action to protect the globally unique ecological values of BC’s remaining primary and intact coastal and inland temperate rainforest, say 223 prominent scientists from around the world in a letter released today.

The scientists specifically call for action to protect temperate rainforests along BC’s south coast and Vancouver Island, and inland rainforests on the windward side of the Columbia and Rocky Mountains, all of which remain at risk with insufficient conservation.

The letter was organized by Dr. Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon and author of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation (Island Press). According to DellaSala, “BC’s temperate rainforests are globally rare, they offer habitat for many imperiled species and globally the vast majority of these unique rainforests has already been logged. Protection of remaining intact tracts of these carbon-rich, climate saving forests is a global responsibility and can help Canada to contribute to the 2020 UN biodiversity targets and the Paris Climate Agreement.” Recently, the ninth largest Douglas-fir in Canada was cut down in the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni. The tree, which was 66 metres tall and three metres in diameter, was in an old-growth cut block auctioned off by the BC government. 

Temperate rainforests are rare, constituting just 2.5 per cent of the earth’s forests. British Columbia is home to one quarter of that total and BC’s inland rainforests are one of only two such areas worldwide.

“It is hard to overstate the cultural significance of these rainforests to the Indigenous peoples who have inhabited this part of the world for millennia,” said Dr. Barbara Zimmerman, Director of the International Conservation Fund Canada. “Their loss would be an enormous blow to all Canadians and all people of the world. Destruction of the last remnants of ancient old-growth forest with their magnificent trees and complex web of life is a rapidly unfolding tragedy and the vast majority of Canadians are unaware that it is even happening.”

According to recent estimates by Sierra Club BC, logging of old-growth temperate rainforest is currently destroying 10,000 hectares per year on Vancouver Island—the equivalent of two soccer fields per hour, 24 hours per day. Productive old-growth rainforests in lower elevations have been reduced to less than 10 per cent of their original extent. Plants and animals that depend on these rainforests are not just losing habitat, but also are suffering climate change impacts such as extended droughts, extreme rainfall and severe storms, threatening to push ecosystems to limits. Similar losses are occurring in the inland rainforest region where logging of old-growth rainforest has been extensive and is contributing to the demise of mountain caribou.

“BC has inspired the world with conservation solutions in Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest. The province should take similar action to safeguard what remains of these globally outstanding ancient forests in other parts of the province,” said BC forest ecologist Andy MacKinnon. “The provincial government should follow through on its promise and take action for old-growth conservation using the same model and its multiple benefits for biodiversity, communities and the climate.”

Forests absorb atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis and store it in long-lived plants and soils. In doing so, they help to cool down the planet. Cutting down forests releases most of their stored carbon as a global warming pollutant.

The experts are urging the provincial government to follow through on the promise to use the ecosystem-based management approach implemented in the Great Bear Rainforest to safeguard British Columbia’s endangered old-growth rainforest.

The signatories to the letter live and work in many countries, including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico, Mongolia, Norway, the United States and Scotland.

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The letter is available online at: forestlegacies.org/featured-projects/temperate-rainforests

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