Backcountry thinning is not the way to healthy forests

and Dominick DellaSala

As scientists who have studied wildfires in our area, we are concerned that information provided to the public about fire management is not based on sound science. This has led to counterproductive actions and left the most important fire management needs unaddressed.

Every fire season the headlines sensationalize wildfire as a destructive force of nature and how thinning in the backcountry will restore picturesque park-like forests that experience only tame, ground-burning fires. Thinning is also promoted to protect spotted-owl habitat, improve forest health and provide jobs. Who could oppose all this?

But forests in our region have repeatedly risen out of the ashes of previous burns and are tightly associated with the beneficial effects of climate/weather-driven fire.

Based on historical accounts from the original land surveys in the 1800s, our forests were a patchwork of densely grown areas intermixed with oak woodlands and shrublands created by a combination of both intense and ground-burning fires. Park-like conditions were the exception.

Managing for novel park-like forests and suppressing the natural role of fire has counterproductive impacts. Thinning/logging slash and other cut vegetation is piled and burned, causing localized soil damage, or it is scattered on the forest floor, increasing ground fuel. Following treatments, invasive grasses and broom can cause a permanent shift to non-native vegetation. These effects can be seen in our lower-elevation environments. The alien grasses that invade are more conducive than native vegetation to fire ignition and spread, as occurred in thinned areas of the Siskiyou and Oak Knoll burns. Throughout the world in areas that share our Mediterranean climate, synergism between grass invasion and human-ignited wildfires has led to increased fire hazard.

However, fire management in the U.S. is focused on fire hazards attributed to fire suppression, resulting in treatment of millions of acres. Yet, fire suppression continues unabated, creating a self-reinforcing relationship with fuel treatments which are done in the name of fire suppression. Self-reinforcing relationships create runaway processes and federal funding to stop wildfires now amounts to billions of tax dollars each year. To rationalize this management, a natural process, wildland fire, is labeled catastrophic.

So what does this mean for the fire-prone Rogue Valley forests, and for concerns that come up every fire season about suppressing fire at all costs? Principally, we need a long-term solution to replace the runaway fire suppression do-loop. Unfortunately, prescribed fire will always be too limited in area and effect to be the solution.

Because of where we live, our wildlands will always support flammable vegetation and climate/weather-driven fire, regardless of thinning or other types of logging, and it then becomes a question of targeted risk management. Currently, only 3 percent of federal fuel treatments directly target community protection (based on the most recent published analysis). The rest are done in wildlands.

Activities to suppress fire in wildlands do not restore natural fire processes, nor safeguard local communities. We suggest shifting the treatment focus and risk management to what we can control, seasonal road closures and road obliteration to reduce human-caused fires, creation of defensible space around communities by removing dense trees and shrubs near homes, limiting alien grasses and sprawl in the urban-wildfire interface, and replacing wood roofs with non-combustible roofs, which alone could prevent over 90 percent of home ignitions during wildfires. With this shift in management, the overwhelming majority of federally funded resources would be directed toward the top fire-management priority, protecting lives and property. This would help restore natural fire cycles in the backcountry by letting some fires burn under safe conditions, and save tens of millions of dollars that could be used for sustainable solutions and provision of jobs and social services.

In studies that we have published in our region, we have observed ecologically beneficial fire in natural forests. Conversely, fires that occurred in areas where natural forests were replaced by dense plantations, or where slash from past management remained, were much more severe. These circumstances should be the first priority for any fuels reductions away from communities.

Fire is a force of nature and is likely to increase with climate change. We can live with fire by devoting precious resources where they are needed most — risk-reduction measures closest to homes. Where resources allow, we can also treat forestlands where our efforts will not be counterproductive, in dense plantations, the road network and to reduce alien grasses and logging slash. Creating artificial conditions in the backcountry is often counterproductive and does not address the most important priorities of fire management.

Dennis Odion, Ph.D., is a vegetation ecologist and a research scientist at Southern Oregon University and the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of numerous published studies on vegetation, fire and biodiversity conservation. Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D., is chief scientist and president of Geos Institute and author of "Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation" (Island Press), and numerous published studies about wildfires and forests. He organized a special section on wildfires for the journal Conservation Biology.

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