From every corner of the universe it seems one hears how we need to “thin” forests to “restore” them to some preconceived ideal. That sounds nice. How could anyone disagree with that?
There’s plenty to disagree with.
The forest thinning paradigm is based on an a priori conclusion that only high frequency, low severity fires should occur in the forests of the western Sierra. This conclusion is repeated so many times, it has taken on the power of myth. As a consequence, people are forced (or innocently accept) that the conversation about forests and fire starts there, with the myth.
No, the conversation needs to start by acknowledging that the “management” of Nature by humans is rife with hubris and the repetition of the same destructive practices generation after generation. Yet every generation thinks this time we’ve got it right.
The past is filled with disappointing outcomes from actions perceived at the time as the correct thing to do.
The National Park Service exterminated most predators from every National Park to “protect” prey species and the public. Trucks drove down residential streets spraying DDT. The US Forest Service has aerial sprayed herbicides on forests to rid them of those pesky plant species that compete with the timber crop.
Now we are told that we should go into forests that we have already caused significant ecological damage to through logging, clear cutting, overgrazing, road building, soil destruction, herbicide spraying, salvage logging, replanting, etc., and conduct the new sanitized, Orwellian version of the same: “restoration” and “thinning.”
Let’s call it what it is – additional abuse of an already abused landscape that was damaged not by fire suppression, but by a logging industry enabled by the US Forest Service. Despite what many think when they look at photos of, or hike in, our mid-elevation western Sierra Nevada forests, we are not experiencing natural forests at all. Rather, we are experiencing type-converted plant communities that have severely damaged ecosystem processes and reduced biodiversity. The consequences of tree farm agriculture is all around us.
The best way to help reset our forests and allow them recover from the abuse we have caused is by staying out for a change and letting fire do it’s work – letting the forest to grow back on its own.
The US Forest Service is not speaking the truth when they say high severity patches are now sterilized environments that have no trees. Rigorous research has confirmed this. And the lumber/fire-industrial-complex is culturally appropriating Indigenous Peoples in order to justify their desire to clear habitat with drip torches and chain saws in the name of Native American burning practices (most of which have long been lost in time).
Yes, going in and removing what the Forest Service calls “fuel”, which is actually rich habitat that supports a wonderful diversity of living things, will moderate fire behavior under the “right” conditions. But as we have learned with chaparral, the largest, most uncontrollable wildfires in forests are driven by drought and strong winds.
Supporting efforts to clear/modify habitat in forests (and let’s always remember, that is what it is – living habitat) more than several hundred feet from communities or structures is just another example of the hubris we have subjected the natural environment to since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
More about forests here.