Commentary

Bitterroot forest project proposes saving the land by ‘chainsaw medicine’

May 5, 2022 11:29 am

The Bitterroot Mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana. (Photo by Getty Images.)

Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest proposes the Bitterroot Front Project, which would encompass 144,000 acres.

The Bitterroot Front Project, the agency says, will promote “forest restoration” and reduce tree mortality from disease, insects, and fires. The way to accomplish these goals is through chainsaw medicine.

The agency implies fewer trees are killed by wildfire or insects in areas with substantial logging, but it never counts the trees it kills with chainsaws. Recent studies suggest that more total trees are destroyed by thinning and fire than from fires alone if you include all the trees removed by chainsaw medicine.

The Forest Service claims logging will reduce insect attacks and thus will reduce wildfires. But again, recent research indicates that trees killed by insects are less likely to burn at high severity.

The snags resulting from a large blaze or killed by insects store carbon for decades, not to mention the charcoal in the soil, and roots, all of which also store carbon. Logging releases three times the carbon as a wildfire on a per-acre basis and ten times the carbon of wildfire and insects combined. Indeed, logging recently suppressed coal as a significant component of carbon dioxide emissions.

When the agency claims it will reduce wildfire by logging, it ignores the best science that shows that active forest management increases fire spread under extreme fire weather conditions. Why? Because when you open the forest through logging, it often promotes the regrowth of grasses, shrubs, and other fine fuels that sustain blazes. The lack of shade permits fine fuels to dry out, making them easy to ignite. Also, the open forest allows more wind penetration which favors fire spread.

The wind is the primary factor in fire spread. And wind’s ability to spread and enhance fire spread is not linear; instead, it is exponential. In other words, a 20-mph wind doesn’t just double fire spread over a 10-mile breeze but quadruples it. So you can imagine what a 50 to 60 mph wind can do.

Without wind, you don’t get much fire advance. But with wind, embers are tossed often a mile or more ahead of the fire front, starting new ignition zones. Lofting of embers by wind is why thinning, logging, and other “active forest management” fails to halt significant blazes.

For instance, both the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly a million acres, and the 400,000 acres plus Bootleg Blaze in Oregon raced through forests where as much as 75% of the land had been “treated” with active forest management in other words, chainsaw medicine.

Even prescribed burning is relatively ineffective when confronted by a wildfire driven by extreme fire weather. One critique characterized prescribed burning effectiveness as a watering can that pretends to be a river.

Furthermore, the Forest Service implies that high severity fires where most trees are killed are somehow undesirable. Yet, more wildlife species are dependent on the snag forests that result from these blazes than the low-severity ignitions they suggest are desirable.

The snag forests that result from high severity blazes will have more bees, more butterflies, more fungi, more birds, more flowers, more fish, more bats, and more food for large animals like elk and deer. Some studies suggest the second-highest biodiversity found in a forest ecosystem is the snag forests resulting from high severity burns.

That is why chainsaw medicine degrades rather than ‘restores” forest ecosystems. Dead trees are critical to a healthy forest ecosystem.

Climate, not fuels, is driving our large blazes. We are now amid the worse drought conditions in 1200 years. Does anyone think this isn’t the major factor driving large blazes?

To protect homes, start at the house and work outwards. A recent study  concluded that “”Home ignition zone treatments provided the best predicted economic and per area treated.” Treating the forest more than a hundred feet from homes provides no additional benefit and only degrades our forest ecosystems.

In promoting chainsaw medicine, the Forest Service is like the old-time Snake Oil salesman who promoted magical elixirs to cure all ailments. Chainsaw medicine is today’s snake oil. Don’t buy it.

George Wuerthner has published several books on fire ecology issues including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”

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