WASHINGTON, D.C. Jan. 4, 2018 – President Trump is set to unveil a new Executive Order on Monday that fast-tracks “active management” of western public lands for the benefit of extractive industries and local economies, in the name of fire risk reduction. The Executive Order, currently posted on the advance page of the Federal Register, directs the “treatment” of 2 million acres of Department of Interior rangeland and almost 6 million acres of national forests, to produce 3.8 billion board feet of lumber for the timber industry. According to the Executive Order, “Actions must be taken across landscapes to prioritize treatments in order to enhance fuel reduction and forest-restoration projects that protect life and property, and to benefit rural economies through encouraging utilization of the by-products of forest restoration.”
“The ‘active management’ of forests and other public lands is a proven loser when it comes to fire prevention or reduction,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Federal agencies have worn out the strategy of logging, grazing, and creating firebreaks, but Mother Nature always has the last laugh, and the only real outcome has been damaged habitats and watersheds, and endangered plants and wildlife.”
Western coniferous forests are fire-dependent ecosystems, where frequent, sparsely wooded forest types where low-severity fires are prevalent are the exception, while most coniferous forests are dense and under natural conditions burn with hot, stand-replacement fires every several centuries. A new study published in the scientific journal Ecosphere finds that public forests that are protected from logging burn less severely than logged forests. The study is the most comprehensive investigation of its kind, spanning more than 23 million acres and examining three decades’ worth of forest fire data in the West. Among the major findings were that areas undisturbed by logging experienced significantly less intensive fire compared with areas that have been logged.
“Instead of a president that is supposed to be helping communities reduce fire risks by taking science-proven defensible space measures and supporting those in need after deadly fires in California, the president is pre-occupied with ‘raking the forest’ and promoting logging that only benefits corporations that take the largest-fire resistant trees at taxpayer expense from public lands,” said Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist with Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, an author of the study.
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Dr. Richard Hutto is a retired ornithologist who spent his career as a leading scientist on the effect of fires on bird populations. “There is no evidence whatsoever that forest thinning reduces the risk of wildfire or of damage to structures due to wildfire, because the risky fires are always products of embers blowing onto structures during dry, hot, and windy conditions and not due to walls of fire created by unnatural ‘fuel loads,’” said Dr. Hutto. “If thinning of any sort is proposed as a safety measure, then all that should be restricted to within the Wildland-Urban Interface, where it can help create defensible space for structures.”
On rangelands, typically managed by the Bureau of Land Management, “active management” typically involves elimination of pinyon-juniper woodlands and construction of fuels breaks, activities that entail habitat destruction for mule deer, songbirds, and sage-grouse. A 2018 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal government’s scientific research arm, found that while “fuel breaks” in sagebrush basins do a lot of ecological damage, there is absolutely no evidence that they can stop or even slow large wildfires.
“If the Trump administration really wanted to improve land health, safeguard watersheds, and provide for public health and safety, instead of simply using fire risk as an excuse to exploit and damage public lands, we’d be all for it,” said Molvar. “But claiming that commercial logging or fuel breaks can reduce fire risk is fundamentally dishonest and is a cynical and opportunistic attempt to exploit the misfortune of victims in places like Paradise, California for commercial gain.”
“If the president wants to help reduce the risk from wildfire, he will support local communities by working with private and state entities to make communities fire safe—forest thinning does nothing of the sort,” Hutto concluded.