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Getting Burned By The Timber Industry

by Chad Hanson

Commercial logging doesn't prevent catastrophic fires, it causes them
In the wake of the fires in New Mexico, the timber industry is mobilizing its PR machine to try to convince the public of the need to increase logging on our national forests, supposedly to protect them from catastrophic fires.

To imagine timber executives sitting around their quarterly board meetings talking about the pressing need to save forests is to realize the absurdity of this posturing. The U.S. Forest Service is now parroting this doublespeak, using it as a means to sell huge volumes of public timber to logging corporations under the guise of "forest stewardship."

The truth is that commercial logging doesn't prevent catastrophic fires, it causes them. The 1996 scientific study of the Sierra Nevada forests, which was commissioned and funded by Congress, found that "timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity."

Another Forest Service report, "Forest Resources of the United States" (1994), revealed that tree mortality in the West due to both fire and disease increases in logged areas. The worst rates were on private lands where logging levels are highest and where the least natural forest remains. For example, in western forests from 1986 to 1991, mortality due to fire and disease on private lands increased 20 percent, while it increased only 3 percent on national forests and decreased 9 percent on other public lands. Logging makes forests more susceptible to both fire and disease.

Forests that have been logged are drier, have less shade and have accumulated flammable debris known as "slash piles" comprising unsaleable branches and limbs left by logging crews. Fires tend to start in logged areas and occasionally spread into old-growth stands, which are naturally fire-resistant due to the thick bark of older trees. If a fire does kill an old-growth stand, the burned trees still provide valuable nesting habitat for birds of prey and countless other forest species. Wildlife has little use for stumps.

In April 1999, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), a federal department that often watchdogs agencies at the request of congressional leaders, released a report on the Forest Service's approach to fire management, calling into serious question the use of the timber sales program to address fire issues. The GAO noted that "most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value."

The report nevertheless found that Forest Service managers "tend to (1) focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards or (2) include more large, commercially valuable trees in a timber sale than are necessary to reduce the accumulated fuels." The "low-value materials," said the GAO, "are unattractive to timber purchasers." So much for the timber industry's rhetoric about "thinning understory brush."

In fact, the Forest Service's own documents state that it fights fires not to protect forest ecosystems, but rather to prevent burns from reducing the commodity value of trees that the agency intends to sell to logging companies. It's all about economics, not ecology.

Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas candidly acknowledged this in 1994: "Relatively high levels of mortality in an area from which you do not expect to extract timber, for example, might be perfectly acceptable. ... For example, to isolate Yellowstone [as an example] ... it burns up; it burns hot, and the system that's associated with it comes back. We didn't want anything from it. It's perfectly OK. It's a national park. It's interesting, and we can observe the wildflowers, and it's beautiful."

Our national forests will never be safe from the logging industry's deceptions until we end the federal timber sales program, and redirect current timber subsidies into ecological restoration jobs, as HR 1396, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, would do. Future generations will thank us.

Chad Hanson is executive director of the John Muir Project, and is also a national director of the Sierra Club

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Albion Monitor May 29, 2000 (

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