Logging Industry Misleads on Climate and Forest Fire

I always knew this was coming…bet others of us did too.


Logging Industry Misleads on Climate and Forest Fire
Tue Jul 08, 2008 at 10:57:29 AM MDT

By Chad Hanson, Ph.D.

Recent editorials by timber industry
spokespersons are a wildly misleading attempt to
promote increased logging of western U.S. forests
under the guise of reducing wildland fires and
mitigating climate change. The timber industry
fails to mention, however, that logging is one of
the major contributors to greenhouse gas
emissions (Schlesinger, “Biogeochemistry: an
analysis of global change”, Academic Press,
1997). A recent scientific study found that
completely protecting our national forests from
all commercial logging would significantly
increase carbon sequestration and reduce
greenhouse gases (forests “breath in” CO2 and
incorporate the carbon into new growth), while
increasing logging on our public lands would have
the opposite effect (Depro et al. 2008, Forest
Ecology and Management, Vol. 255).

The logging industry also makes numerous
scientifically-inaccurate assumptions about fire.
For example, the industry would have us believe
that little or no natural growth of forest will
occur after wildland fire. In fact, some of the
most vigorous and productive forest growth occurs
after burns, including in high severity fire
areas in which most or all of the trees were
killed (Shatford and others 2007, Journal of
Forestry, May 2007).

Fire converts woody material on the forest floor
from relatively unusable forms into highly
useable nutrients, which aids forest productivity
and carbon sequestration. The rapid forest growth
following wildland fire sequesters huge amounts
of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).
Whatever carbon emissions occur from combustion
during wildland fire and subsequent decay of
fire-killed trees is more than balanced by forest
growth across the landscape over time. To put the
issue in perspective, current emissions from
forest fires are only a tiny fraction of those
from fossil fuel consumption, and carbon
sequestration from forest growth far outweighs
carbon emissions from fire.

The timber industry also incorrectly claims that,
when fire-killed trees fall and decay,
essentially all of the carbon in the wood is
emitted into the atmosphere. In reality, much of
the carbon ends up in the soil (Schlesinger
1997), and is assimilated into the growing
forest. Moreover, the timber industry falsely
claims that logging facilitates permanent carbon
sequestration ostensibly by converting living
forests into lumber. In fact, most of the carbon
from a felled tree is either burned as slash or
as “hog fuel” from mill residue; only about 15%
becomes some type of durable wood product (A.
Ingerson, 2007, The Wilderness Society,
Washington, D.C.). The half-life of these
“durable” wood products is less than 40 years
(Smith et al. 2005, U.S. Forest Service Northeast
Gen. Tech. Rpt. 34).

Logging industry spokespersons also greatly
exaggerate the percentage of trees killed by
fire. The Forest Service’s own data shows that,
contrary to popular myth, low and moderate
severity effects (where most overstory trees
survive) dominate current wildland fires (Forest
Service data in Rhodes and Baker 2008, Open
Forest Science Journal, Vol. 1). Modern fires are
a mix of low, moderate, and high severity
effects, just as they were historically, prior to
fire suppression programs. The main difference
between then and now is that the total area of
forest annually affected by fire currently is
only about one-tenth of what it was prior to
1850, due to fire suppression (Stephens and
others 2007, Forest Ecology and Management, Vol.

Native species have evolved with fire over
millennia in western forests, and many depend
upon post-fire habitat. Interestingly, some of
the highest levels of native biodiversity among
animals and higher plants are found in unlogged
forested areas that have burned at high severity
(Noss and others 2006, Frontiers in Ecology and
Environment, Vol. 4).

It’s important for people to know the facts about
fire, ecosystems, and climate. Unfortunately, the
timber industry is less interested in the truth
than it is in misleading people to serve its own
economic goals.

Dr. Chad Hanson (cthanson@ucdavis.edu) has a
Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of
California at Davis, where he conducts
post-doctoral research on fire ecology. He has
authored or co-authored numerous scientific
studies on the subject of forest and fire
ecology. He is also the director of the John Muir
Project (http://www.johnmuirproject.org), based
in Cedar Ridge, CA.


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