Guest Column

Resilient Federal Forests Act a Trojan Horse

The emphasis should be on reducing the flammability of homes and communities, not logging the forest

We live in an age of Orwellian doublespeak. Such doublespeak is exemplified by the euphemistically named “Resilient Federal Forests Act” (RFFA), which will degrade our forests. Like previous versions, sponsors of this legislation assert RFFA will reduce massive wildfires and smoke and promote more “resilient” forests.

In the name of fire reduction, RFFA is a Trojan Horse designed to expedite logging under the pretext of “reducing wildfires.” The flawed assumption behind this legislation is that fuels are driving large wildfires. However, numerous studies have found that extreme fire weather, not fuels, is mainly responsible for large blazes.

Among other components, the RFFA would allow the Forest Service to log up to 30,000 acres using categorical exclusion rules that override the normal environmental review process. Keep in mind a football field is about an acre. Thus, Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte’s bill would allow logging an area the size of 30,000 football fields without any environmental assessment.

The legislation would promote so-called “salvage” logging after a blaze, which eliminates the snag forests which possess the second highest biodiversity after old-growth forests.

Gianforte relies on logging advocates to justify the “science” behind this legislation, yet many fire ecologists have concluded that logging is ineffective and inefficient at reducing large blazes.

A review paper by scientists at the Forest Service Missoula Fire Lab summarized that: “Extreme environmental conditions … overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects … This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning … Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

Last fall more than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived.

To quote from the scientists’ letter: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity … However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported: “From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires … the data indicate that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”

Another recent 2016 study looked at 1,500 wildfires across the West and found the highest severity burns were in forests under “active management” while protected areas like parks and wilderness where logging is prohibited had the least acres of high severity burns.

Worse for those wanting to reduce large wildfires, logging/thinning increases CO2 emissions, one of the significant factors contributing to global warming. Logging is the biggest contributor to Oregon’s CO2 emissions.

There are two things that Gianforte could do if he genuinely wanted to reduce the impacts of large wildfires. First, support legislation to reduce climate warming. Climate change is driving large fires, and without serious measures to reduce CO2 emissions from all human sources, including logging, we will continue to see large blazes.

The second thing that Gianforte could do is focus on reducing the flammability of homes. Wildfires are inevitable, but home losses are not. The emphasis should be on reducing the flammability of homes and communities, not logging the forest.

George Wuerthner has published a number of books on fire ecology including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He divides his time between Livingston and Bend, Oregon.