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January 31, 2008

George Wuerthner Gets it Right on Fire, Ecosystems, Management

A friend took a moment to read through and summarize George Wuerthner's critique of Forest Service (and others) mis-aligined assumptions re: fire, ecosystems, and management 'fixes'. Time for the Forest Service to wake up! Time to abandon ideas of 'quick fixes' to complex ecological problems! Some of us think it is at least time. Here is my friend's summary:

  1. For most forest types, and perhaps even all forest types, it is simply not known if there is an unnatural accumulation of fuels that is outside the historic range of variability. It seems most large wildfires are more closely correlated with weather and climate patterns rather than fuel conditions.

  2. Accordingly, for most forest types, and perhaps even all forest types, it is not known if there is an effective way to treat any unnatural fuel accumulations that may exist in a way that:

    • actually reduces fire hazard or risk
    • reduces fire hazard or risk for any more than a short window of time
    • does not do more environmental harm than good by:
      • causing soil compaction and erosion
      • creating roading and increased access and human use
      • altering insect, disease, and decay biota
      • altering wildlife habitat

  3. Humans cannot treat forests at a scale that would make any significant difference in the occurrence of large wildland fires, even if there are fuel buildups which are creating an unnatural hazard or risk and were effective treatments which are known to reduce them.

  4. Humans are not capable of implementing silvicultural treatments with a sufficient degree of precision at a large enough scale to accomplish objectives for hazard or risk reduction, even if there are fuel buildups which are creating an unnatural hazard and risk and were effective treatments which are known to reduce them.

  5. Corollary: Some silvicultural treatments can be accomplished at a very localized level and small scale with sufficient precision to protect human development from catastrophic wildfire. Silvicultural treatments can effectively reduce fuel buildups at a small scale where the expense can be justified, and treatments can be repeated periodically to maintain hazard and risk protection. However, these treatments can only be effective if done in conjunction with architectural treatments and land use zoning and restrictions to protect buildings. It must be recognized though that there are significant costs attributable to:
    • capital and labor for repeated, intensive, and precisely implemented silvicultural treatments;
    • loss of attributes of the natural forest ecosystem and other environmental degradation where these forest fuels treatments are implemented;
    • and limitations imposed on type and location of development.
If Wuerthner gets it wrong, we'd like to know where and to what extent. Comments are open…

Posted by Dave on January 31, 2008 at 08:55 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Andy

I believe Mr. Wuerthner misses an important piece of the problem regarding low elevation ponderosa pine forest. There were two parts to this forest. The ponderosa canopy and the grassland beneath. Most scientists, I think, believe that fire kept brush and thickets of young trees from developing beneath the ponderosa canopy. I believe conversely that it was competition between the grasses and germinating seedlings of trees and brush for water and nutrients that prevented most woody species from successfully establishing themselves. I know this is hard to believe for most folks, but few have worked with native grasslands in excellent condition. They work well in conjunction with drought and fire in preventing woody encroachment. I believe it was the degradation and, for the most part, complete removal of native grasses by cattle and sheep that precipitated brush and tree encroachment into ponderosa pine savannahs. Further, I believe that thinning and prescribed fire won't succeed in reproducing historic conditions unless the grasslands are also restored. The role of cattle in Africa in transforming grassland to brushland is well documented. The same relationship seems to occur in grasslands where I work (Texas).

Andy | Feb 4, 2008 10:10:57 AM

Posted by: Mike Dechter

Working in the p-pine belt of New Mexico, I can safely say that Wuerthner does not get it right here. There is a tidal wave of area-specific evidence that shows that if treated correctly, fuels treatments can be very effective at reducing incidence and severity of high-intensity wildfire. Though Wuerthner may have a point in some areas, let us not forget where fules treatments do play a crucial role for firefighter and public safety.

Mike Dechter | Feb 6, 2008 5:33:04 PM

Posted by: Frank

Well said Mike,
The assumtion that humans can do little to impact the fuel situation is not at all correct. I too am in the Pinion Juniper band at 6500'. Any number of area specific solutions are available, cost effective and doable. Sould any from the Forest Circus read this, I will extend an invite to our little outfit. Show em what one man with a chain saw and a few head of cattle can do to improve the fire situation and forest health in general.
Further, Mr. Wuerthner maintains that it is not known if unnatural fuel accumulation is part of the problem. Has he never heard of the "Fire Triangle" concept? That being: heat,air,FUEL.
I can show any number of private holdings that are grazed reularly and in cases where it is needed intensly. The results are amazing. Natural native grasses thriving and woody under story plans well in control. In these areas fire is not the raging infero seen in the N.F. and an enemy. Rather it is the creeping low intensity kind of fire that so benifits the eco system.
The primary problem in the forest is the lack of human intervention. To para phrase Mr. Aldo Leopold, the darling of all bunnyhuggers. "Those things that once were the ruin of the forest can now be its salvation. The ax, the gun, fire and the cow"

Frank | May 29, 2008 10:11:39 AM

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