The Big Lie: Logging and Forest Fires
Chad Hanson

It seems every time you turn around these days, there's some timber industry flack screaming about the need to increase deforestation on our national forests--ostensibly to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.

We must "streamline" environmental laws, they tell us--do whatever needs to be done to maximize timber commodity production in order to save federal forests and adjacent communities from fires. The rhetoric almost sounds reasonable . . . if you don't think about it too much.

The fact is, commercial logging doesn't prevent catastrophic fires; it causes them. In the latter part of the 19th century, this was common knowledge. Relentless clearing of forests in the Great Lakes region left huge areas largely devoid of the cooling shade of trees, replacing moist natural forest microclimates with the hotter, drier conditions characterized by stump fields. Flammable logging "slash debris" covered the landscape.

It was in this setting that a massive, cataclysmic fire started near Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871. More than 1,200 people were killed. Similar blazes erupted in subsequent years.

One of the primary reasons that the national forest system was established in 1891 was to prevent the destructive fires caused by logging. It was not until 1897 that, under industry pressure, our national forests were first opened up to timber sales by an appropriations rider. The first timber sale was offered in 1899--100 years ago.

Not long ago, Congress commissioned a study of California's forests that came to be known as the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) report. Produced jointly with the US Forest Service in 1996, the report confirmed what people have known for over a century: "timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity"

The removal of larger trees was found to be the primary cause of forest fires. Another recent Forest Service report revealed that tree mortality in the West due to both fire and disease increases where logging occurs. The worst rates were found to occur on private lands where logging levels are highest and where the least natural forest remains. In Western forests from 1986 to 1991, mortality due to fire and disease on private lands increased by 20 percent, while it increased by only three percent on national forests, and decreased by nine percent on other public lands (see USFS, General Technical Report RM-234, revised June 1994, pp. 98-99).

The inescapable conclusion is that logging makes forests susceptible to both fire and disease. The timber industry knows all of this, of course. That's why, a few years ago, it began to change its media message. Its dire predictions in the early 1990s that reducing logging levels would cause economic calamity proved to be utterly false. Numerous studies have documented the positive economic effects of protecting national forests from logging. These same studies found that the primary causes of job loss in the Northwest timber sector were industry automation and the loss of old-growth forests to logging. The old "jobs vs. environment" line just wasn't cutting it.

Big Timber's PR solution was both simple and diabolically clever: Tell people that commercial logging is the best thing for the forests. If you love forests, their argument goes, then you must love logging. By encouraging and exploiting the public's fear of fire (and the public's lack of understanding about fire's essential role in forest ecology), timber corporations have deftly cast themselves as heroes, seeking only to save our forests from "catastrophic wildfires" and saving adjacent rural communities in the process. (One only has only to imagine timber executives sitting around at their quarterly board meetings talking about the "pressing need to save the forests" to realize the absurdity of this posturing.)

But what if there is a genuine ecological restoration need to cut some trees in certain areas due to past mismanagement? Some have argued that, because of decades of fire suppression in the national forests, we must now do some "understory thinning." Others disagree, pointing out that this "thinning" rhetoric is coming almost exclusively from forestry schools and the timber industry. Everyone agrees about the effectiveness of prescribed burning, but some feel that it is not appropriate in every circumstance. It is generally recognized that the science on these matters is in its infancy.

There is, however, one thing of which we can be absolutely certain: ecological restoration will not happen in our national forests as long as the timber sales program continues. Ecological restoration and timber commodity production have two diametrically opposed goals. One seeks to restore native biodiversity; the other seeks to extract the maximum amount of timber volume for the least cost. Ending the timber sales program on national forests doesn't mean that a tree could never be cut. It simply means that such decisions would be driven solely by science and ecological necessity, not by timber commodity motives.

The debate over thinning and fire suppression, therefore, is a red herring--one that is being used by the timber industry to distract attention from the real issue: the practice of selling public trees to logging corporations.

Like the timber industry, the Forest Service also recognized an emerging public relations dilemma several years ago. It knew that it would no longer be able to justify its timber sales program on economic grounds. Instead of dropping the program, it simply gave it a sexy new name--"Forest Stewardship."

The Forest Stewardship program was born in 1993 and was marketed fraudulently as a series of management activities supposedly conducted primarily for the health of the forests. The USFS attempted to distinguish this new program from its Timber Commodity program, which clearly was concerned with nothing more than commercial resource extraction.

At first, only 24 percent of the annual timber volume cut on national forests occurred through the Forest Stewardship program. But, as public opinion polls began to show that a growing majority of Americans wanted to end federal timber sales, the Forest Service countered deviously. It reduced the volume of timber cut from the Timber Commodity program and (in a clever sleight of hand) made up the difference by a steady increase in logging under the Forest Stewardship program. This "stewardship" logging now accounts for half of all timber cut.

The overall volume cut each year has remained relatively constant. Now, most of the biggest timber sales--including massive clearcuts through old-growth forests and roadless areas--are planned, prepared, and cut under the guise of the Forest Stewardship program, ostensibly to "reduce fire risk."

In April 1999, the US General Accounting Office (GAG) released a report on the Forest Service's approach to fire management that called into serious question the use of the timber sales 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 also 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," observed the GAG, "are unattractive to timber purchasers."

Anyone with a working understanding of forest ecology knows that fire is essential for rejuvenation of tree stands. Some species of trees--the giant sequoia, for example--actually require fire in order to reproduce. Even so-called "catastrophic" fires occur naturally.

So why is the US Forest Service spending $500 million dollars of taxpayer money every year suppressing fires--most of which occur in remote backcountry areas?

The answer is alarming: The Forest Service fights fires not to protect forest eco-systems but to prevent wildfires from reducing the commodity value of forest stands that the USFS intends to sell to logging companies at some point in the future. It's all about economics, not ecology.

The National Fire Management Analysis System (NFMAS) prepares the Forest Service's annual fire management budget request to Congress. To do this, the NFMAS calculates the most efficient level of funding necessary to prevent fire from reducing the economic value of the timber commodities. This determination is made by calculating the "net resource value change" that would be caused at different fire intensity levels for each forest.

The NFMAS Technical Course Manual cites two main factors in setting the budget. One is the effect of fire on the commodity value of "mature timber." The other primary factor is "immature timber." The manual clearly states that "NFMAS presently has no provision for directly and systematically estimating the economic impact of effects of fire on wildland resource values that do not in and of themselves produce market or commodity outputs." The message is clear: If it can't be sold, it doesn't have value.

Obviously, Forest Service management activities are not really about protecting the forests. Nor is the Forest Service really trying to protect adjacent communities in the "wildland/urban interface" from fires originating on federal lands.

The USFS consistently uses this subterfuge to justify large timber sales on national forests (sales that are typically miles from any town). A report authored by Jack Cohen, one of the Forest Service's own fire specialists, found that so-called "fuel reduction activities" (i.e., timber sales) in national forests have no bearing on whether homes on adjacent private lands will burn. The only things that have any effect are removing flammable materials from within 10 to 20 meters of a home and reducing the "ignitability" of the home itself. Cohen points out that even the hottest fire will not harm a home if appropriate steps have been taken to reduce the ignitability of the structure and its immediate surroundings. Conversely, he points out, an unprotected home can be at risk from fires that never get within miles, due to the effect of firebrands--flaming embers that are often thrown miles downwind by intense firestorms.

In July 1998, two renowned polling firms conducted a nationwide survey that found 69 percent of Americans opposed the continuation of the timber sales program on our national forests. More recent polls have registered even higher numbers. There is now a bill in Congress, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act (HR 1396), which would end commercial logging on all federal public lands. The NFPRA also would redirect current logging subsidies into worker retraining, ecological restoration, and taxpayer savings. NFPRA now has 71 co-sponsors in the House and support is growing steadily.

The logging corporations and the Forest Service are aware that the timber sales program on our national forests is going to end. Their cynical tactics are merely designed to buy some time--enough time for industry to get at some of our last best wild places. The question is, will commercial logging end by design (while there is still hope for ecological recovery), or will it end by default (because there is too little left to cut)?

The answer lies in our willingness to get involved and hold federal elected officials accountable. It's a choice for each of us: Speak out or be silent.

The outcome of that choice will dictate what kind of national forests our children's children will know in another 100 years. Will they see healthy forests recovering from the abuses of the 20th century? Or will they see only stumps and lifeless tree farms--victims of the harsh reality that forests cannot speak for themselves and that we, as a society, failed to speak for them?

One hundred years is enough. It's time to stop logging our national forests.

Chad Hanson is a national director of the Sierra Club and the Executive Director of the John Muir Project, an Earth Island Institute project. Contact the John Muir Project at (626) 792-0109,

© Earth Island Journal, spring 2000 issue