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More logging won’t make California forests healthier

Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project plays a recorded woodpecker call while searching for black-backed woodpeckers in Yosemite National Park in 2016. The black-backed woodpecker is a symbol of the scientific and political debate over fires in American forests.
Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project plays a recorded woodpecker call while searching for black-backed woodpeckers in Yosemite National Park in 2016. The black-backed woodpecker is a symbol of the scientific and political debate over fires in American forests. The New York Times

Earlier this month, California’s Little Hoover Commission released a report that proposed increased logging as a way to save our forests from dead trees and address climate change. However, the report omits key scientific information that points to very different conclusions.

 
Opinion

The report suggests that we must increase logging to prevent large fires, such as the 257,000-acre Rim Fire in 2013, which the report claims emitted more than 11 million tons of carbon dioxide. It cites a one-page policy memo that does not contain a single reference to any scientific evidence whatsoever.

In reality, the smoke plumes from forest fires are almost entirely water vapor. Even in the largest forest fires, much less carbon is consumed and emitted than is often assumed, and vigorous post-fire vegetation growth turns burned areas back into areas that absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit in less than a decade.

Chad Hanson

The commission also fails to mention that the “mechanical thinning” logging projects it promotes actually reduce carbon storage. Logging trees and burning them in “bioenergy” plants, as the report advocates, produces even more carbon emissions than burning coal for an equivalent amount of energy produced. Increased logging is not a climate change solution.

Further, the report simply assumes that more logging will somehow reduce fire intensity, but this is strongly contradicted by the most comprehensive and current scientific analysis, which concludes that forests with the most logging actually burn more intensely. Logging removes relatively non-combustible tree trunks and leaves behind highly flammable branches and twigs and reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy, creating hotter, drier conditions.

The report repeatedly claims that our forests are too “dense” and “overgrown”, but ignores well-established scientific conclusions that, due to more than a century of logging, California’s forests actually have about 30 percent less biomass than they did nearly a century ago. This has consequences for the many imperiled wildlife species that depend upon dense forests, including the California spotted owl and Pacific fisher.

Finally, the commission’s report omits studies about the ecological importance of patches of dead trees that are created by fire, drought and native bark beetles. The report implies that there is an unnatural excess of such areas, though overwhelming scientific evidence concludes that we now have far fewer fires of all intensities than before fire suppression policies began a century ago.

Why does this matter? It is important because hundreds of scientific studies have found that this unique habitat type is an ecological treasure, comparable to unburned old forest in biodiversity and wildlife.

By omitting important scientific evidence to promote logging, the commission does the public and our forests a disservice.

Chad Hanson is principal scientist with the John Muir Project. He can be contacted at cthanson1@gmail.com.

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