Josh Hart, MSc
Spokesperson, Feather River Action! (FRA)
The trauma of the Dixie and other recent fires are still with Plumas County residents, particularly those who lost homes and communities. There is an understandable desire to take urgent action to prevent more damage and suffering from intense wildfires. However, if we fail to act wisely and according to science, we may compound the damage, and put our communities at even greater risk.
Feather River Action! supports respectful (and widespread) underburning and hand thinning in areas immediately surrounding communities and structures, as well as structure hardening, evacuation planning and preparation, and other proven, effective solutions. (Syphard et al 2014; Syphard and Keeley 2019)
However, we will never support decimating over 200,000 acres of the Feather River region’s beautiful, recovering forests under the false pretenses of “community protection,” when the prevailing science points strongly in the other direction.
Each of three “action”alternatives in the Forest Service’s “Community Protection Project Central and West Slope” (CPP) includes unprecedented industrial logging of mature forests (up to a 40% reduction in mature forest habitat, according to the Environmental Assessment) and more than $30 million in herbicides to be used, turning rich habitat into tinder-dry tree plantations. This is not a reasonable, science based plan. The CPP proposes tripling canopy reductions beyond the best practices limits in USFS’s own publication “Restoring Dry Forests in Eastern Oregon.” (Franklin et. al (2013)
CPP is a corporate-driven, false solution costing the taxpayer $650 million that should be used to truly protect communities rather than using wildfire protection as a pretext for extreme logging in mature forests. The Forest Service does not provide scientific justification for it’s proposed actions, and relies upon assumptions, speculation, and unsupported claims. Furthermore, a 30-day comment period, over the July 4th holiday, on a ~1000 page document for over 200,000 acres is inadequate and discourages public discourse and oversight.
What many at first understood to be dead brush and small tree clearing around communities is in fact an unprecedented industrial logging of large trees and massive chemical spraying in the back country that would likely increase wildfire risk to communities while harming the climate and Plumas County’s mature forests, rivers, wildlife and local inhabitants.
As part of this “fire protection” project, likely thousands of fire-resistant trees nearly eight feet around are slated for the sawmill. Trees this size are often more than 100-150 years old, and are exactly what is needed on the landscape to absorb carbon, and maintain a shadier, cooler, sheltered understory that is more resilient to threats including wildfire.
The CPP would dramatically increase carbon emissions and decimate mature forest wildlife habitat—including that of imperiled species like the spotted owl and red and yellow legged frogs, amending the forest plan to eliminate wildlife protection and minimum allowable forest cover standards. The Forest Service bizarrely claims that industrial logging of mature forests would actually benefit species by allegedly preventing intense wildfires, even though many species, including some of the most threatened, actually depend on mixed (including high) intensity wildfire for habitat.
Does Thinning Actually Reduce Wildfire Risks to Communities?
Fire safety can be counterintuitive and we have made mistakes in the past based on incorrect assumptions. Removing fuels from the forest is a positive, right? Not so fast. Sometimes, according to scientists, thinning/logging can dry out habitat and intensify and speed up wildfires. (Bradley et al., 2016)
This occurs when the forest floor is exposed to sun and wind, drying out vegetation and habitats, and increasing the speed of wildfire progression (Cruz et al., 2014; Banerjee, 2020; Atchley et al., 2021).
We’re being told that the woods are “overgrown” and need management, due in large part to a century of aggressive logging and fire suppression. And the solution we’re given? Even more aggressive logging of older, fire resilient trees and even more fire suppression.
You hear a lot about “fuel reduction” but precious little about increasing humidity, shade, and windbreaks in forests by keeping canopy cover intact, even though these are also critical factors that impact wildfire behavior. It is incomplete and misleading to thin forests and focus only on fuels while mainly neglecting carbon, moisture, humidity, and wind. It also risks community safety to fail to consider emerging science, just because it may not be consistent with conventional wisdom.
Logging did not prevent Greenville from burning and it did not prevent Paradise from burning. In fact, the evidence shows that it very likely contributed to these disasters. Surrounding forests were “managed” and cut in a similar way to how the Forest Service now wants to “manage” the forest around communities like Quincy, Graeagle, and Portola as part of the “Community Protection Project.” Will there be a different outcome? The Forest Service has not adequately explained what the difference would be. More of the same intensive logging will likely put our communities at greater risk from fast-moving wildfire through windier and parched landscapes.
Feather River Action! has been listening to experts such as Dr. John P. O’Brien, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and National Center for Atmospheric Research at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, who took the time to make extensive and critical comments on the Forest Service’s CPP plan. Dr. O’Brien addresses what the science shows are effective steps to reduce risks of wildfires to communities:
“It should also be explicitly stated that if the purpose of this project is community protection (ie the protection of homes and businesses) then these type of treatments should be focused in and around the community. It is well documented that fuel reduction work has little to no effect on home survival when done more than 100 feet away from structures. (Syphard et al 2014; Syphard and Keeley 2019)
Increasingly we are seeing that ‘home hardening’ has the best bang for the buck when it comes to investment for home survival in wildfire prone areas. (Cohen and Stratton 2008; Cohen 2019; Cohen and Strohmaier 2020)
In a recent review, Prichard et al. 2021 address several common questions that come up in relation to forest management:
‘While “thin the forest to reduce wildfire threat” is commonly cited in the popular media, the capacity for thinning alone to mitigate wildfire hazard and severity is not well supported in the scientific literature. …
Wildfire ignition potential is largely driven by fuel moisture, which can decrease on drier sites when canopy bulk density is reduced through commercial thinning. Reduced canopy bulk density can lead to increased surface wind speed and fuel heating, which allows for increased rates of fire spread in thinned forests.’”
Dr. O’Brien states in his comments: “It is well-documented that past (and present) commercial/extractive management of our forests, much of what Plumas County has been subjected to, increases wildfire risk due to increased resultant surface fuel loads, the selective removal of large fire resilient trees, increased canopy openings which create hotter and drier understory conditions, which results in increased xeric understory shrub growth (native and invasive) and greater wind penetration into and through the all layers of the canopy (eg.Weatherspoon, 1996).”
“The increase in area burned every year is primarily a climate related phenomena and its not something that we will be able to log our way out of. (Williams et al 2019; Goss et al 2020; Abatzoglou et al 2020; Higuera and Abatzoglou, 2021; Zhuang et al 2021; Turco et al 2023) Reducing surface and ladder fuels can help mitigate some wildfire impacts. However, under an increasingly extreme climate, long-term reductions in anthropogenic CO2 will be the only real solution to our wildfire woes.
Denser forests have higher canopy cover, which creates a cooler, more moist microclimate, and the dense tree cover creates a windbreak effect that buffers the gusts which drive flames. Conversely, logging reduces forest canopy cover, creating a hotter, drier, and more windy microclimate, while also creating combustible logging slash debris and spreading highly combustible invasive grasses. (Bradley et al., 2016)”
Forests: Best Climate Allies We Have
Recent research into the Dixie and other large fires concluded that nearly 70% of the root cause of recent major wildfires in the west can be linked to human caused carbon emissions. That means our primary response, in addition to defensible space around communities and home hardening, must be an immediate curtailment of carbon emissions and enhancement of carbon sinks (like healthy forests) if we want to prevent this crisis from escalating to an unimaginably worse place than it already is.
The following are facts with peer-reviewed citations (inconvenient for the logging industry certainly, but not “misinformation.”) (from O’Brien, 2021):
“Forest carbon storage levels in the U.S. and California are far below their biological potential, due to many decades of carbon removals from logging (McIntyre et al., 2015) so there is enormous climate change mitigation potential if we begin a shift away from logging and allow our forests to absorb and store much more carbon. (Erb et al., 2018; Law et al., 2018; Strassburg et al., 2020)
Logging in U.S. forests emits 10 times more carbon than fire and native insects combined. (Harris et al., 2016)
Existing models vastly overstate wildfire-related carbon emissions by assuming much higher than actual consumption of vegetation and failing to account for the rapid post-fire natural vegetation regrowth and carbon sequestration that occurs. (Meigs et al, 2009, Campbell et al, 2016, Stenzel et al, 2019, Hanson and Chi, 2021)”
The Northern Sierra boasts some serious carbon storage, from mature forests to wet meadows which are reservoirs of moisture on the landscape, absorbing carbon from the air all year as plants grow and then sequestering it into the wet soil as fall turns to winter. Unfortunately, if we keep emitting billions of tons of carbon, these allies- these meadows and perhaps the forests too will disappear, adding even more carbon into an already enflamed atmosphere. We don’t have to accept this future.
Plumas National (Tree Plantation?)
The photo above, provided by Forester Ryan Tompkins, in his July 14th Where I Stand, as an example of the perfectly managed forest, is not actually a forest at all. Real, truly healthy, forests include shrubs, plants, mosses, lichen, insects (even some diseases), standing snags, downed rotting wood and complex, often dense habitat for all kinds of animals and plants. None of this is present in the photo above. Emerging evidence suggests that trees and shrubs collectively regulate their environment and share information and resources. Following mechanical treatment, much of the soil is compacted and cannot absorb moisture and carbon in the same way. Opening the canopy exposes soil to the drying effects of sun and wind, which are very powerful at higher elevations. Truly healthy forests generate a layer of mulch that prevents moisture loss and erosion, and also will typically maximize canopy cover, creating a cool, shady microclimate that retains moisture, increases humidity and can inhibit fire progression. Dense forests can even generate rainfall. (Sheil, 2018)
Recreation also suffers when we create homogenous, mechanically scarred and habitat-poor landscapes. Who wants to hike or bike for miles through a boring, sun-baked landscape of sparse, spindly trees of similar age and species? Not only are these heavily “treated” landscapes less appealing to humans and most wildlife, they are also (perhaps counterintuitively) higher in fire risk. Regardless, the (remaining) trees in Mr. Tompkins’ photo likely would have been logged according to “Community Protection Project” CPP guidelines that inexplicably call for the logging of mature, fire resistant trees nearly eight feet around.
This area of forest (photo above), with large conifers and aspen in a moist valley between Lake Davis and Portola, called Crocker Grove, is included in the Forest Service’s CPP plan and are already marked for removal from the Mapes Project, which was likely abandoned due to Forest Service missteps and public opposition. This is the type of valuable habitat and mature, fire-resistant trees that are at risk from the CPP.
If the Forest Service continues to insist on the harmful CPP, Feather River Action! insists that an EIS be prepared to further study potential impacts of this unprecedented logging plan. We are supporting the “No Action Alternative” in the meantime because a focus on underburning, hand thinning and defensible space around communities were simply not considered by the Forest Service, even though they received multiple comments in the scoping period requesting such an alternative.
Dr. O’Brien states that the $30 million in herbicide use proposed in the CPP is “staggering.” He goes on to say: “Most studies on the environmental effects of herbicide use are small in geographic area. Proposing to use it on 200,000 acres surrounding communities is tantamount to an experiment on the people and environment of Plumas County. Especially with toxic substances like Glyphosate and Imazapyr which are known to cause cancer and is banned in Europe, respectively. These compounds are regularly used by logging companies and again it makes this project stink of commercial/industrial forest management, not community protection from wildfire. The extensive logging and herbicide use associated with this project brings about the very real prospect of unanticipated cumulative impacts, to both plant, animal, and human life.”
This is not what the Plumas National Forest and Feather River watershed need.
We can certainly choose to do it the way we have been doing it, doubling down on ineffective and dangerous fire suppression, industrial logging on public lands dressed up as “aspen restoration” or “fire protection,” all further enflaming the climate, drying out the forest and putting families in harm’s way, or, we can do it a different way, with proven, science-based solutions, that are wildlife and forest-friendly, and that actually protect communities from wildfire. By preserving older trees and mature forests, we allow them to grow into old age, absorb carbon and increase the forests’ resiliency to fire. The Forest Service’s ill-conceived CPP plan would do just the opposite.
For an overview of this topic, we highly recommend Chad Hanson’s Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate available at the Plumas County Library.
A complete copy of Feather River Action’s 63 page comments on the Forest Service’s “Community Protection” Project can be downloaded here.
Josh Hart MSc is Spokesperson for Feather River Action! based in Portola, CA. FRA! works to protect the Feather River region and build community. Josh has lived in Eastern Plumas County for ten years and holds a BA in Psychology and History from UCSC and a MSc in Transportation Planning from the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. He has worked independently and with grassroots groups for 25 years on climate and transportation, ecology, and wireless technology policy.