Every year around this time environmental doomsdayers write op-eds attempting to convince readers the only way to address catastrophic wildfires is to batten down the hatches of our homes and bank on a utopian global strategy of reversing climate warming. These arguments of course ignore forest leaders and experts who view active forest management strategies like selective logging and prescribed burns as one most effective tools forest managers have right now to make forests more resilient and less prone to destructive wildfires.
The environmental doomsdayers often claim that a buildup of fuels doesn’t drive western fires — instead pointing to climate as the sole culprit. This was the tact recently taken by columnist George Wuerthner, who said we would see more fires in places with larger biomass such as Oregon and Washington if fuels were really the problem.
While Wuerthner is correct that climate plays a role in forest fires, he is incorrect in his assertion that fuel is irrelevant.
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For example the Pacific Northwest forests Wuerthner points to do have a high biomass (fuel), however the wet climate creates conditions under which those forests burn less than their drier counterparts. In comparison, many Montana forests have a lower biomass, but the drier climate creates conditions in which the frequency of fires is higher.
Fuel buildup may not play as big of a role in the Pacific Northwest, but in forests that have been historically characterized by frequent fires, land managers say the connection between fuel and fire are inseparable. Montana’s DNRC says 85% of the state’s forests are at elevated risk of uncharacteristic wildfire due to “unprecedented” levels of fuel buildup combined with a warming climate.
In much of Montana, low intensity fire plays an important role in forest health, clearing excess fuels and reducing competition for water among healthy trees. However, during the early 1900s land managers focused on extinguishing all fires regardless of intensity. The result was a significant increase in the buildup fuel, which when burned causes fires to become devastating.
This illustrates what is known as the fire paradox. The more we try to suppress fire from landscapes dependent on it, the more the fuel builds up — so when a fire does occur it is both unpredictable and catastrophic.
This is the dilemma forest managers face, how do you reintroduce healthy fire into a landscape which has had it removed for a hundred years. That is where active forest management strategies come into play.
Critics like to characterize active forest management as exclusively about logging. However, forest managers say it is a combination of both mechanical thinning and prescribed burns that makes active forest management strategies so successful.
During recent testimony before Congress, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore explained the 2021 Bootleg Fire in Oregon demonstrated that in places where they had first thinned the forest and followed that up with a prescribed burn, it allowed the fire to act more predictably and less destructively.
Both the Forest Service’s new Wildfire Crisis Strategy and the State of Montana’s Forest Action Plan cite active forest management strategies as an effective way to make our forests more resilient to climate changes and less prone to catastrophic wildfires.
Thankfully, Montana is leading the way on active forest management, with Gov. Gianforte’s administration doubling the number of acres managed from 2020 to 2021. As we approach fire season we should reject calls to abandon the science and instead double down on the best tools currently at our disposal — expanding active forest management to address our yearly wildfire crisis.
Kendall Cotton is president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montanans can thrive.