Scientist: Trees felled in vain in name of fire control

‘Thinning’ forests and ‘controlled burns’ no match for climate fires

By: - January 25, 2023 5:25 am

Tahoe residents complain efforts to reduce wildfire risk is destroying habitat, such as this stand of conservancy woods in South Lake Tahoe, and exacerbating climate change. (Photo courtesy Oliver Starr)

An alliance between governments and the commercial logging industry under the guise of fire management is decimating forests, wreaking ecological havoc, and exacerbating risks for people and property, according to scientists at odds with what they call archaic methods that are futile in controlling fires.

“The Forest Service uses the term ‘thinning and fuel reduction,’ a euphemism for commercial logging,’” says Dr. Chad Hanson, an ecologist and vocal critic with a following of colleagues critical of traditional fire management practices at a time when climate change has increased fire severity. “What they’re really doing is selling and removing large, commercially valuable trees on a fairly significant scale. Not only does that fail to protect homes, it will actually make a fire spread faster, and often more intensely toward the homes.”

A dense, mature forest with high canopy cover “means more cooling shade during the summer, and that means everything on the forest floor stays more moist,” Hanson explains. “More trees, bigger trees, act as a windbreak against the winds that drive the flames.”

The vast majority of homes that burn in wildfires – about 90% – are ignited by embers, carried on the winds, sometimes from miles away in advance of the flames, experts say. 

Hanson says government efforts would be better spent assisting property owners, at a nominal cost, harden their homes against fire by making them less vulnerable to embers entering the structure, and by creating defensible space around property by removing overhanging branches and other hazards within 100 to 200 feet.  

Logging, on the other hand, reduces the canopy cover and windbreak. 

“What you get are hotter, drier, and windier conditions that are more conducive to moving rapid wildfire toward homes,” Hanson says.

An example, according to Hanson, is the 2021 Caldor Fire, which burned 221,835 acres in the Sierra Nevada and Eldorado Valley over a more than two-month span, destroyed more than 1,000 structures, and prompted the evacuation of more than 50,000 residents.

Hanson says large areas south of the town of Grizzly Flats were subjected to commercial logging.  

“Fire officials told everyone it would stop the fire and protect the town,” he says. “We saw tragic consequences of that. If you look at the other side of the Caldor fire, there was very light touch removal of smaller trees immediately adjacent to homes in the Myers area, and those homes didn’t burn. But that’s not logging.”  

It’s also not as lucrative. 

“The benefits of harvesting timber extend way beyond a healthy forest and reducing hazardous fuels. Timber harvesting also supports jobs and businesses in the local community.” says Brad Seaberg, Timber Sale Contracting Officer for the Tahoe National Forest. “When forest land is properly managed, forests have both economic and ecological benefits. Regular thinning provides an improved environment for maximizing a site’s growth potential, which results in larger, healthier trees and more valuable timber.” 

The federal government is spending $3 billion over ten years to ‘thin’ forests via commercial logging and controlled burns in western states, including Nevada, which received $57 million of $490 million allocated last week from the infrastructure bill. The Forest Service declined to be interviewed about the project.

U.S. Senators Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto issued statements supporting the Biden administration plan last week but did not respond to requests for comment.  

Room with a view

No one told Tahoe resident David Simon that the Forest Service intended to thin the trees surrounding his home a mile from the lake. 

“If they had, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it,” says Simon, a retired attorney. “Whereas, if somebody tells you, ‘hey, we’re going to take out 90% of the trees in your forest, you’d not only take notice, you’d start taking action.”

Simon, like his neighbors, learned of NV Energy’s Resilience Corridors project when a wide swath of cedars, pines, and other massive trees vanished from his view. 

The $14 million dollar project is paid for in part by the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA), which uses proceeds from public land sales for a variety of  projects, including hazardous fuel reduction and Lake Tahoe restoration in Northern Nevada.  

Details of the Forest Service’s plan to remove hazardous fuels that pose a threat to some 28 miles of utility infrastructure along the lake call for “treating” the area beneath the electrical lines (Zone One ) as well as the adjacent area within 175 feet (Zone Two).

“As a layperson, or even as a lawyer who is not familiar with Forest Service lingo, one would think that the thinning scope in Zone Two would mean taking out a small portion of the trees – maybe ten percent,” says Simon. “Instead, they took something like 85 or 90% of the trees, which just radically exceeds the legal scope that they carefully defined. I think the loggers have an incentive to take as many trees out as they can, because each tree is worth cash.”

“It looks like amateur hour,” says Mitch Dion of the Kingsbury General Improvement District, which has implemented best practices for erosion and drainage control for the last 20 years in an effort to preserve the lake’s water quality. “Trees were removed from riparian areas, even on private property. We’re a bit troubled that the kind of oversight expertise we expected wasn’t there.”

Dion says he’s shared his concerns with the Forest Service. “They’ve promised to do better.” 

The NV Energy Resilience Corridors project received an exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act and did not warrant an environmental impact statement, according to the Forest Service, which estimates contractors have removed 1,200 tons of timber as of the end of 2023.

“The timber is transported to a sorting yard. Lower quality materials may be sold as firewood or biomass, and higher quality timber may be sold as sawlogs to a sawmill,” spokeswoman Lisa Herron said in a statement. “The value of the goods minimally offsets the cost of the services being performed. No revenue has been generated to date and little is expected due to the high volume of materials already on the market.”

“The forest service should not be involved in lumber sales, because it incentivizes the wrong behaviors,” says Tahoe resident Oliver Starr, who says logging crews are cutting mature trees, contrary to the project’s stated scope. “We need to change the laws that go back to 1897 that put the Forest Service in the commercial logging business. It was a different environment 30 to 40 years ago. Thinning a forest does nothing to stop a climate-driven fire.”

It’s also harming the environment, he says. 

“They’re burning thousands and thousands of trees in the open,” which “dumps carbon into the atmosphere, ash into the ground, and the runoff acidifies the lake,” Starr says. “It’s the perfect storm of mismanagement.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.