Umpqua Watersheds Blog


Restoration Update

Published March 12th, 2024 in Restoration



In late December, I wrote a guest column below for the Roseburg News-Review (see below) in response to the ever-increasing drumbeat of articles and opinion page letters claiming that federal forests had been “mismanaged” before the 2020 Labor Day, blaming their “lack of management” for the increase in recent fire severity. They now claim mismanagement again because they contend that low levels of post-fire salvage logging have increased the likelihood that they will burn again. I felt the need to respond to these unfounded accusations by presenting solid, fact-based evidence from peer-reviewed academic sources to show that 1) trees in federal forests survived at higher rates than those in surrounding industrial plantations, 2) subsequent wildfires are more severe in areas that were salvaged than those left to heal on their own, and 3) natural seedling recruitment in unlogged burned forests is greater than in salvaged stands.

With an 800-word limit, no option to add footnotes, and no opportunity to include photographic evidence, I could only give the briefest of factual responses to this very complex and contentious issue. And as you might imagine, the pushback in the online comments section was swift and reactionary, particularly from one of our county commissioners with a vested interest in logging on federal lands. I spent a week cordially responding with data and science. The comment section is worth a read, especially to get an idea of the entrenched, backward-looking views of our leaders (and for a bit of entertainment).



Several recent contributors to the NR have shared an opinion that local federal BLM and Forest Service lands are being mismanaged by allowing fuel to build up in old-growth forests. Without evidence, they claim this causes wildfires to burn more severely, endangering adjacent homes and private plantations.

A number of recent peer-reviewed studies at local, regional, and international scales indicate quite the opposite: forests with more old-growth and fewer plantations are more fire-resilient than lands dominated by even-aged plantations with dense, continuous fuels.

Even though there is typically more biomass in a native forest, the structure of their fuels makes plantations burn more severely. Old-growth forests are cool and moist, providing double the stream flows of plantations1. Large, widely spaced trees with uneven heights, thick bark, and separated crowns are highly resistant to wildfires. These older forests commonly exist as islands on public lands that were also heavily clearcut and replanted in rows a few paces apart beginning in the middle of the last century. Stand on any viewpoint in the public/private BLM “checkerboard,” and 60-80% of what you see will be carpets of plantations.

The facts unequivocally support the common-sense conclusion that dense, flammable plantations put the last stands of remaining old-growth forests at greater risk, not the other way around.

In 2013, a swarm of dry lightning struck in the Cow Creek drainage, with the strikes distributed evenly across federal and private land. The Douglas Complex fire burned through nearly 20,000 acres of public and private timberlands. Heat patterns from satellite images revealed higher-intensity fires in plantations even though the public’s old growth contained more biomass. Subsequent analysis confirmed that observation: weather was found to be the biggest driver of tree mortality, but “…intensive plantation forestry characterized by young forests and spatially homogenized fuels, rather than pre-fire biomass, were significant drivers of wildfire severity.”2

An analysis of the 2020 Archie Creek Fire again found that after weather, forest management is the most important factor influencing fire severity.  Winds were unusually high during a heat event as the fires were sparked at many locations along a powerline. Nearly ¾ of the 131,000-acre fire area burned severely in the first day, with public lands faring slightly better (75.3%) than private (80.7%). But after the wind event, “… there was a sharp decline in high severity fire, and we observed an increase in mixed-severity mosaics… private lands burned at significantly higher severities than federal lands.”3

Archie Creek was typical of all of the 2020 Labor Day Fires: “Early-seral forests [plantations] primarily concentrated on private lands, burned more severely than their older and taller counterparts, over the entire megafire event regardless of topography”4, and “Under high fuel aridity but light winds, young stands composed of small trees, found primarily on private lands, exhibited a much lower survival rate than older stands composed of medium to large trees, found primarily on federal lands.”5 The Oregon Forest Resources Institute also reports that high-severity fires were most common on “Large Private” lands followed by BLM and the USFS lands.6

At the regional scale, an analysis of 23.5 million acres of western conifer forest found that burn severity tended to be lower in areas with more ecological protections (less intensive management), after accounting for topographic and climatic conditions.7 International studies are in close agreement: fire risk increases with intensive forest management.8

FIGURE 1.  An extremely fire-prone 30-40 year-old plantation in southern Douglas County owned by a large timber corporation. Note the heavy density of hazardous fuels on both the lower tree trunks and on the ground.

Another common narrative implies that wildfires tend to start on “poorly managed” public lands and spread to nearby communities. A recent study of western US wildfires refutes this: “…cross-boundary fires were primarily caused by humans on private lands… Public lands managed by the US Forest Service were not the primary source of fires that destroyed the most structures.”9

Other messaging suggests that if public timber is not salvaged, burned forests will be more flammable and will not regenerate as well as logged and replanted sites. On the contrary, black trees don’t carry fires and they don’t impede forest regrowth.

Studies conducted after the nearby 2002 Biscuit fire reburned parts of the 1987 Silver fire documented that salvage-logged and replanted areas “…burned more severely than comparable unmanaged areas, suggesting that fuel conditions in conifer plantations can increase fire severity despite removal of large woody fuels.”10. Moreover, “Natural conifer regeneration was abundant after the high-severity fire. Postfire logging reduced median regeneration density by 71%, significantly increased downed woody fuels, and thus increased short-term fire risk… Postfire logging can be counterproductive to the goals of forest regeneration and fuel reduction”.11

We can all agree: no one wants to see more megafires. But before we can start talking about solutions, we all have to recognize the problem. Science and common sense agree – the forestry practices of the last century, combined with a changing climate and increasing human-caused ignitions, means we will either need to get used to smokey summers or change the way we treat our forests.


FIGURE 2.  A 50-60 year-old plantation stand burned in the Archie Creek Fire. Note: (A) the minimal amount of remaining fine fuel available for a future crown fire, (B) the heavy shrub layer dominated by nitrogen-fixing Ceanothus species enriching the soil in the understory, and (C) the heavy layer of fuel in the foreground left from salvaging the adjacent stand.

The N-R article that motivated me to write this guest column in the first place was titled “A balancing act: The forestland management debate”. After being told by the reporter what industry representatives were telling him about the poor state of federal forests, I pushed back. Although I spent over an hour giving him peer-reviewed chapter and verse on the ecological damage caused by clearcut plantation forestry and salvage logging, he chose this quote: “It’s a specious argument for them to say that federal timber is the problem. Plantations are the problem,” Carloni said. “This whole argument that federal forests are being poorly managed and that is why fires are spreading like that is absolutely false, and that’s a narrative that we have not been able to blunt because the industry has got a bigger mouthpiece. Money is speech and the more money you have, the more speech you get.”

At first, I was annoyed that he chose the last part when he could have cited any of the evidence I gave him to back up my statement. I brought this up with him a few weeks later, and he defended his choice by saying, “But so much of this IS

FIGURE 3. A highly fire-resistant old growth stand in southern Douglas County. Note the minimal amount of fine fuels on the ground and lack of understory “ladder fuels”. Also note the structural differences between this centuries-old stand and the stands in Figs. 1&2. The younger stands have not had the time to develop the wide spacing and irregular canopy structure that resists high-mortality crown fires.

about money that I thought it was important to put that in”. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, yeah, people still need to be reminded of that.

On Feb. 15, 2024, the N-R ran another story about former Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan coming to town to host a “roundtable” of “community leaders from around the county” to discuss wildfire. The lead sentence? “People sitting around the table Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse mostly seemed to agree on one common problem concerning wildfires in Oregon — the lack of management on federal lands.” So the same now-debunked misconceptions were trotted out yet again. A government affairs executive at a large timber corporation said, “When we remove that dead wood, it takes fuels out of the fire equation. That standing wood can burn again”.  Participants repeated other baseless claims I also addressed in my column. And the beat goes on…

To my knowledge, Drazan’s “community leaders” did not include any members of the scientific or conservation communities. She is now heading a new nonprofit she recently formed that, among other things, aims to “connect Oregonians with each other” and “improve transparency.”  But apparently, it is only among those who can afford the most speech.

In my last response to the commissioner’s comments to my guest column, I used a 1935 quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and activist Upton Sinclair that sums up the situation perfectly: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

  3. 1619218392073/Labor+Day+Fires+Analysis+%28Harris+et+al.+April+2021%29+FINAL+%281%29.pdf



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