By Robert Heim, MESM '20
In response to record-breaking wildfires in California this summer, President Donald Trump tweeted a controversial statement about forest management. Trump argued that wildfires are “made so much worse by bad environmental laws” and that states must “tree clear to stop fire from spreading.” Yet forest ecologists overwhelmingly refute the President’s assertions. Recent scientific research suggests that protecting forests will reduce rather than amplify fires in the Western U.S. This debate comes as Congress considers adding provisions to the Farm Bill that would allow commercial logging in national forests without environmental review.
It is a common assumption that unlogged forests burn with more intensity due to the accumulation of biomass. Trump relied on such logic to convince Americans that increased tree clearing can halt fire spread and protect communities at the urban-wildland interface. Yet a study published in the journal Ecosphere indicates that logging does nothing to diminish wildfires. Using satellite imagery, researchers analyzed 1,500 fires over the past three decades in pine and mixed-conifer forests in the West. The researchers found that forests with the highest level of protective status, such as national parks and wilderness areas, ranked lowest in burn severity.[i] Forests with no mandated protections, including military and private lands, experienced the most severe burning.
The study in Ecosphere invalidates Trump’s Twitter post and raises questions regarding his intentions. Rather than acknowledging scientific findings, the President makes an unsupported claim. With a federal discussion on forest policy underway, Trump appears to use wildfire events to push a pro-logging agenda. In September, Congress debated a Farm Bill that included provisions to exempt certain logging projects in national forests from environmental assessment. Yet tree-clearing within national forests will only exacerbate wildfires. The Farm Bill provisions encourage forest exploitation while failing to protect American citizens.
In response to misinformation generated by the President, ecologists are shifting the dialogue about forest management toward science-based approaches. Chad T. Hanson, an author on the Ecosphere study and a co-founder of the John Muir Project, has written opinion pieces for The New York Times and CNN with reliable information on the link between logging and wildfires. According to Hanson, logging “removes fire-resistant trees, reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy, and leaves behind highly combustible twigs and branches.”[ii] Hanson also notes that recent wildfires, including the destructive Camp Fire, occurred in heavily-cleared forests in Northern California.[iii]
Reducing the loss of homes and livelihoods will require the federal government to look past logging interests and recognize the impacts of climate change on wildfires. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reveals that anthropogenic climate change has accounted for over half of the increase in fuel aridity of Western U.S. forests since the late 1970’s.[iv] Using climate models and meteorological measurements, researchers found that climate change added 4.2 million hectares of burned area between 1984-2015. This near doubling in the amount of forest area burned signals a dangerous wildfire future unless human-caused carbon emissions are drastically reduced.
With the influence of climate change on wildfires becoming apparent, the need for informed environmental legislation is pressing. Yet President Trump remains skeptical about the realities of sound science, choosing instead to circulate groundless statements that support short-term economic goals. Science journalism, including online media written for non-scientist audiences, is a powerful tool to discredit biased politicians and educate the public about the honest drivers of wildfire spread. Equipped with accurate information, citizens can elect representatives that make responsible decisions about public lands and natural resources. By upholding forest protections and passing carbon emissions standards, the U.S. government will help protect residential communities against wildfires and maintain ecosystem resilience in the West.
[i] Bradley, Curtis M., et al. “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent‐fire forests of the western United States?” Ecosphere, vol. 7, issue 10. 26 October 2016. https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ecs2.1492
[ii] Hanson, Chad T., and Michael Brune. “Using Wildfires as an Excuse to Plunder Forests.” The New York Times, 5 September 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/09/04/opinion/california-wildfires-logging-farm-bill.html
[iii] Hanson, Chad T. “President Trump is Wrong About Wildlife Prevention.” CNN, 17 November 2017. https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/17/opinions/president-trump-is-wrong-about-wildfire-prevention-hanson/index.html
[iv] Abatzoglou, John T. and Williams, A. Park. “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, issue 42, 11770-11775. 18 October 2016. http://www.pnas.org/content/113/42/11770