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The biggest problem with our forests? The U.S. Forest Service

by By GEORGE WUERTHNER
| October 10, 2023 7:00 AM

The Forest Service and Forestry School researchers (funded by the Forest Service) continue to promote the idea that our forests are “unhealthy.”

It is an example of the “Father Knows Best” philosophy that the agency and its researchers understand how to mend the forest.

Of course, it also assumes that the forest needs repairing.

The problem with the Forest Service’s current love affair with chainsaw medicine is that it assumes that anything that kills a tree (except a chainsaw) is undesirable.

The agency and its lackeys are like the snake oil salesman of old, promising that their magic elixir (logging) can cure whatever ails the forest, whether it is sick or not.

We are told that chainsaw medicine treatments aim to reduce large, high-severity wildfires and enable trees to survive insects, drought, and disease.

The problem is that the above are the evolutionary factors that have maintained “healthy” forest communities for millennia. In a sense, these evolutionary agents select which trees are best adapted to current conditions (not some past historical situation that no longer exists).

To quote the poet, Roberson Jeffers, “What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine. The fleet limbs of the antelope?”

It is the same for our forests—wildfire, drought, insects and disease are whittling the woodlands to withstand present and future challenges just as wolves select the least fit elk or deer for their prey, improving the species’ overall genetic health.

However, the Forest Service has no idea which trees may have a genetic or physical trait that allows them to survive things like drought, wildfire, insects, and disease. They are, in effect, with their chainsaw medicine interfering with evolution.

That is a dangerous game to play. Many genetic studies have shown that rare genetic alleles provide resilience to any population—including forests. Only one in a hundred or more individuals may possess these genetic features, and yet by removing a significant amount of the trees, the agency is degrading the forest’s resilience.

A second problem with the current mantra to log our way to forest health is that large, high-severity wildfires create the habitat for numerous other species.

Some biologists estimate that at least half of all wildlife depend on the snags that result from large blazes for their homes. The snags that fall into streams supply the bulk of the habitat for fish. The snags and downwood that remain after a wildfire, drought, insect, or disease outbreak store carbon for centuries.

In short, due to its industrial forestry bias, the Forest Service cannot see the forest ecosystem through the trees. The focus on individual trees fails to see the long-term consequences of its chainsaw medicine program.

Given the climate changes we are experiencing, the way to increase resilience in our forests is to allow evolution to operate.

Our forest communities will change and adapt to the current climate, and part of this adaptation may be the loss of some trees, but in the end, our forest communities will be stronger. In the meantime, the best way to protect communities is home hardening, not chainsaw medicine.

George Wuerhtner is the ecological projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, where he does research and writes about environmental issues. He has written numerous articles and books on wildfire. He lives in Park County.