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brief on "forest health" arguments for logging roadless areas

Loggers of public lands and their allies are increasingly using 'forest health' arguments to promote more logging, especially in the last unlogged, unroaded reaches of our national forest system. According to this view, there are too many trees in the woods. Being flammable, they will make forest fires burn superhot and cause unnaturally great damage. Solution: cut lots of the trees down. At the heart of the many defects in this theory are three hard facts. One: 'forest health' logging to reduce fire risk is a giant, untested experiment. Two: logging, even 'forest health' logging, causes ecological problems and can actually promote fires. And three: unmanaged, unroaded forests are generally those in the best ecological shape.

No broad scale, systematic, scientific study has ever shown that any kind of logging reduces a forest's overall susceptibility to fire. There are a few, small scale and preliminary studies, and a wealth of anecdotal evidence about the linkage between thinning forests and subsequent fire. They present a conflicted picture, with the scientific work tending to indicate increased fire susceptibility in the wake of all forms of logging, as actually done in the field by logging crews. The timber industry can take visitors to sites where fire hit a thinned stand and decreased in intensity. Similarly, environmentalists can take them to any number of counterexamples, where a cool burning, non-lethal fire hit a thinned stand and blew up into a serious conflagration.

There are multiple reasons why even 'forest health' logging can increase a forest's susceptibility to fire. First, it is the little trees and saplings that are most flammable, but loggers only want medium and large size trees, which have thicker, more fire-resistant bark and have often survived previous fires. Second, it is difficult and expensive to log without creating highly flammable 'slash' from the limbs and needles of logged trees. Third, logging opens up forest stands to the drying effects of wind and sun, which increases their flammability; undisturbed forests, by contrast often have cooler, moister microclimate conditions under the forest canopy. Fourth, logging stresses forest ecosystems in a variety of ways, including damage to residual trees, compaction of soils so they don't absorb water well or allow proper root growth, and spread of diseases and invasive alien plants into the forest interior. Fifth, logging disrupts natural processes that modulate ecosystem health, for example by eliminating the dead trees that house insects and birds which control forest pests, and by driving out forest interior animal species like tree voles that play a keystone role in trees' nutrient cycling. Sixth, logging equipment, loggers themselves, and others who use logging roads are all frequent sources of fire starts, through sparks, cigarettes, escaped slash fires, campfires, unmuffled exhausts, and so forth.

Roadless are the worst conceivable places to experiment with unproven 'forest health' logging. To the extent 'forest health' problems exist, they are traceable to human management, and thus, predictably, unmanaged, unroaded areas are generally in the best ecological shape and present the worst case for human intervention. In addition to the ecological disruption associated with roads and logging mentioned above, increased fire susceptibility of U.S. forests is associated with fire suppression and forest grazing. Fire suppression is indeed facilitated by road access, exactly as forest health proponents argue. And thus it is those areas with existing roads where fire suppression has been most successful and a backlog of flammable materials, including saplings, has most built up over the years. And while the extent to which roads promote forest grazing is unknown, it is clear that grazing is so implicated in forest fuels build-up that the ability of any thinning to reduce fire susceptibility over the long term is doubtful where this extremely widespread practice continues. Grazing eliminates the high grasses that otherwise shade out tree seedlings and provide fuel for cool burning periodic groundfires that reduce the backlog of woody material on forest floors.

WHY: It is estimated that there are more than 425,000 acres in those nearby National Forests that could be protected under President Clinton's proposal. Those National Forests are among the most popular vacation and outdoor recreation spots in the mid-Atlantic region. Overall, National Forests are the single largest source of outdoor recreation for the American public. The Forest Service estimates that outdoor recreation on the national forests will contribute about $110 billion to the U.S. economy in 2000.
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