You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Has the Forest Service Been Making Wildfires Worse?

The logging industry has long promoted science suggesting logging suppresses fire. A lot of recent research disagrees.

Firefighters battle the Carr fire in 2018.
Firefighters battle the Carr fire in 2018.

The Bear fire was one of the largest of the over 8,000 wildfires that have beset California this year. Now incorporated into the still-burning North Complex Fire, the Bear started in the Plumas National Forest, sparked by a series of lightning strikes on August 17 across the northern Sierra Nevada. It burned slowly at first, taking three weeks to grow to 12,000 acres. Then, on September 9, it transformed, traveling with such ferocity that it engulfed 183,000 acres in less than 24 hours, moving as fast as three miles an hour. “This is unheard-of,” Chad Hanson, a wildfire ecologist who has spent two decades studying fire in California, told me. “Most fires move at one-fiftieth that speed.”

Weather and climate—drought, high winds, heat waves with triple-digit temperatures—have exacerbated the Western wildfires. But there’s also another factor that researchers and activists are calling for policymakers to recognize: commercial logging. On September 9, the Bear fire entered into an enormous tract of previously logged national forest and private commercial timberlands. This, coupled with the heat and the wind and the lack of rain, set the stage for its monstrous expansion. “Logging, it turns out, makes fires bigger, hotter, and move faster,” Hanson told me. “Almost all the major fires in forested ecosystems in California and Oregon are being intensified by logging.”

In 2015, when Hanson approached the service to warn that logging would lead exactly to the explosion of a fire like the Bear, the agency ignored him. The John Muir Project, a nonprofit Hanson co-founded in 1996, filed suit in federal court to stop the agency’s so-called “fuel-reduction” logging program in California’s national forests, but the judge in the case deferred to the Forest Service—and the program continued unabated.

The Forest Service has long been a friend to the timber and paper products industries, as I documented in my 2019 book about public land management in the American West: For decades it has parroted the dubious claims of industry-funded scientists that intensified logging is needed to reduce the severity of wildfires. Both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations in the last two decades—from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump—have bought into these claims.

Under Obama, the annual volume of trees felled in national forests was higher than in all the years during the George W. Bush administration but one. In the year Obama took office, 2009, the cut was about 1.9 billion board feet (a billion board feet is roughly equivalent, depending on the ecosystem and the growth rate of trees, to one hundred thousand acres). By the end of his administration, in 2016, the figure was 2.5 billion board feet, an increase of almost 30 percent—almost entirely justified with the misguided notion that logging can stop wildfire. Donald Trump has followed in Obama’s footsteps, exploiting the public’s fear and confusion during wildfire season to call for still more logging of national forests.

Years of wildfire research, however, contradict the notion that logging helps suppress fire. As early as 2004, three researchers concluded in a paper for the Forest Service’s own symposium that “perhaps counter intuitively, heavy harvest can increase subsequent fire severity.” Chad Hanson was one of the lead authors of the most comprehensive study ever conducted on fire in the West, published in 2016 in the annals of the Ecological Society of America. Hanson and his colleagues found that wherever there is more logging with fewer environmental protections, there is higher fire intensity, as logging removes the mature, fire-resistant trees; reduces the shade of the forest canopy that otherwise keeps the floor cool and wet; opens the forest to more wind that drives fire; spreads flammable invasive grasses like cheatgrass; and leaves a combustible mosh of what’s called slash debris, piles of branches and treetops that act as kindling. The 2016 study—its findings reiterated and supported in a May 2020 letter from over two hundred scientists to Congress—elicited no response from the Forest Service.

Further evidence has come from abroad. In May, University of Queensland researchers argued in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that logging probably exacerbated Australia’s disastrous bushfires in 2019 and early 2020. “There is no evidence whatsoever that forest thinning reduces the risk of wildfire,” Richard Hutto, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana who specializes in wildfire ecology, told me, summing up current research.

The logging industry and Forest Service have spread various “fire myths,” according to ecologist George Wuerther, who edited a 2006 book about fires and forest policy called The Wildfire Reader. While the most prominent of those myths is that big fires are the result of too much fuel, i.e., too much forest, others include that fire “sterilizes” the land and “destroys” wildlife, and that salvage logging after fire—essentially, removing the dead trees that remain—is necessary to “restore” forests.

The Forest Service did exactly this, five years ago, in areas where the Creek fire now rages. In areas burned by the Aspen fire zone of 2013 and the French fire of 2014, the service removed nearly all of the large burnt snags, according to Hanson, claiming it would reduce “fuels.” In 2015, Hanson and several colleagues alerted the agency to studies suggesting that the logging of snags would in fact worsen future fires but were ignored. Instead, said Hanson, the service barreled ahead with commercial timber production, using friendly euphemisms—“thinning,” “fuels reduction,” “restoration” done for the greater good of “resilient forests”—to cover up what amounted to business as usual.

Wildfire ecologists also point out that scores of species depend on unlogged patches of standing tree snags in the post-burn environment—a unique forest type known as “snag forest habitat.” Many of these species—birds, beetles, mushrooms, wildflowers—rarely occur in any other habitat. The cones of certain pines, like the lodgepole and giant sequoia, open only when blasted with fire. Hutto has found that snag forests with standing dead trees are places of wondrously profuse life, with “legions of insects”—fire beetles and jewel beetles and fire moths, among others—and “a wildflower show unlike anything elsewhere.” The snag forests, unlogged, free of human intervention, are where fire-stimulated nutrient cycling provides the basis for the next generation of trees.

Commercial logging of national forests is heavily subsidized by the Forest Service, offering below-market rates while building roads and culverts and water diversions for companies. Sometimes the companies oversee the roading and other infrastructure in exchange for practically free timber. Overall, the cost to the Forest Service—the cost, that is, borne by the American public—to prepare and administer the timber sales, to oversee the construction of the roads, to mitigate (in usually small and ineffective ways) the damage to the landscape far outweighs any fiscal return.

Meanwhile, the destruction and chaos from the wildfires that have accelerated in logged territory continues to mount. The Creek fire started slowly in Big Creek Canyon on September 4 and, a day later, reached a large previously logged area, after which it raced 15 miles north in a matter of hours, unexpectedly trapping over 200 campers at Mammoth Pool Reservoir. The campers, dozens of whom suffered injuries, were saved only with a daring National Guard helicopter rescue. The Creek fire went on to run fast through a “commercial thinning” project that the Forest Service had permitted. Numerous homes burned on private land around the area of the thinning project, and dozens of additional hikers and campers had to be rescued after being trapped in the flames.

As the fire season of 2020 unfolds, national media and a few brave politicians are acknowledging the link between wildfires and climate change. The next step is to take a closer look at our national policy on logging, as well.