Are Environmentalists to Blame for Wildfires?

Today is National Eclipse Day, and thanks to the Milli, Nena Spring, and Whitewater fires, I’m likely to be viewing it through a lens of smoke. So this has me thinking about wildfires and wondering if it is true, as some claim, that environmentalists are ultimately responsible for the increase in acres burned in the last decade or so.

Partly due to pressure from environmentalists, federal land timber sales declined by about 80 percent in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the ten-year rolling average of the number of acres burned grew from about 3 million acres in the 1980s and 1990s to 6.5 million acres in the 2000s and (so far) 2010s. Is this a coincidence or did the cessation in timber cutting lead to the growth in wildfires?

Those who blame environmentalists argue that timber cutting and related activities allowed forest managers to minimize fuel loads in the forests. When those activities stopped, the fuel loads grew and fires became hotter, larger, and harder to control.

After the Cerro Grande fire burned more than 400 homes in Los Alamos in 2000, the Forest Service itself argued that fuels had built up due to a century of fire suppression, thus justifying the increased expenditure of funds on firefighting and vegetation management. But this claim was contradicted by a 2002 Forest Service publication that found that only 26 percent of national forest lands have seen fire regimes “significantly altered from their historical range,” and 60 percent of those lands were of the type that are susceptible to large fuel build ups (denoted in the report as historical fire regime 1). Thus, the Forest Service could blame itself for only 15 percent of fire problems.

One reason for this is that federal fire protection efforts were never that successful in the first place. But in addition, forests grow slowly, so it takes a long time for fuels to build up enough to become a problem. This means that the few years since the reduction in timber sales in the 1990s is not going to create severe problems in forest health.

We can check this by taking a look at British Columbia forests, most of which are owned by the government. As shown in a table from Canada’s National Forestry Database, timber harvests there did not decline; in fact, they grew somewhat in the early 2000s, probably in response to the reduction in timber cutting in U.S. national forests.

If timber cutting helps prevent forest fires, then British Columbia forests would not have seen the large increase in number of acres burned experienced in the United States. In fact, the exact opposite is the case, as shown in this table in the National Forestry Database. Whereas an average of about 25,000 hectares per year burned between 1990 and 2002, since 2003 the average has been 159,000 hectares, or an increase of 540 percent. That’s a much larger increase than seen in U.S. forests, suggesting that something other that timber cutting is responsible.

The Antiplanner’s own analysis found that changes in the share of the United States that is suffering from severe to extreme summer (July-September) drought are sufficient to explain most of the annual variation in acres burned. Updating that analysis, from 1960 through 2016, the correlation is 0.57. Moreover, to the extent that this correlation isn’t perfect, it would predict that more acres would have burnt in recent years than actually did burn. While global warming could be increasing drought, the United States actually suffered much worse droughts in the 1930s than in recent years, and droughts were also bad in the early 1950s and early 1960s.

On the whole, the nation’s forests–especially in the West–really aren’t that much different today than they were a hundred years ago. Instead of looking to those changes to explain variations in acres burned, I would blame them on drought and on the ability of fire fighters to attenuate the worst effects of drought.

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6 thoughts on “Are Environmentalists to Blame for Wildfires?

  1. Frank

    “On the whole, the nation’s forests–especially in the West–really aren’t that much different today than they were a hundred years ago.”

    That assumption isn’t supported by photographic evidence. Grasslands in the Great Basin have been “protected” into juniper forests as shown by photographic evidence.

    Giant sequoia groves, which are essentially mixed conifer forests composed of pines and firs, are also shown through photographic evidence to be dramatically changed due to fire suppression. This situation is the same throughout the Sierra Nevada mid-elevations.

    Fire scars show that ponderosa pine forests throughout the West once burned every two to 20 years. That means some of these forests have missed five to fifty fires during the suppression era.

    Yes, coastal forests, lodgepole pine, and subalpine forrest fire regimes are measured in centuries, so suppression has had little effect there. But several forests types have been massively altered as the evidence clearly shows.

  2. Sandy Teal

    After the spotted owl wars over old-growth timber, the environmentalists opposed tons of fire prevention treatments, especially in California. So yes, the environmentalists are responsible for a lot of the wildfire damage that they preferred to have happen rather than allow any community to have jobs cutting timber.

  3. Frank

    “After the spotted owl wars over old-growth timber, the environmentalists opposed tons of fire prevention treatments, especially in California.”

    Yet another preposterous unsupported assertion. “The environmentalists” did no such thing. Environmentalists know that spotted owls benefit from forest fire mosaic.

    “So yes, the environmentalists are responsible for a lot of the wildfire damage that they preferred to have happen rather than allow any community to have jobs cutting timber.”

    Timber harvesting leads to larger and more severe fires as the practice is to take the largest, oldest trees, and those trees are in general far more resistant to a stand-replacing crown fire than young trees. Timber harvesters leave branches and needles and extract only trunks, which causes an accumulation of ground fuels that wouldn’t be present in high quantities absent logging activities.

    This is well known by anyone who has actually studied fire ecology. Here’s an excerpt written by actual scientists that supports and further explains this well-known fact:

    In the case of the Rim Fire, our research found that protected forest areas with no history of logging burned least intensely. There was a similar pattern in other large fires in recent years. Logging removes the mature, thick-barked, fire-resistant trees. The small trees planted in their place and the debris left behind by loggers act as kindling; in effect, the logged areas become combustible tree plantations that are poor wildlife habitat.

    So by all means, continue to post made up stuff without any supporting evidence. It’s so easy and fun to rebut.

  4. Sandy Teal

    Frankly, you know nothing about what you talk about. The spotted owl was wiped out quickly by the barred owl in the “fire mozaic” and a little slower in the old growth. The barred owl is a very tiny bit different genetically than the spotted owl, and millions of dollars has not found any ecosystem level difference, but of course that doesn’t matter to enviro nuts.

    Of course logging areas burn more than old growth — by definition an old growth area is an area that hasn’t burned in a long time. But environmentalists say they love areas that burn every couple years, except when they don’t, and of course if an area has been logged it by definition doesn’t have much to burn.

  5. Frank

    “Frankly, you know nothing about what you talk about.”

    Haha. Classic Sandy deflection with nothing to back it up except things you make up. Sad.

    “The spotted owl was wiped out quickly by the barred owl in the ‘fire mozaic’ [sic] and a little slower in the old growth.”

    The northern spotted owl has not been wiped out. It is endangered but not extinct. Additionally, you are pretty much full of it. You offer no support for this bogus assertion per usual.

    “by definition an old growth area is an area that hasn’t burned in a long time”

    Laughable. Seriously laughing at your ignorance. That is not the definition of an old growth forest.

    “and of course if an area has been logged it by definition doesn’t have much to burn.”

    Um. No. Not “by definition.” As previously shown and supported, there is quite a lot to burn in a logged area. Try reading before responding.

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