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Wild Nature Institute Study Shows Logging, Not Fire, is Damaging National Forests in California

Logging has driven California spotted owl populations to crash on US Forest Service lands. New draft forest management plans for California promote widespread, taxpayer-funded, logging, including in occupied spotted owl territories. The logging will be expensive, ineffective at stopping wildfire, and ecologically damaging.

Vallejo, CA, August 23, 2016 --( Monica Bond, Principal Scientist for Wild Nature Institute, has spent the past 15 years studying spotted owls and forest fire. This week, Bond published an article summarizing existing science about what happens to spotted owls when forests burn*, in the hope of averting a major US forest management policy disaster.

The US Forest Service manages 20 million acres of public forest land in California (1). The Forest Service has a new California spotted owl conservation strategy and is revising its forest management plans for Sierra Nevada national forests (2). These documents will guide how national forests are managed for the coming decades, but they are dangerously misguided about fire.

The status of spotted owls tells the Forest Service how its management activities affect old-growth species. Since 1993 when the Forest Service began managing for California spotted owl habitat, populations of spotted owls have crashed on US Forest Service lands. In contrast, spotted owl populations are stable in National Park Service lands. Both Forest Service and Park Service lands have wildfires, but Park Service lands are not logged. Logging on 1.2 million acres of US Forest Service land in the Sierra Nevada between 1994 and 2014 drove the spotted owl population declines (Conner et al. 2013 & (1)).

In Bond's report*, she presents a data-driven narrative describing how forest fires, including big, severe megafires, have no strong negative effects on spotted owl populations. For example, in the largest and most comprehensive Sierra Nevada study to date, burned and unburned owl territories had the same probability of being occupied--even when about a third of the territories' area burned at high severity (Lee et al. 2012). "The lack of effect from fire was remarkable because we found it repeatedly," said Bond. "The three existing studies that examined spotted owl responses to logging all showed negative impacts from fuels reduction thinning. Thirteen scientific papers found no strong negative effects of high-severity fire on owl populations. We kept investigating different aspects and the story didn't change. Owls were harmed by logging, not by fire," said Bond.

These results make perfect sense in light of the history of the Sierra Nevada. Forest fire in the Sierra Nevada is typically mixed severity, meaning it includes some large patches of high severity fire. "The increased abundance and diversity of plants and animals in high severity burns tells us the Sierra Nevada's flora and fauna evolved with regular high severity fires," said Dr. Richard Hutto of University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation. Hutto added, "High severity fire is as natural and necessary to forest health as rain or sunshine."

However, Bond's results are troubling to the US Forest Service and scientists on their payroll. The new California spotted owl conservation strategy was written entirely without consulting Bond. A forest protection organization asked the US Forest Service to include her, but those requests were rejected. The Forest Service's draft management plans now call for widespread logging under the pretense that logging will save the owls and communities from fire. Currently, the US Forest Service spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars administering below-cost timber sales to private companies that amount to corporate welfare for the timber industry (1).

The Forest Service burns through an additional $3 billion taxpayer dollars every year fighting forest fires (1, 3), but data repeatedly show that weather alone drives the biggest, hottest fires each year that burn 95% of the fire-affected acreage and consume 85% of the firefighting budget (1, 3). The Forest Service's own research has also shown how easy and effective it is to retrofit and fireproof homes, structures, and communities by acting within 500 feet of buildings and without ever touching the forest beyond. The final hole in the Forest Service story is the reality that fuels reduction thinning doesn't stop the big, hot, weather-driven fires. The recent King Fire and Rim Fire both blasted through thinned and logged lands at high severity, proving fuels treatments are useless during the big, hot, weather-driven fires.

These facts make clear the motivation of the Forest Service in vilifying forest fire and offering widespread logging as the solution is because their budget swells under this scenario. If the public were aware that fires are natural and necessary, spotted owl populations are not seriously harmed, and homes and communities are easily protected without logging or backwoods firefighting, the Forest Service is out of a job, or at least looking at massive budget cuts.

Bond concluded, "The US Forest Service plans widespread logging on California's public forests. The logging will be expensive, ineffective at stopping wildfire, and ecologically damaging, and it will be paid for by the taxpayers of the USA. The public can still comment on the draft forest plans until August 25 (4). We must demand no more logging on US Forest Service lands until spotted owl populations recover. Spend that money on fire-proofing homes instead."

* Bond ML (2016) The Heat Is On: Spotted Owls and Wildfire. Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences,

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Derek E. Lee

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