Can Catastrophic Wildfire and Toxic Smoke be Controlled by Logging as Posited by Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke?
How can Secretary Ryan Zinke's logging solution address the root problem of depleted megafauna (deer) in the western United States that results in the prodigious grass and brush that kindle and fuel the majority of catastrophic wildfires devastating California and is leading to hundreds of billions in annual losses due to these wildfires.
In an August 8, 2018 USA Today Op-Ed article, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke posited his solution for catastrophic wildfires and smoke.
Sec. Zinke said, “The fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests. These fuels fill forests from the floor, where highly-combustible, dry pine needles act as kindling to jump-start the tiniest spot fire, all the way up to the crown where beetle-killed trees dot the mountains like matches. In between the floor and the crown, there are years’ worth of dead logs, overgrown shrubs and snags, which many firefighters call 'widow makers' because they are so deadly. The buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests.”
He mentions "pine needles" as the source kindling but failed to highlight the major and leading role played by grass and brush as both kindling and fuel for the massive wildfires that have, and continue to burn, produce deadly toxic smoke in the western United States, as is cited in wildfire forensic reports.
Zinke’s assertion that a reversion back to logging methods of the 1960s and 1970s will bring the plague of now annual catastrophic wildfires under control completely. However his "solution" is missing a critically important condition that allowed logging as forest management to work says William E. Simpson II, Columnist and Conservation advocate.
In the 1960’s, California and Oregon had millions more deer (and a lot more elk) in the forest landscape than today. So even when forests were thinned and trees were logged, which opened-up the forest canopy (even in Douglas Fir clear cuts) allowing more light to support the growth of more grass and brush, there were plenty of deer and elk to keep it all grazed-down to nominal conditions year-round; keeping grass and brush in-check. And generally back then wildfires were infrequent, relatively small and short-lived; nothing like the fires we are experiencing today.
According to William E. Simpson II, the conditions in the west-coast forest landscape have changed significantly over the past decades and that requires a new management paradigm. In a rebuttal to Sec. Zinke's assertions, Mr. Simpson offered the following compelling insights:
“Our combined cervid (deer-elk) population in California and Oregon is down about 2.2 million animals over the past 5-decades due to mismanagement. These deer, now depleted from the landscape, were previously abating roughly 2.7-million tons of annual grass and brush just in California and Oregon. This is the same grass and brush that has kindled and is the primary fuel for recently evolved mega-fires and resulting toxic smoke plaguing California and Oregon as cited in fire reports for many catastrophic wildfires, including the Mendocino Complex, Carr Fire, Sonoma Fire, Thomas Fire, Kalmiopsis/Chetco Bar Fire, etc.
"And now the fatal and highly contagious Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is spreading to the relatively few remaining cervids (deer, elk, moose, etc.) and is already present in 27 states!"
More info: https://www.environews.tv/022718-wild-horses-may-hold-solution-slowing-spread-fatal-chronic-wasting-disease-deer-elk/
"Logging worked well to control the frequency and intensity of wildfires back in the 1960s and 1970s via culling a reasonable percentage of some of the heavier fuel loading (10-hr. & 100-hr. fuels) because of the synergy with the millions of deer (and elk) present in the landscape back then; it won't work now the way it worked then. In fact, opening-up the canopy via thinning and logging will exacerbate the wildfire and smoke problem by adding even more grass and brush into the mix unless we have an adequate grazing herbivory present in and around forests and wildland areas beforehand.
"If we engage in a solo logging and heavy-fuels removal solution for wildfires and smoke in the absence of proper large-bodied herbivore populations, as Secretary Ryan Zinke is positing, that method will fail.
"Prescribed burning has only proven to be a risky and costly enterprise and they can evolve into wildfires adding even more air pollution (deadly particulates that are already killing Americans) to our breathing air and environment; it's just more tape on a leaking pipe. Even in light of the obvious myopic adaptive management that is afoot, even among some scientists, some people continue with the trendy meme of prescribed burns all the while asserting 'the native Americans did it'. And in doing so, clearly failing any comprehension of the many tens of millions of grazing megafauna (wild horses, buffalo, deer, elk, etc.) that created and maintained the fire resilient ecosystems that were present in the days when fire was used by the natives on the North American continent.
"Just the act of thinning trees and opening-up the canopy and allowing more sun to filter to the ground will stimulate far more grass and brush to take hold in a landscape already choking on grass and brush, in a landscape missing 80% of its natural grass mowers, the large-bodied herbivores (western deer in CA & OR).
"The net result of Zinke's big idea as presented, absent of a comprehensive mixed herbivory grazing program that addresses areas of wilderness, forests and the WUI, will be that catastrophic wildfires and smoke will be made even worse (if that is possible), not better by logging. And I say this even though I love the idea of monetizing our forests once again via a sustainable and ecologically responsible logging industry as opposed to monetizing it via a fire-suppression business model.
"If we had an ecological snapshot of the forest and wildlife (taxa) present during the 1960-1970's logging period, we would see millions more cervids in our western forest landscape grazing the grass and brush (aka: fine fuels) at a time when logging was working well for virtually all stakeholders and the forest ecosystem. Done right, and knowing what some of us know today, a modernized and ecologically-balanced sustainable logging industry could devolve catastrophic wildfire and toxic smoke while contemporaneously enhancing local economies. Such a vision requires the reestablishment of the now severely depleted megafauna in and around our forests.
"It will take many decades of sound wildlife management to recover the former deer populations. And in the meantime we desperately need a substitute large-bodied herbivore doing their job. And with an epidemic of CWD running rampant in America, a large-bodied herbivore that happened to be immune to CWD would be ideal.
"American wild horses are the only large-bodied herbivore on the North American continent immune to CWD and therefore do not spread the disease like deer, cattle and sheep, which could contract and also re-transmit the fatal disease from infected deer or each other. And with only 120,000 wild horses left in America today (includes all BLM corralled horses) it seems utterly reckless to send any of them to slaughter as Sec. Zinke seems to also posit. This is especially contrary to good ecological management given that to make up for the entire grazing capacity of the missing 2.2-million west-coast deer, we actually need about 500,000 horses! As we now see, we need more CWD immune wild horses, not less.
"According to Science Magazine: By altering the quantity and distribution of fuel supplies, large herbivores can shape the frequency, intensity, and spatial distribution of fires across a landscape. There are even unique interactions among large herbivore populations that can influence fire regimes. For example, facilitative interactions between white rhinoceros and mesoherbivores result in reduced fuel loads and fuel continuity, and consequently fewer large, intense fires. Other factors can influence the frequency and intensity of fires, particularly in locations where the total area burned is strongly related to ungulate population size.
"I have put forward a Plan known as the ‘Natural Wildfire Abatement And Forest Protection Plan’, also known as the ‘Wild Horse Fire Brigade’.
"And it's not all that complicated: We put CWD immune large-bodied herbivores (wild horses and burros) back into and around carefully selected remote forests (wilderness) areas, which are the most difficult areas to manage due to little or no access, rugged terrain and remote location. These same areas are also a real problem (costly) for wildfire suppression, so reducing the frequency and intensity of wildfire in these areas via a natural grazing herbivory, as it was in the past, is a very good thing.
"In selected wilderness areas, which are also prime habitat for apex predators, these predators are the naturally evolved predators of wild horses and burros and are an integral part of a balanced ecosystem with a functioning evolutionary process of natural selection. Taking a bit more of a paleontological perspective towards ecology, and to a measured extent, reestablishing the taxa found in both the near-modern fossil and via archaeological cultural records (native American), the trophic cascades could operate once again, thereby preserving the vigor of all the species in the wild, including wild American horses and burros.
"In other areas that are more accessible (less predators present out of economic design) and manageable with mechanized means, other herbivores can be deployed, such as cattle and sheep. In and around urban areas, goats could ostensibly provide cost-effective grass and brush abatement."
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William E. Simpson II is a Naturalist-Rancher in Northern California. Mr. Simpson grew up in a logging-ranching family in Southern Oregon in the 1960's & 1970's. He is a columnist at MyOutdoorBuddy.com, a contributing author at HorseTalk.com. William is the author of dozens of articles on wildfire and natural resource/forest management, a frequent guest on west-coast talk shows and the author of two books. He lives in mountains of the Cascade-Siskiyou Wilderness with his wife.
William E. Simpson II