The “ecological hate speech” developed around forest fires – High Country News – Know the West

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A new book examines the myths that help fuel forest management.

This story was originally published by the Food and Environment Reporting Network and is republished here with permission.

California has seen more wildfires last year than any year before, but the severe drought that is currently choking nearly three-quarters of the American West threatens to worsen the 2021 fire season. And while many state and federal agencies are taking extraordinary measures to prevent further loss of life and property – including prescribed burns, thinning and the deployment of the largest firefighting force in California history – some question the effectiveness of these increasingly costly measures.

In Smoke Screen: Debunking Forest Fire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate, published last month by University Press of Kentucky, author Chad Hanson suggests that the behavior of wildfires is primarily determined by weather and climate. “Extreme weather conditions – hot, dry and windy conditions – will lead to forest fires until the weather changes. In such conditions, which are becoming more and more common due to climate change, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend trying to manage vegetation in remote areas, we cannot stop or curb fires, ”writes -he.

“Fires also cannot be stopped by fire suppression tactics during extreme weather conditions, regardless of the amount spent or the number of firefighters and tankers employed. In the age of climate change, we can no more stop weather-induced fires than we can stand on a ridge and fight the wind, ”he adds.

Using both personal anecdotes from his field work as director of the John Muir Project – a non-profit organization “dedicated to the ecological management of our federal public forests” – and dozens of peer-reviewed studies, Hanson advocates for forest protection “as an integral part of resolving the emergency climate, as well as the abandonment of fossil fuels ”. And it does so, in part, by encouraging a better understanding of forest fires and its many ecosystem services. Too often preceded by hyperbolic and derogatory terms like “mega” and “catastrophic”, both intentionally and not, he writes, wildfires are in fact essential to the health and biodiversity of forests.

“These processes and cycles have been happening for millennia, and entire groups of plant and animal species have evolved to depend on the habitat created by these processes,” he writes. “On the other hand, there is no evolutionary history of logging in forest ecosystems. “

But the forestry industry and those who could benefit from it – particularly the US Forest Service, which pockets most of the profits from its timber sales and “operates like a logging company,” Hanson argues – have long exploited pyrophobia. society, pedaling a host of now popular myths to gain support for additional logging on public and private lands. For example, “thinning” is often promoted as a way to reduce the fuel load in supposedly “overgrown” forests, thereby decreasing both the likelihood and the intensity of forest fires. And yet extensive research has proven otherwise.

“Thinned forests often burn more intensely in forest fires,” he writes, “because thinning reduces the windbreak effect of denser forests, allowing winds to pass faster, while reducing shade. forest canopy and creating warmer and drier conditions. “

In fact, the deadliest wildfire in California history, the infamous 2018 campfire, began on several thousand acres that had been heavily exploited – thinned in some areas, clearcut. in others – following a flash fire in 2008. And yet, as then President Donald Trump stood in a steaming neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., he blamed the blaze not on climate change or logging, but to overgrown forests and poor forest management.

“You look at other countries, where they do it differently, and that’s a whole different story,” he said, apparently recalling a previous conversation with the president of Finland. “They’ve spent a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things, and they have no problem, and when they do, it’s a very small problem.”

In no time, Trump was back in fashion on Twitter, especially in Finland, where users quickly laughed at his comments, creating hashtags like #rakenews and #rakeamericagreatagain. But the president’s language was more than social media fodder – it has propagated a number of damaging wildfire myths that ultimately encourage more logging when the planet can least afford it.

“A kind of ecological hate speech has developed around the issue of wildfires and forests,” writes Hanson, “and it perpetuates the removal of massive amounts of carbon from forests around the world under the banner of terms benign or benevolent, exacerbating the climate. change and push endangered wildlife and ecosystems closer to the edge. “

A prescribed burn in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

And because forest fires consume on average only 1 to 4% of the biomass of trees – a fact consistently overlooked in discussions of forest fires – thinning ultimately releases much more carbon, often 20 to 50%. of a given stand. But perhaps the most fallacious claim of all is the cornerstone of these arguments.

“The reality is that there is no such thing as an ‘overgrown’ forest,” writes Hanson. “If a particular stand is very dense, it is because this location is naturally capable of supporting such biomass. “

Hanson also advocates for the many benefits associated with what is known as “snag forest habitat,” or the skeletal remains of a forest following a high-intensity fire, drought or drought. destruction of beetles. Thanks to laws drafted more than half a century ago, the Forest Service is legally allowed to keep 100% of the income generated from the sale of dead or dying wood, says Hanson. Thus, forest snag habitat – one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, and increasingly scarce due to fire suppression tactics – is often cut down shortly after the fire has passed, before that the wood is rendered unusable, rather than letting it rest and providing its ecosystem services.

“We have to accept that ecologically sound forests contain an abundance of dead trees and felled logs.”

“We have to accept that ecologically sound forests contain an abundance of dead trees and felled logs. And we must stop our futile battle with wildfires and learn to live with it, remembering that fire-adapted forest ecosystems evolved with and depend on fire, ”writes Hanson. “Excluding fire from these ecosystems is like trying to keep rain from entering a rainforest. “

Hanson argues for wildfires and snag forest habitat one case study at a time, while simultaneously exposing a forest industry that is now responsible for emitting around 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, “or about the same as the overall effect of coal production.” In turn, he pleads for all federal agencies to separate from logging.

“If we fully protect federal Crown lands from logging and expand protected Crown lands through acquisitions, we will not only benefit biodiversity and make major strides towards climate change mitigation, we will create and will also improve jobs in communities in need of an economic boost. He wrote in an email. “The leisure economy is much larger and more dynamic than logging. “

Despite a powerful lumber lobby and decades of wildfire “propaganda”, Hanson remains optimistic that the United States can change course and provide “proactive international leadership” on both climate change and forest management. “Not because I think the Biden administration deserves the optimism,” he wrote, noting that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is “a major ally of the logging and biomass industries. “but because” I feel an increasingly diverse chorus of voices are prepared to hold Democratic administrations politically accountable, just as we do when Republican administrations undermine environmental values. “

But while Hanson ardently trumpets the “proforestation,” or protection of existing forests, and the “passive reclamation” of those previously converted to agriculture and livestock grazing, he is not claiming that this is about ‘a miracle solution. He doesn’t believe that trees alone will save the planet, not without equal pressure to wean us off fossil fuels. But they can play a vital role, he writes, and in order to protect our forests and allow them to sequester the carbon we so desperately need from them, we must banish the myths of the wildfires that have fueled for so long. the forest industry.

“It’s simple: stop. No more tweets or sound clips “the world is on fire” or “the earth is on fire”, please. Language based on fear, hyperbole and demonization of wildfires contributes to horrific and destructive policies that make matters worse, and we cannot afford to make it worse, ”he writes. “We just don’t have the time. “

Carson Vaughan is a freelance journalist based in Chicago and Nebraska. He writes frequently about the Great Plains, from the environment to the arts and everything in between. He is the author of Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream. E-mail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Produced with FERN, non-profit report on food, agriculture and environmental health.


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