Burning Questions About the Future of Pacific Northwest Forests

Land remains in smoldering ruins after the Beachie Creek Fire passed through, September 25, 2020, outside of Mill City, Oregon. (Photo/Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Burning Questions About the Future of Pacific Northwest Forests

Climate change has played an overarching role in the blazes, but a perfect storm of government mismanagement – privatization, lax enforcement, and outright corruption – has contributed a major share

In a year filled with wildfire, which started with Australian and Amazonian forests burning with horrifying scope and severity and continued this past September as the smoke from America's vast wildfires circled the globe -- the dire implications of the climate crisis have become a reality for many.

Here in Oregon, we are still reeling from the impacts of the climate-driven infernos that devastated our communities this summer and preparing for the wave of disaster capitalism that is sure to follow. As the region's recovery unfolds and we confront the increasing likelihood of future fires, science, not the logging industry, must inform our plans.

We know that climate change worsens the conditions that encourage wildfire, like drought and hotter, drier weather. We also know that logging releases carbon stored in trees, plants, and soil, further driving climate change, and replaces native forests with monoculture plantations, increasing fire risk. It's a vicious cycle: logging increases fire risk and logging drives climate change, which drives wildfires; wildfires lead to more logging, which increases future fire risk and further drives climate change, and so on.

On the other hand, research has shown that the iconic forests of the Pacific Northwest have the potential to store more carbon than almost any other place on earth. Though logging interests would have you believe otherwise, burned forests are great at storing carbon, too. But neither is true if these forests are logged -- before or after wildfire.

While wildfire justifiably provokes fear, modern fire ecology proves fires often play a beneficial role in forest ecosystems. Certainly, we must prioritize creating defensible space in communities in wildfire-prone areas (known as "home hardening"), but away from human settlements, it's vital to our future that we leave our burned native forests alone to regenerate naturally, sequestering additional carbon as they regrow. We are already seeing new growth even in the most severely burned Oregon forests.

The timber industry refers to post-fire clearcutting as "salvage" in an attempt to convince the public that nothing of value is left in a burned forest. That claim is patently false. Yet post-fire clearcuts are the plan for much of our recently burned public lands. Our federal and state forest managers have proposed several immense logging schemes that would decimate our burned forests when they are at their most vulnerable, all in the hope of meeting timber targets driven by the outgoing Trump administration.

But with burned timber flooding the market from private lands logging operations, our public lands should take on the role of providing vital habitat and ecological services rather than unneeded timber volume. We have learned (and some never forgot) that the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest evolved with big fires as well as human management. For millennia, Indigenous people used fire to manage forests for food, fiber and forage for game. This activity, in addition to natural combustion, meant that virtually no portion of our forested lands escaped burning for thousands of years.

In contrast, for the past several decades, land managers in the U.S. have suppressed natural wildfires to "protect" the "timber resource" for its monetary value. In addition, despite decades of efforts by environmental activists, clearcut logging and plantation forestry still continue on a massive scale in the Pacific Northwest, and it's not limited to timber barons: the federal government is an enthusiastic participant too. Natural, complex forests suffer from fire suppression while tree plantations wait like tinderboxes to burst into flame at the merest spark.

Climate change has played an overarching role in the blazes, but a perfect storm of government mismanagement - privatization, lax enforcement, and outright corruption - has contributed a major share.

The unbeatable carbon-storage potential of our region's forests makes them resources of international value and impact. Even after a wildfire, much more carbon is locked in wood for centuries as charcoal than is emitted as smoke in the few days any particular patch of forest burns. This should result in immediate pressure upon North American governments, much like the international community has applied to Brazil, to enact policies to protect and restore this asset of global significance, especially in the aftermath of our massive regional wildfires.

Our recovery must focus on protecting the homes and communities most at risk from increasing climate-driven wildfire, while leaving our backcountry forests to recover naturally. Incoming President Biden promises a climate-first agenda, and smart science-based forest stewardship must play a major role.

Pacific Northwest forests offer humanity another hedge against the climate crisis, but not if we allow them to be "salvaged" by corporations. We can no longer afford to view our forests as mere sources of timber -- instead, we must enact policies based on science and traditional ecological knowledge that will prioritize carbon storage and ecological over short-term profit.

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