Clearcutting Triggers Hotter Fires and Reduces Water Supplies

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Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

State Regulators Ignore the Best Available Science

The dry season is upon us and the likelihood of forest fires will grow while our creeks and rivers drop ever lower.  The potential for forest fires coupled with the paucity of water presents serious concerns to natural and human communities alike.  Recent events across the country and within California have us wondering: What are the impacts of the industrial forestry model of clearcutting and dense, mono-culture tree plantations on fire behavior and water availability?

The best available science shows that young, dense tree plantations are prone to higher severity fire than comparable natural forests with older trees and greater ecological complexity.  A recent study out of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station (Miller et al 2012) clearly shows that tree plantations are prone to high severity, stand replacing fires.  These findings are consistent with other research implicating tree plantations as tinder boxes.  This contrasts sharply with low and moderate severity fire behavior generally displayed within natural forests on public lands with older trees and complex structure.

Similarly, intensive industrial forestry is simply not compatible with the conservation of water resources.  Many municipalities that source their water supply from forested watersheds have protected them from damaging logging practices.  Portland, Oregon and New York City are two examples where a century of foresight to protect forested watersheds yields a reliable supply of clean water.  In California, numerous watersheds throughout the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Trinity Alps and Klamath Mountains provide water to millions of people, agriculture and diverse ecosystems.  While some of the watersheds are protected in national forests, millions of acres are in private hands and much of that is extensively clearcut.  Natural forests with older trees provide reliable, clean water supplies because they shade the ground and contain complex aquatic habitat and pools.  In contrast, industrial forestry landscapes are often devoid of any vegetation or contain simplified plantations that do not provide the same benefits for water supplies.

Additionally, recent research has uncovered a critical variable that is often overlooked.  Stubblefield et al (2012) compared overall water usage by young, dense Douglas-fir tree plantations versus older, natural forests in the Mattole River watershed.  The study concludes that tree plantations use more water than older forests, adding an additional indictment of the industrial forestry model.

Meanwhile, California’s regulations for private industrial forestlands continually fail to account for these threats.  California’s Forest Practice Rules allow intensive clearcutting across entire watersheds.  The specter of past, ongoing, and foreseeable cumulative impacts resulting from a century and a half of logging continues to threaten endangered fish and wildlife species.  The best available science implicates the lack of adequate state-level regulations to prevent significant adverse cumulative impacts to our forests and water resources.

In the midst of this ongoing crisis, California’s regulators are completely disconnected from realities on the ground.  Even worse, current proposals do nothing to address the ongoing threats posed by industrial forestry.  Governor Brown has proposed private timber-related items that are nothing more than industry giveaways.  The Governor wants to institute a cap on liability stemming from damages caused by forest fires in response to the federal prosecution of Sierra Pacific Industries for the Moonlight fire. Such meddling in long established law would undermine the ability of the public to recover costs and restore landscapes damaged by the negligence of private logging operations.  Most baffling, the Governor also proposes a new consumer tax on lumber that would be used to fund regulatory agencies’ review of private timber harvest plans.  The proposed tax would give the timber industry the ability to freely pass the cost of public trust analysis onto the consumer.  This approach provides no incentive to engage in sustainable, selection forestry, but instead allows business as usual for those large industrial landowners that clearcut forests across California.  Instead, a progressive fee-based program should be created that promotes good practices.  Damaging logging plans that include clearcutting require more intensive review by state agencies, and therefore should be more expensive to permit.  Genuine stewardship of California’s forests and water resources by landowners should be rewarded with reduced fees for selection forestry.  Holding the timber industry accountable for the damage they have wrought on our natural landscapes and human communities is imperative for charting a new path forward to restore California’s forests.