In this commentary, Douglas Bevington argues that climate activists may be inadvertently hurting their cause when they repeat erroneous claims about forest fires in the American West.
Bevington says that fire suppression has caused an ecologically harmful shortage of fire in western forests.
He adds that forest fire policy is being used as a pretext for logging and biomass energy production.
When large wildfires in the forests of the western United States generate dramatic headlines, it can be particularly tempting for climate activists to adopt negative messages about wildfire and link them with global warming as a means of building public concern about dangers from anthropogenic climate change. While such efforts are well-intentioned, in this essay I examine how negative messages about wildfire will ultimately backfire for climate activists by inadvertently giving cover to logging schemes that are harmful to forests and the climate.
There are two key aspects of the forest fire issue that makes it a particularly tricky territory for climate activists. The first is that human-caused mechanized wildfire suppression by the US Forest Service and similar agencies has caused a significant shortage of fire in forests of the western US over the past century and continuing to this day. Fire is a natural and beneficial component of western forests, just like rain is. Mixed-severity fires create great wildlife habitat and stimulate nutrient cycling that enables the long-term vitality of the forest. Thus, the anthropogenic shortage of fire is harmful to forests. In this human-altered context, an increase in fire amount from the current depressed levels actually functions as an ecological recovery for forest ecosystems.
The second tricky aspect of the forest fire issue is the role of the Forest Service, the timber industry, and other logging proponents. Faced with widespread public concern over the damage from logging on national forests, in the 1990s and 2000s the Forest Service and timber industry began repackaging logging under the Orwellian claim that it was now being done to “protect” forests from fires, even though fire is a necessary part of forest ecosystems. Today most logging on national forests is done using fire-related pretexts, including massive projects involving extensive clearcutting. In this context, logging proponents have promoted deceptively negative portrayals of fire in order to keep extracting more trees from national forests. When climate activists adopt these negative messages about the wildfires in the western forests, they risk repeating false and misleading claims from logging proponents.
This situation leads to three key dangers for climate activism. First, it is important for climate activists to maintain their credibility as reliable sources of accurate scientific information, so we should be careful to avoid repeating the timber industry’s erroneous and misleading claims about fire. Second, erroneous fire-related claims are used to promote logging projects that emit large amounts of carbon and thus contribute to global warming. Third, when logging under the guise of fire reduction is portrayed as a form of climate adaptation and/or mitigation, those logging projects seek to pull limited climate-related funding away from legitimate projects to confront the climate crisis.
I examine each of these three dangers in greater detail below. I address ways that climate activists can identify deceptive claims about wildfire. And I conclude by exploring how protecting forests from logging and restoring more fire as a natural ecosystem process are an important part of an overall solution to climate crisis.
Danger #1: Repeating Logging Proponents’ False and Misleading Claims about Fire
In this section, I examine two prominent examples of false or misleading claims about forest fires in the West promoted by the Forest Service and timber industry that are sometimes adopted by climate activists regarding fire amount and fire severity.
While I critique some ways that logging proponents try to link climate change into their representations of wildfire, I want to make clear that I am not questioning that anthropogenic climate change is a global crisis or that it affects fire. Instead, the problem I am highlighting is that logging proponents have mischaracterized those effects in ways that lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the fire situation in western forests—the mistaken belief that there is now a harmful excess of fire in those forests. This mischaracterization in turn is used to promote forest-harming, carbon-emitting actions done under the guise of reducing fire.
Is There Too Much Forest Fire?
The amount of fire has risen in western forests in recent decades for a variety of reasons including the effects of climate change. However, this point is often presented in a way that states or implies that that there is now an unnatural excess of fire in western forests, and that presentation is misleading. The important distinction here is between “more fire” and “too much fire.” As we will see, an increase in fire amount does not mean that there is now an excess of fire.
There is widespread agreement among scientists that there was significantly more fire in western forests a century or more ago compared to the present. The effects of large-scale mechanized wildfire suppression by the Forest Service and similar agencies starting in the early 20thcentury contributed to a massive decline to the amount of fire, with national totals bottoming out in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, fire amount has begun to go back up due to a variety of factors, one of which is anthropogenic climate change. Other factors include natural multi-decadal climate variation connected with the El Nino weather patterns and a greater willingness by land managers such as the National Park Service to allow wildfire activity as they came to better understand the natural importance of fire. Yet even with the increases over recent decades, current fire amounts are still well below what they should be. One recent estimate indicated that western forests need approximately five times as much fire as they are now experiencing.[i] In this context, an increase in fire amount from the suppressed levels is a desirable recovery, not an ecological problem.