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The Truth about Thinning

I went into the woods today, around my house in beautiful pristine Glorieta, New Mexico. This is why I moved here eight years ago. But in today's sojourn into the wild I did not find the peace that I usually do. I was worried about the imminent destruction of approximately 100,000 trees just a half mile down the road.

The thinning project that is set to take place in the La Cueva area of Glorieta this spring would take the tree level from 600 - 900 trees per acre to 40 trees per acre, which is 93 - 96% of the existing trees. The majority of La Cueva community does NOT FAVOR this project. Many in our community have been trying to prevent this every year since 2013. We are being asked by the Forest Service to swallow a drastic thinning treatment to the forestlands we love for the sake of fire prevention and personal safety. This didn't sit right, so I looked for answers. After reading a 300 page book, "Wildfire - A Century of Failed Forest Policy", I have attempted to reduce the information provided to a short summary which I hope will shed some light on this controversial subject, not only for La Cueva but for the sake of forests everywhere. I used to think of the Forest Service as the protectors of the forests, rather than brokers of its demise.

"The budget for the Forest Service is determined by how many trees are cut. So the Forest Service has to keep cutting in order to keep getting money."

     — Barry Rosenburg, Kootenai Environmental Alliance (former logger)


It is widely recognized in the scientific community that past commercial logging, road building, livestock grazing, and aggressive firefighting are the sources of most "forest health" problems, including unnaturally severe wildfires. According to the final report of Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, an assessment funded by Congress and the US Forest Service, "Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity."

In recent times, environmentally concerned citizens pressured Congress to end money-losing commercial uses of public lands that were damaging the environment. As a result of these economic and political changes, national forest timber harvest, which had peaked in 1988-1989, declined dramatically in the 1990's. During the 1990s the commercial harvest of timber from national forestlands declined by three quarters, from 10.5 to 2.5 billion board feet.

Considerable political pressure was placed on the US Forest Service to boost its commercial timber harvest back toward previous levels. The case for widespread forest fuel reduction programs on public lands was then built, using the idea that these public forestlands are ecologically "unhealthy". They then used wildfires of the late 1990's and early 2000's to argue that timber harvests are necessary to control fuels in our public forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires. They insisted that active human intervention was now necessary, and asserted that passive management allowing "natural forests" to emerge will lead to catastrophic wildfires that will leave large parts of the western US unsafe for human habitation. These claims represent a powerful counterattack on the direction that public forestland management had been taking throughout the 1990s and on the foundation of modern environmentalism.

Some Forest Service History

For the first half century following the establishment of the Forest Service in 1905, the role of the agency was largely custodial, protecting the national forests from illegal commercial uses, preventing fires, maintaining watersheds, wildlife, and fisheries. After World War II, the Forest Service shifted to a more aggressive commercial timber harvest program, with a major objective being to help meet the demand for housing following the deprivations of the Great Depression and the war. Commercial harvest on federal lands rose dramatically, peaking in the late 1960s.

Since then federal timber harvests have fallen to a quarter of their 1988 peak as federal land management agencies have dealt with new environmental constraints. The courts and the American public became increasingly critical of the damage being done to public forestlands. There were numerous scandals, including the notorious "Salvage Rider" of 1995, in which environmental protection laws were suspended to allow logging corporations to cut ancient forests in the name of "forest health". Public backlash led to the almost complete abandonment of commercial timber harvest on federal lands in the 1990s and first years of the 21st century.

Being forced to abandon their former role, managing public lands primarily for commercial timber harvest, the US Forest Service now enthusiastically embraces the new roles of "hazardous fuels management", "healthy forests", and "ecosystem management." Beginning in 2000, logging proponents whipped up a fire hazard hysteria, arguing that millions of acres of public lands needed "mechanical fuels reduction" and "thinning" (commercial logging) to remove trees before they could burn. In 2001-2004, the Forest Service engaged in fuel reduction activities on an average of about 2.5 million acres a year. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, under George Bush, authorized fuel reduction treatment on a total of 20 million acres of federal land. It appropriated $760 million for the first year of that effort in 2004. Federal agencies estimate that 190 million acres of federal forestlands are "threatened".

Removing higher value trees of course increases the revenue generated by fuel reduction treatments, making it tempting to solve the cost problem by harvesting more of the larger high value trees. When forests are thinned to greater extremes, most of the commercially valuable wood fiber is removed, and many more acres can be thinned without incurring a net cost. The analysis in New Mexico, which has even more limited commercial forestland, found that even when there were few limits on the removal of larger commercially valuable trees, only 25 percent of the moderate and high risk forestlands could be treated at no net cost. These factors are likely to lead narrow economic concerns to influence the designation of what "the forest needs". Perhaps this is responsible for the extreme prescriptions that we are seeing in New Mexico now.

Efficacy of Forest Thinning

In a report to the federal Joint Fire Science Program, two of the nation's leading fire scientists said, "Evidence of fuel treatment efficacy for reducing wildfire damages is largely restricted to anecdotal observations and simulations. The lack of empirical assessment of fuel treatment performance has become conspicuous."

Conditions for major fires usually have much more to do with drought, wind and ignition sources than with fuels. Since fuels are not the driving force behind large blazes, mechanical thinning to reduce fuel loading generally does not have much if any effect on large fires. Not only that but there is considerable evidence that thinning exacerbates fire danger by removing forest canopy and creating drier conditions on the ground, and leaving smaller more flammable material to feed fire.

Furthermore, it is a false assumption that cutting trees is a benign means of reducing fuels. On the surface, logging, or thinning, and wildfire have some gross similarities. Both remove trees, exposing the soil to sunshine and allowing sun tolerant species to reestablish themselves. Fire alters an ecosystem by chemical processes, while logging, or thinning, by the mechanical process of tree removal. Fire rapidly cycles nutrients, kills pathogens, selectively favors fire adapted species, and fulfills redistribution of nutrients from the forest canopy and floor into the soil, thus increasing soil fertility. Logging, or thinning, leads to the loss of soil nutrients and organic matter from the ecosystem, since trees are transported out of the area, and it increases soil compaction, reducing water infiltration. It also takes away the least flammable portion of trees - their main stems - and leaves behind the most flammable parts, the limbs and needles.

Conclusion, Facts and Quotes

Over 96% of America's, and 60% of the world's forests have been logged. Thinning is in truth another word for, and excuse for, logging on a grand scale. Make people afraid of fire, even though it nature's own way of keeping the forest healthy, so that we'll surrender the beauty of the natural world to the blade of industry and money. Not only that, but this comes at a time of devastating climate change, and we know that deforestation accelerates global warming at a rating of 17%, larger than vehicle emissions rated at 14%. We should be reforesting, not deforesting. The Global Climate Change Prevention Act of 1990 requires that all federal agencies analyze climate change effects in decision-making and propose alternatives that mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. I seriously doubt that any thought at all has been given to the impact of this project on climate change.

In typical American style, our government agencies have brought us the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on crime, and now the war on wildfire. Fear is used to garner public support. We are taught to view fire as an enemy, not as the creative and life sustaining process that it is. The public is kept largely ignorant of the tactics, methods and motives of firefighting. Just like trench warfare tactics, there is the construction of fire lines to stop fire from spreading, causing massive tree harvesting and environmental degradations. Chemical weapons include fire retardants, which unleash their toxic effects on vegetation and wildlife for decades to come. Managing fuel loads becomes another excuse for logging without any restraints. Just like all of our other wars, they are failed policies that only serve to bring profits to a few while exacerbating the problems we all now must face.

Finally I'd also like to include a little bit about the trees themselves. Did you know that trees communicate with each other through chemical signals and their roots? Did you know that when one tree is deficient the surrounding trees will send it nutrients through their root systems? In our modern world we tend to only view trees as commodities, or now as liabilities, when in fact they are sentient beings. Imagine how different our world would be if we possessed the same sense of community and interdependence, sharing freely with each other for the good of the whole. Forest thinning is destroying communities, of trees, of wildlife, and the natural harmony that exists only in the wild.

Timber Industry Facts - Follow the Money

ref: Ibis World - Industry Reports

  • Annual Revenue for the Logging Industry - $12 billion.

  • Timber operations to pay for forest-fire prevention programs cost as much as $4 billion annually.

  • About 11 forest sector jobs are created or retained for every 1 million board feet of timber harvested, roughly equal to the volume from about 40 acres of mature trees.

  • Looking at recent data on who shares in the revenues from sale of timber from forest land, 5 % went to national forests, 6 % went to other public lands, 33 % went to industry land owners, and 56 % went to other private landowners.

  • Worldwide people cut down 15 billion trees each year and the global tree count has fallen by 46%.



"Healthy Forests Initiative" proposes to log more than 2.5 million acres of federal forests under suspension of all applicable environmental laws. It was another Bush "initiative" that guts environmental protections, provides financial breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations and does away with pesky public oversight. Couldn't have anything to do with the fact that the timber industry contributes 82 percent of its millions in annual political contributions to Republicans? The Bush "Healthy Forests Initiative" must be recognized for what it is, a Big Timber handout that only exacerbates the problem."

     — Michael Donnelly, author and environmentalist

"President Bush announced the "Healthy Forests Initiative," a [1995] proposal that would curtail environmental reviews and legal challenges to logging plans and accelerate so-called mechanical thinning (another way of saying logging) on 190 million acres of federal land...

The government's own science warns that such an approach will increase, not decrease, severe fires because removal of these larger trees reduces forest canopy cover, creating hotter, drier conditions...

As the timber industry gets its way, the only projects that will be expedited are those that remove large trees and increase fire risk. These projects deceptively use the term "thinning" for commercial logging of medium and large trees...

There is much evidence that decades of logging on federal lands has not reduced severe fires, they have, in fact, created them."

     — Chad Hanson, director of John Muir Project, National Director of Sierra Club

"Forests do not live in dire fear of fires, but of foresters, loggers, fire fighters and fire suppression. Misinformation about fire behavior and fire ecology is exploited by those who wish to prescribe more logging in our forests...

How human manipulation will affect the long term health and genetic diversity of a forest is seldom discussed...

What truly destroys forests is continual human intervention done in the name of forest health."

     — George Wuerthner, Foundation for Deep Ecology