When the Oak Fire swept through more than 10,000 acres southwest of Yosemite National Park last weekend, it scorched forests where widespread logging, including commercial thinning, accelerated over the past decades. Much of the forest canopy had been removed, exposing the remaining vegetation to more direct sunlight and creating hotter, drier and windier conditions that favor the spread of flames.
But when the fire reached the area affected by the Ferguson Fire in 2018, it slowed to burn about 1,000 acres a day. The previous fire had left less available kindling like dry leaves, pine needles, twigs and saplings on the forest floor.
There has been public concern about the threat the Oak Fire, which has scorched more than 19,000 acres and is less than 50% contained, poses to Yosemite’s famed Mariposa Giant Sequoia grove. One of the logging industry’s allies in Congress, Rep. Scott Peters, Democrat of California, is trying to exploit concerns about giant sequoias, a species that depends on wildfires to reproduce effectively, to promote a series of drastic measures of commercial logging and environmental reductions under the guise of forest fire management.
The truth is that logging activities tend to increase, not decrease, extreme fires, reducing the windbreak effect that denser forests have, for example, and bringing in highly combustible invasive grasses. that are spread by forest machines.
Yet federal land agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, are under significant political pressure to conduct commercial logging operations that benefit logging companies but tend to exacerbate the overall severity of fires. In December 2018, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to prioritize and expand commercial logging operations on public lands, targeting trees and forests. mature and old with chainsaws and bulldozers.
Yosemite National Park then launched an unprecedented commercial logging program, with park superintendent Cicely Muldoon agreeing in August 2021 to start projects on more than 2,000 acres of forest in the Yosemite Valley region. under the auspices of thinning, without prior public notice, comment opportunity or environmental impact analysis.
It meant that when visitors arrived in Yosemite National Park this spring, they were greeted by a shocking sight in a crown jewel of the nation’s beloved national park system. Fully loaded logging trucks roared along the roads as crews of commercial loggers felled countless mature trees – some of them more than five feet in diameter – and hauled them to sawmills and power plants where they would be burned in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This logging was then temporarily halted in early July by a lawsuit brought by one of us and filed by the Earth Island Institute.
The effects were not limited to increasing the risk of more intense wildfires. Groups of giant, dinosaur-like logging machines called feller-bunchers have also been clearcutting ecologically vital patches of forest, which many types of native wildlife, such as woodpeckers and bluebirds, depend on for survival.
Then, in June, a group of logging industry-aligned House Democrats and Republicans led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy and several others introduced the misleading Save Our Sequoias Act. The law would reduce environmental laws, facilitate commercial harvesting of mature and old-growth trees, and expedite post-fire clearcutting in giant sequoia groves in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Kings Canyon and Forests. national. In a letter dated June 17, more than 80 environmental groups strongly opposed the destructive logging bill, for which its sponsors are trying to drum up additional support in Congress.
Federal land agencies like the Forest Service and the scientists funded by that agency have promoted logging for decades, referring to it as wildfire management or biomass thinning. The Forest Service is even in the commercial logging business, selling trees to private logging companies and keeping the revenue for its budget. In a case involving the Earth Island Institute, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit warned that the Forest Service has a “substantial financial interest” in logging, an interest that creates a bias regarding the science of forest fires.
In fact, a large and growing body of scientific research and evidence shows that these logging practices make matters worse. Last fall, more than 200 scientists and conservationists, including us, warned the Biden administration and Congress that logging activities such as commercial thinning reduce the cooling shade of the forest canopy and alter the microclimate. of a forest in a way that tends to increase the intensity of forest fires.
Logging emits three times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per acre than wildfires alone. Most of the tree parts unusable for lumber – branches, tops, bark and sawdust – are burned for energy, sending large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, forest fires release a surprisingly small amount of carbon into trees, less than 2%. Logging in America’s forests is now responsible for as many annual greenhouse gas emissions as burning coal.
Worryingly, the Biden administration announced in January a proposal to spend $50 billion of taxpayers’ money to cut down up to 50 million acres of US forests over the next decade, again using the narrative of forest fire management as justification. Under this plan, which Congress supporters are trying to implement piecemeal in different legislative packages – including a package on wildfires and drought past by the House on Friday and the new climate and tax deal in the Senate — most logging would take place in public forests, including national forests and national parks.
Instead, the President and Congress must increase forest protection from logging to reduce carbon emissions and allow intact forests to absorb more excess carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. Failure to do so will endanger countless species, worsen global warming, and increase wildfire threats to vulnerable cities. Current logging subsidies should be redirected to programs aimed at directly helping communities protect themselves from fires.
Such policies could have prevented the loss of more than 100 homes in the Oak fire. After all, fires happen in forests, as they have for millennia. Assuming otherwise is like living on the coast and expecting no hurricanes. We need to help communities prepare.