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Wildfire's role in the life of a forest

By Chad Hanson, PhD

July 16, 2008

Editor - The recent guest column ("While California burns," July 8) by timber industry spokesperson Tom Bonnicksen is a wildly misleading attempt to promote increased logging of national forests in California under the guise of reducing wildland fires and mitigating climate change.

Bonnicksen makes numerous scientifically inaccurate assumptions about fire. For example, he states, "The wildfire crisis is becoming more serious each year. Fires are getting bigger and more destructive, killing wildlife and polluting the air as well." The fact is that there is far less fire in our forests now than there was historically. The total area of forest annually affected by fire currently is only about one-tenth of what it was prior to 1850, due to fire suppression.

Increasingly, forest managers are realizing that, despite increased spending on fire suppression, fires cannot be indefinitely kept at unnatural levels in ecosystems that are adapted to frequent burning.

Far from being "destructive" and killing off all wildlife, these areas show some of the greatest rejuvenation and ecological richness. In such areas, natural conifer regeneration occurs, often with thousands of seedlings per acre after the fire. Moreover, some of the highest levels of biodiversity are found in the most heavily burned areas for both wildlife and plants. Many flowering plants and shrubs depend upon fire for germination and reproduction.

While flames several stories high make dramatic and sensational images, the majority of areas burned each year in California generally experience low or moderate intensity effects.

Bonnicksen would also have us believe that forest fires are a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The California Air Resources Board's data reveal that current emissions from forest fires in California are less than 1 percent of those from fossil fuel consumption in this state.

Furthermore, fire converts woody material on the forest floor from relatively unusable forms into highly useable nutrients, which aids forest productivity and carbon sequestration. Whatever carbon emissions occur from combustion during wildland fire and subsequent decay of fire-killed trees is more than balanced by forest growth across the landscape over time.

It's important for people to know the facts about fire, ecosystems, and climate. Unfortunately, the timber industry is less interested in the truth than in misleading people to serve its own economic goals.


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