The recent legislative drive towards forest thinning stems from George W. Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative (HFI) of 2002, which was passed in Congress as theHealthy Forest Restoration Act(HFRA) in 2003. The HFRA was signed into law after a series of catastrophic forest fires ignited as a result of a severe drought in 2002. In order to gain public support, lobbying efforts focused on the public's fear of fires and framed the thinning issue around the unfounded theory that selectively logging forests would fireproof them. The HFRA allocated a certain amount of tax dollars ($760 million annually) towards thinning forest land while giving timber companies the incentive to thin by granting them the infrastructure to "get the cut out." The HFRA opened up the floodgate for other funding programs that emphasized logging as a way to enhance fire mitigation, restoration and healthy forests. The HFRA further sped along the logging/thinning process by allowing timber companies to bypass environmental laws, such as the Watershed Act, Migratory Bird Act and the Endangered Species Act. This enabled timber companies to log forests without having to comply with all those "bothersome" regulations that were enacted to protect the ecological communities in National Forests. This was the most significant section of the HFRA and was strongly advocated by timber industries since such legislation would give them the green light to get into protected old growth forests without facing lawsuits and legislative setbacks that were in place for several decades prior to protect forest communities. Timber industries and the congressional members indebted to those industries made this possible by pushing the Orwellian notion that thinning forests was all about fire mitigation, restoration and forest health.
Timber Industry Drives Research on Forest Thinning
When funding opens up for a particular campaign, universities and federal agencies will perform research and publish this information with the help of the media using financial incentives to prove the funding is in line with particular goals and results, no matter what actual scientific data shows. This is precisely what happened with the HFRA and funding that is spun under that title. With congressional passing of the HFRA, large funds were opened up for use to drive policy intended to convince the public that thinning is a"win win" situation. The main goal under the HFRA is to open up logging of old-growth forests for timber companies with tax payers footing the bill for needed construction of roads and additional infrastructure to get to the timber without having to be delayed by environmental laws or opposition to logging. It is important when researching this issue to look at who funded the particular research being proposed and to look at the scientific parameters of the research. A large proportion of the research promoting thinning is based on lower-elevation southwestern forests. What is learned from studying those ecologically specific forests types is applied with a broad brush across all the dramatically different forests in the Nation. The research generated is mainly theoretical and based on computer modeling without actual examples from forests and fires in those forests. According to this research, if there are only 100 trees per acre, as opposed to 300+, then fires will be much easier to manage and should drop to the ground. But in reality, climatic conditions, not fuels, are at the forefront of driving fires. When "catastrophic" fires rage through forests, treated areas typically have no significant impact on those fires. Evidence for this is readily available in the fire reports that came out after the Biscuit and Hayman fires, as well as fire reports from various other large fires that have recently swept through this nation. There are some claims made in various reports that thinning helped the fire become more manageable, but these examples are not the rule and research ties those claims to wind behavior on those particular days. Timber backed research also frames thinning as a comprehensive solution to forest health; the reasoning is that, if a forest is managed through thinning to create an open park-like landscape, the remaining trees will be healthier since they are receiving more nutrients and sun because all those other trees are gone thus eliminating competition. The problem with this analysis is that forests are not simple units of trees and research continually shows that forest health is based on cooperation, not competition. Forests are complex and require thousands of components to keep healthy. With thinning, equipment compacts soil and solar radiation on the soil heats to a point that kills most of the native species, as well as the organisms essential for healthy soil. This affects the way the forest absorbs moisture and the way nutrients are passed between trees, plants, lichen, fungus and mycelium. In thinned areas, little is growing on the ground and this affects the way a forest shares nutrients. Thinning completely alters the forest by removing trees or masticating them, which immediately accumulates wet wood back onto the soil. Both ways damage soil health and neither imitate any natural process integral to forest health. With fires or disease, all nutrients remain in the forest and will eventually help build up soil, organisms, wildlife and the biotic communities if left in a natural state. When those nutrients are removed mechanically, the forest is not healthier but is complexly damaged throughout. The ecology of a forest needs to be researched much more thoroughly to understand what forest health really means, and the main parameter driving the research should never be based on timber commodities.
Trickle Down Funds for Private Land Owners
Written into the HFRA was the incentive to aggressively treat the wildland urban interface in communities living among the forest by allocating 50% of the federal funding towards these lands. This was a smokescreen for industry, used to convince the public that the focus of the HFRA was the issue of fire mitigation. When researching this act, it becomes apparent that the main purpose of this legislation was to allow timber companies access to the last remaining old growth forests without complying with environmental laws. Financially backed by the timber industry, research and congressional approval of the HFRA have opened up funding possibilities for private land owners. In my small community, the Forest Service comes in and holds meetings with community members who are interested in attaining grants from a variety of sources (mainly federal dollars) to thin their forest lands. The meetings are held by a Forest Service representative introducing the thinning concept by telling the public "it is not a matter of if the forests will burn, but a matter of when," which plays on the fear of fire that residents tend to have in regards to their homes in forest land. The foresters who are pushing thinning programs are well aware that thinning forests is not going to stop a catastrophic fire, yet they try to convince land owners thinning will do just that. When I asked a representative for documentation and research backing up these assertions, I was refused the research-based studies, and from that point on I was completely ignored by that representative and was told not to raise any controversy in regards to the mitigation issue. After further questioning in regards to fire mitigation, this representative told me thinning would not stop catastrophic fires, but would improve forest health. This response indicated to me that the Forest Service is aware they are manipulating the public. They will do what it takes to move grant monies by shifting focus on key points (fire to healthy forests) to convince private land owners thinning is a duty and necessary for people living in forests. Moving the available grant monies is the main focus for Forest Service representatives, not forest health or issues of fire mitigation.
Funding to Firewise Homes is the Only Way to Protect Structures
As we have seen throughout this website, the best action individual land owners can take to protect their property is to fire wise their homes by clearing a defensive zone, putting metal roofs on their homes and building fire-wise structures. Thinning surrounding forests will not protect structures from fires. However, this is not the way the Forest Service will present the argument. It is important to understand that the Forest Service depends on grants to keep their programs running. If they are unable to move grant money through programs such as these that focus on individual land owners in the forest, then those grants will not be available the following year. Thinning forests will not protect homes but working in the immediate vicinity of our homes will help us create defensible space and will increase the likelihood that, if a fire occurs, our homes will be saved from those fires. Funding would be much more effective if the Forest Service focused on protecting homes and let the forests alone. Not only would vast amounts of tax dollars be saved, but individuals could ensure protection from fires in substantial ways that thinning thousands of acres of forest simply cannot do. When individuals choose to live in the forests, fire becomes a risk we are taking in exchange for the opportunity to live within these forest communities. Fires are a natural part of a forest community and are essential in creating healthy forests. Taking responsible actions to decrease the possibility of our homes being lost in fires is the best step towards ensuring protection of our homes and families. Destroying the forest community we depend on by eliminating the ecological aspects of that community to feel safer from fires is not only an inappropriate use of tax dollars, but is damaging to the life systems that surround us.