Are forest fires good for forests?

Tell the Forest Service and BLM: “Protect our burned forests!”

On my desk at the Bark office is a single Trivial Pursuit card. The Science & Nature question asks: “Are forest fires good for forests?"  What do you think the answer is?

If you, like so many millions of Americans, have been brought up with Smokey Bear’s “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” and are accustomed to reading headlines like “Blazing inferno destroys forest”, you may well answer the trivia question “no.”

But, you’d be wrong. The folks at Trivial Pursuit must have been reading science, not the news, when they published the answer. The reason that card is on my desk is because the answer on the back is simply “Yes.”

I began learning about fire after living in southern Oregon in 2002, when the Biscuit Fire darkened my skies with smoke for weeks. Despite the incendiary headlines (“The Monster that is Biscuit!”) I learned the beauty of living in an ecosystem that had been shaped for millennia by the transformative magic of fire.  

Fire scientists know this, but as ecologist Richard Hutto notes: "People think a burned forest is devastation, destruction, horror and all the words that go with it. But that is because most of the public, past and present, doesn't have a clue about all the interesting stuff in there — things that occur in these burned forests that don't occur anywhere else."

Fire creates unique wildlife habitat, it kills forest pathogens, fire even opens certain types of pinecones that would not open otherwise. This magic cannot be replicated by logging or by any other means. That is why Bark adopted a “fire-positive” policy with several management recommendations for Mt. Hood National Forest.

Over the past few weeks, a fire burned in the Clackamas River Watershed, an area dear to many Barkers. My first feeling was excitement – fires on the west side of the Cascades are rare, thus special. We could learn so much from a nearby burned forest!

My second feeling was trepidation – would there be adverse impacts from fire-fighting? Would they dump flame retardant near the Clackamas River right as the salmon are returning home? Would they bulldoze fire lines through steep and fragile soils?

The answers are, unfortunately, “yes.”  

Now, as the rains have come and the smoke has settled, my third feeling is anticipation: Will the BLM and Forest Service start planning to salvage log the burned areas?  

As described by forest ecologist Chris Maser, “Conventional salvage logging epitomizes exploitive forestry, which is the myopic, economic exploitation of trees at the supreme cost of the biophysical health of the forest as a living ecosystem.”

In other words, post-fire salvage logging is about money not forests. There is no ecological justification for salvage logging, and our public forests are not a giveaway.

Now is the time to tell the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, “DO NOT plan salvage logging of the 36 Pit Fire. Our public forests are special and should not be given to the timber industry.”

Instead, the federal land managers need to take this opportunity to study the impacts of the fire on the forests burned, and give the public a window into the magic of a regenerated forest.

Click here to tell the Forest Service and BLM, “Do not log our public forests that were in the 36 Pit Fire. Wildlife needs burned forests, not the timber industry.”

Brenna Bell, NEPA Coordinator & Staff Attourney

PS- In case you were wondering, the other answers are: G-Nicosia, E-Smokey Bear, H-Bardahl's, AL-S and X, SN-Yes, and SL-Celery.

PPS – Only YOU can prevent salvage logging!