Bark Alert: Learning Lessons from the Land

Ignoring scientific evidence doesn’t make it go away.

As I write, Mt. Hood National Forest is burning. Several new fires are burning through the Clackamas River Ranger District and information is changing by the minute. But, since August 17th, I’ve had my eyes on the White River Fire on the east side of Mt. Hood National Forest. Started by a lightning strike, the White River Fire moved southeast across the landscape, burning approximately 17,000 acres and putting many rural communities on evacuation notice.  

Wildfires can be scary, dangerous, and unhealthy. For those of us on the west side of the mountain, we’re now getting a taste of the smoke our neighbors to the east have been breathing for weeks and the very real fear of losing homes and loved ones. As the climate continues to warm, and forests continue to burn, we must support our neighbors and communities in adapting. 

We can do this. It will take sober, science-based investment. Thankfully, research has shown us how to firewise” our homes and communities. This looks like subsidized remodeling and landscaping to fire-proof homes and buildings; air filters and protected public spaces to make breathing easier; and public, compassionate support for people displaced by fire. It does not look like re-branding backcountry, commercial logging as a solution against the evidence of what makes forests and communities more resilient to fire.

A week after the White River Fire started, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Forest Service and timber industry attempt to overturn Bark’s recent victory in the lawsuit against the Crystal Clear Timber Sale. The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry lobby group, has already crafted a narrative that implies the White River Fire is somehow connected to the Crystal Clear lawsuit. Before that story gets any traction, let’s take a deeper look at the real impacts of the Crystal Clear litigation and what we may learn from the White River Fire.

Getting to the favorable Ninth Circuit opinion was a journey of several years, with many twists and turns along the path, but one thing remained constant: Bark kept telling the Forest Service that recent scientific research indicates that logging mature trees and opening up the forest canopy can increase the risk of dangerous fire behavior. Unfortunately, the Forest Service never addressed this scientific conflict and, instead, stuck to generalized conclusions based on faulty assumptions. 

It was this lack of engagement with relevant research that led the Ninth Circuit to require the Forest Service to prepare an EIS: “Throughout the USFS’s investigative process, Appellants pointed to numerous expert sources concluding that thinning activities do not improve fire outcomes. In its responses to these comments and in its finding of no significant impact, the USFS reiterated its conclusions about vegetation management, but did not engage with the substantial body of research cited by Appellants.” Simply put, the Forest Service cannot ignore scientific research that conflicts with its own conclusions. 

If the Forest Service had taken public comments seriously and had read and responded to the research Bark submitted there would have been no lawsuit. But, there would still be the White River Fire because a lightning-caused fire in the White River Canyon is a natural event. These forests co-evolved with frequent fires. However, over the past century, government policy treats almost all fires as disasters that must be stopped regardless of the cost in money, lives, or to the environment. It has poured over $10 million into stopping the White River Fire alone. At the same time, industry and agency claim together that they must increase logging, because of a century of fire suppression.

This brings us back to the key issue in the Crystal Clear lawsuit: how does logging affect the behavior of a future fire? Every fire is so different—based on weather, fuel aridity, topography, fuel type—it is impossible to make exact predictions. However, the White River Fire may give us more data as the fire burned the NE corner of Crystal Clear that was logged before we won the lawsuit. Once it is safe to do so, Barkers will be out on the ground recording the impacts of the fire on mature forests and comparing the logged areas of forest to the unlogged ones. We’ll let you know what we find! 

group of volunteers surveying new growth in a previous burn area from the 36 Pit fire in 2014. Foreground shows sprigs of bright new green against the rocky soil.

New growth after the 36 Pit Fire (2014).

 

We still have so much to learn about this amazing land we live with—about the cycles of fire and flood that shaped our region over millennia and how we can adapt to better live with them. As always, Bark is trying to listen to what the land tells us and to learn from its stories, along with the scientists that are devoted to understanding these systems. Thank you for your help to amplify these voices as we work together to advocate for the land and all the communities that rely on it.

For the forests,

Brenna Bell, Bark Policy Coordinator/Staff Attorney

P.S. With the extremely windy weather over the last few days, several more fires started and spread in the Mt. Hood and Willamette National Forests, leading to an unprecedented closure of both forests for public safety.  Please respect these closures and stay safe out there! 

P.P.S. Join us tonight for the first of our fall Rad◦i◦cle Activist Training workshops: Intro to Timber Sale Comment WritingRegister here!