Author Craig Patterson

Imagine words so prophetic yet so misunderstood that agencies and science get sabotaged by ignorance and greed.

The U.S, Forest Service refuses to admit that past management has had significant ongoing consequences and that we can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that created it.

Case in point: the wildfires currently raging throughout the West.

The Forest Service says we are experiencing these cataclysmic wildfires due to fire suppression and climate change, and that thinning the forests will reduce the danger.

Now witness California, Oregon and worldwide, as wildfire records are broken yearly.

Forty years ago, I remember the old bulls saying, “We don’t put out fires in the woods. Either the rains come or they run into an old growth forest and fall to the ground as a surface fire and go out.”

Now, with 95 percent of the old growth gone, only the rains really help extinguish fires of any size and consequence. Until we acknowledge and understand the connections between past practices and current realities, we will continue to experience uncharacteristic fire danger.

The Forest Service and many scientists ignore these most significant changes that have occurred in essentially three generations. This is why crown fires have become far more common today and are nearly impossible to be put out. They are consequences of past management.

Logging and replacing healthy, diverse forests with tree plantations has eliminated a key factor that seriously affects wildfire behavior (surface fire) and corresponding intensity. Rain is the other factor. Last year we spent the summer fighting uncontrollable wildfires. Then the rains returned, and three days later — problem over.

Healthy intact forests maintain shade and absorb the rain in aquifers, moderating erosion and drought while supporting diverse species in symbiotic harmony. Clearcutting causes soil, water and slash to heat, leading to erosion and ultimately leaving no forest if the integrity of the soil goes.

In the beginning, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt defined the mission of the Forest Service to obtain “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.”

But after World War II, automation and technology drove the Forest Service to pursue the greatest good for fewest number for shortest time. Between 1950 and 1990, the Willamette National Forest cut more than 25.5 billion board feet of timber, whereas in the previous 58 years it cut 3 billion to 4 billion board feet. Where and how are the environmental, economic and social consequences accounted for in management or science? Meanwhile, the extent and consequences of today’s wildfires are too overwhelming to ignore.

Now we have our sacred cow — restoration as a focus and a determinant of places and projects to fund. However, ignoring past logging consequences allows current logging to persist. Today many restoration technologies and practices actually follow and supplement industrial forestry while consequences and lessons remain disconnected.

Today McKenzie Bridge is ground zero for the Goose Project, a restoration project which has been forced upon us under the guise of making us more “fire safe.”

Yet I’ve seen log trucks rolling by with three or four logs to the bunk. Old growth trees pushing 4 feet in diameter being cut in the name of “restoration.” Cutting these big trees makes us less fire safe, not more.

Little about industrial forestry is sustainable — environmentally economically or socially; yesterday, today or tomorrow. It’s a short boom followed by protracted bust every time. Privatized profits and socialized liabilities do not make for healthy forests or healthy communities.

The jury is in if we see the forest holistically and with common sense. How we repair the blind spots in our wildfire management philosophy and practice are questions that need to be asked. Our children and grandchildren depend upon it.

Craig Patterson of McKenzie Bridge has been a member of a forestry cooperative and delivered a paper to the National Roundtable on Sustainable forests in Washington, D.C, in 2005.