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Bad Brochures

Forest Service's Fire Pamphlet Criticized

The Forest Service has been accused of misrepresenting forest conditions by using misleading photographs in a brochure that urges more logging to prevent wildfires in the Sierra Nevada.

The pamphlet, created by a public relations firm, explains that fire risks have risen as the Sierra's forests have grown more dense the past century. Six small black-and-white photos spanning 80 years appear beside descriptions of how the "forests of the past" had fewer trees and less underbrush, making them less susceptible to fire.

However, the 1909 photo does not depict natural conditions - it was taken just after the forest had been logged.

And the pictured forest is nowhere near the Sierra Nevada. It's in Montana.

Well, if they're trying to sell a policy of logging, doesn't it make sense to contrast today's forests to a post-logging scene? The brochure says "Please do not confuse the tree-thinning and underbrush-removal projects of this campaign with the logging operations of decades ago." Sounds like advice the brochure designers could stand to hear. On the other hand, the Swan View Coalition points out that "fuel treatment" in Montana produced a scene remarkably similar to the post-logging one.

The pamphlet in question is here. Treating the photos as diagrams of fuel loads rather than records of the Sierra Nevada's history, the description given of the relative dangers of parklike versus dense forest, and the increase in the latter, is unobjectionable until (near the bottom of the page) they use the word "natural." Obviously the 1909 photo does not depict a natural condition. But neither is it being used as a stand-in for a natural Sierra Nevada ecosystem. The parklike forest that covered much of the west around the turn of the century (when the Forest Service and National Parks Service were created and began land management) was a human artifact. Centuries of burning by Native Americans was aimed at creating such a parklike environment, which was more conducive to hunting and travel as well as being safer from conflagrations. This practice -- derisively called "Paiute forestry" by foresters trained in the European forest-as-garden tradition -- was continued by early white settlers. Had the land been left in a fully "natural" state, fires would have been rarer and more intense. Indeed, some pine species need crown fires to reproduce optimally. The current fuel loads go far beyond anything natural, but ongoing management is necessary to keep them at "safe" levels.

The Swan View Coalition provides us with a photo of the Montana scene prior to the 1909 logging. The density of trees is greater than post-logging, of course, and there looks to be a substantial bed of grass on the forest floor. However, it is still a relatively fire-safe environment (likely due to past Native American and white settler burning). Noticeably, it lacks the profusion of understory ladder fuels visible in subsequent photos.

(And to do my required allotment of griping about "he said, she said" journalism, the article says "Hanson said the Sierra Nevada is the only region discussed." Since there's a link to the Forest Service page right there in the article, you'd think the reporter could have taken a few minutes to read the brochure and verify this claim.)


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