Many questionable claims made by the logging industry have been invoked in support of the strategy to get the most trees out of our forests in the least amount of time, while spending the fewest dollars and with minimal attention to the environment. That clear cuts are good because they mimic wildfires is one of the most insidious claims, and here’s why.
Ecosystems of all kinds have adapted over eons to survive and in some cases thrive on natural disturbances. Every middle school science student knows that jack pinecones only open up to spread their seeds once they have been burned. After any kind of forest fire, the forest becomes more open with trees burned and falling. This allows more light to reach the forest floor. This in turn allows fresh shoots of aspen, red osier dogwood and other shrubs to regenerate. And with this, the ungulates (deer, elk, moose etc.) return to enjoy a renewed food supply. Rabbits and small mammals too, feast on the new growth, followed by fox, coyotes, wolves and other predators. Fire regenerates the landscape and the ecosystem.
So how is this different from a clear cut?
1. Wildfires create patches on the landscape, they skip over some parts of the forests, and decimate others. Patchy landscapes can be good for animals and the ecosystem – wide open clear-cut blocks are not. Clear-cuts take all the trees. All that’s left on the land is upturned roots and cut trees too small or damaged to sell.
2. Wildfires vary in intensity, frequency, size and severity. Clear cuts can be different sizes and frequency but the intensity, and severity is constant.
3. The pattern of wildfires is mostly random and trees and wildlife, and micro-flora and fauna have adapted over thousands of years to this post-burn patchy environment. Clear-cuts on the other hand are total, and cover large planned areas, typically linear in shape.
4. Wildfires do not tear up the land with heavy machinery or disturb soil microorganisms.
5. Wildfires frequently only burn down parts of trees, leaving snags for wildlife, homes for birds, insects and small mammals. These partially burned trees can also be wind breaks for new trees that grow. Clear-cuts take it all, nothing is left standing.
6. In a wildfire, all the burned biomass (plant material) and nutrients in a burned forest stays on the land to help promote regeneration. In a clear-cut, all the biomass and nutrients are removed as logs.
7. Wildfires burn soil to release nutrients and expose mineral soils that are beneficial for regrowth. Clear-cuts expose the existing forest soils, making them vulnerable to erosion by water and wind.
8. Wildfires don’t create miles of roads which result in siltation of creeks and wetlands in the watershed. To access the trees, loggers build miles of roads through wilderness, on steep slopes, near creeks and wetlands, and through habitat cutting up apex predator ranges.
9. Wildfires kill pests and their eggs. They destroy spores and parasitic fungi, and while at first they release a large amount of carbon, much more carbon will be stored with a regenerated forest
10. Wildfires do not regenerate into monocultures. Species grow back in an ecological process called succession, certain plant species sprout first, with light-loving trees and shrubs, coming later. Then shade loving vegetation and larger trees follow. Clear-cuts, if replanted, are a tree farm consisting of one or two fast growing commercially viable species. Walking through a replanted clear-cut years later, you can see it does not have the same composition and structure as a native forest, and it has lower species diversity for both plants and animals.
11. Wildfires are not always good for ecosystems. In the coastal rainforests of BC, for example, wildfires are infrequent. This ecosystem has adapted and evolved to a different climatic regime, but these forests are also being clear-cut. There are 14 forest ecosystems in BC and they are all being clear-cut in the same way. If fire is not an evolutionary benefit for some of these forests, why are wildfire-mimicking clear-cuts beneficial for these ecosystems?
In fact, clear cuts do not really mimic ANY natural disturbances whether it’s bark beetle outbreaks, windthrow, or wildfire. Clear-cutting and other logging activities are not substitutes for natural disturbances. It’s just one of the many ways that industrial logging is trying to sell its “profits uber alles” modus operandi to an increasingly skeptical public. We can’t let ourselves be fooled into thinking that this industrial logging practice has any merit at all.
If there is a relationship between clear cuts and wildfires it may not be what the logging industry represents: recent research indicates that clear-cuts may in actual fact CAUSE wildfires (stay tuned for this article in a future edition!).
For more great reading on this topic…..
Does forest harvesting emulate fire disturbance? A comparison of effects on selected attributes in coniferous-dominated headwater systems. Craig R. Nitschke* Sustainable Forest Management Research Group, Department of Forest Resources Management, Faculty of Forestry, Forest Sciences Centre, The University of British Columbia. Forest Ecology & Management, 214 (2005) 305–319