Slash or Burn?

The ongoing dry weather in California combined with what we know about climate change, suggests that we aren’t so much looking at a drought from which the state will emerge but a fundamental shift to a much more arid climate. To a desert. With less water, the Sierra trees are weakened, vulnerable, and dying at an increasing pace. In a hot, dry climate, once trees are dead or dry the question increasingly becomes one of when they will burn rather than of whether.

My friend Bruce and I have hiked in many regions of the Sierra and love these forests deeply. He told me that in thinking about what appears to be unfolding he wondered if it might make sense to log large portions of the Sierra forests now. To cut them down before they burn down.

The logic is compelling. Current day Sierra wildfires burn hot, and they move fast and far. In contrast to the ecosystem-sustaining, light-on-their-feet fires of our high school biology text books, they are incinerators that leave behind dead landscapes and destroyed soils. They turn all that wood into greenhouse gases, threaten towns, homes, and people, and generally have no benefits. If we were to be convinced that they really are going to burn, perhaps we should log strategic, and possibly very large, portions of these forests now in a way that prevents or limits these outsized wildfires? The carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released in a fire would instead be sequestered in the resulting lumber. We would prevent the choked-with-ash-and-dead streams and lakes, the ecosystem destruction, the danger to homes and people, and gain the economic benefits of the logging activity instead of the massive cost of fighting the fire.

Yes, it would be “intervening” — and on a very large scale — dramatically changing an enormous ecosystem, transforming it from “forest to non-forest” in academic lingo, but it is already going to change. We have already intervened: our opportunity to not intervene came and went decades ago. Today, our choices are about whether and how we might guide the guide the transformation, not whether to have one or not. The logging approach would at least leave an ecosystem of some kind, rather than devastated lives, burned homes, yet more carbon in the atmosphere, and an ash-field requiring many decades to begin recovering.