Forest Science and Politics Not Mixing Well

Beetle-killed forests not the problem some officials think

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In a hearing room on Capitol Hill last week, science met politics. And science appears to have come out on the short end.

The hearing heard testimony on a bill from Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) whose stated purpose is to lessen fire risk supposedly caused by millions of dead trees killed by pine beetles. The bill is intended to protect homes and watersheds in forested areas of the West. It would require the Forest Service to identify areas where beetle kill was causing a "current or future increased risk of catastrophic wildland fire," and would exempt logging in those areas from some environmental protection laws.

The problem, though, is that the science shows this bill is a solution in search of a problem.

First, dead trees aren’t really a bigger fire risk than live trees. (Live trees are full of sap which burns quite nicely, so dead, dry tries actually have less fuel.) Second, extensive Forest Service and independent studies show that the best way to protect homes from fire is to clear an area of "defensible space" within a hundred and fifty feet or so of the structures. Logging far from communities just isn’t an effective way to protect those communities.

(And let’s not forget the bill is in part a bailout for those who have chosen to live—or buy second homes—in forests. And forests regularly catch fire. Some trees actually can’t reproduce without fire.)

Sen. Udall was confronted with this science by Dr. Dominik Kulakowski at the hearing. Dr. Kulakowski testified that: "The best available science indicates that outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle do not increase the risk of fire in most types of forests."

The senator’s response was not to say: "Hmm …. maybe we need to rethink this bill to reflect sound science, and target any logging in areas next to homes." Instead, it was, as the Durango Herald reported, to label the science "counterintuitive" and appear unmoved by it.

Counterintuitive the science may be. But "facts are stubborn things," as President Adams once said.

The problem is that the politics of doing something about the huge beetle kill, even if that something is not helpful, may be even more stubborn.

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.