Wednesday, March 17, 2010

If A Tree Falls In The Forest...


On forests, logging, fires in the desert, and the fire of dukkha.

Living in California for several years, I got used to hearing about dead trees, usually in warnings about wildfires. Dried deadwood and other scrub frequently provide fuel for fires. In the dry southwest, where fires routinely spread near highly populated areas, it is easy to forget that dead trees are also part of the life of a forest.

From Helena, Montana's Queen City News comes a brief but lovely introduction to the rich life of dead trees by George Wuerthner. He is of the view that current forest management focuses on trees to the point that they do not see the ecological life of a forest in its wholeness.

But what about deadwood and fires?

In another op-ed, he writes

The role of climate/weather in regional fire history is often ignored. There is now evidence that changes in ocean temperatures and currents known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as well as similar changes in the Atlantic Ocean, influence regional climate and hence fires. It turns out that PDO created dry conditions in the Rockies at the turn of the century and we experienced some huge fires including the historic 3 plus million acres 1910 blaze that raged across Idaho and Montana. This was long before there was effective fire suppression to create so called “fuel buildups.”

Then beginning in the 1940s the PDO shifted and brought cool, moist weather to the region that lasted until the 1980s n with the 1988 Yellowstone fires signaling this change in regional climatic conditions. This post-war period coincides exactly with the period when some suggest fire suppression led to fuel buildups. But it may be that the fires that started just didn’t burn well because wet, cool weather limited fire spread. In other words, we probably would not have had large blazes whether we suppressed fires or not.

Since the 1980s the PDO has shifted once again bringing overall dry conditions, higher temperatures and high winds. Despite much more sophisticated fire fighting abilities we have been unable to halt large blazes. And thinning/logging appears to have little impact on fire spread when climate/weather conditions are severe.

When viewed from this larger regional climatic condition, current large fires and large beetle outbreaks are the “natural” response to these circumstances.


In a 2008 letter to the federal government, he summarized his critique of forest management. He is skeptical of the notion that thinning forests will actually 'restore' the forest eco-system.

Besides the notion that dead trees cause more fires, Wuerthner questions the notion that dead trees are being "wasted" if they are left on the ground or in a stream. Rather than science, is this the logic of profit speaking? From the perspective of profit, the perspective that has to convert every resource into cash, it may look wasteful to allow a tree to molder. From that perspective, it makes sense to import outdated science, perhaps, or perhaps a fire management model that makes sense in a different region, to support thinning and logging to make wood products.

I'm not sketching an argument against the logging industry as a whole, here. This reflection is more about mind and its process. The Buddha examined, and encouraged his followers to examine the way desires alter our perception. As a modern extension of this, how our economic drive - the desire for profit - alters our view of science and the world that supports our life.

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