From The Epoch Times:
While Bill Gates invests in a plan to thin out forests and bury the trees to sequester carbon, one ecologist calls it a ‘spectacularly bad idea.’
Cutting down trees to manage wildfires isn’t a new thing, although it remains a hotly debated practice.
Tree thinning is a disputed procedure that has drawn as much criticism within the environmental community as support. Many scientists, researchers, and conservationists are against it, saying tree thinning can even worsen wildfires.
However, America’s woodlands have been culled for more than two decades for fire management. Now, climate activists are jumping into the conversation with a “carbon capture” argument for tree thinning.
Activists such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates have thrown their weight, and checkbooks, behind the practice of cutting down trees and burying them to address fears over carbon emissions.
Mr. Gates is well known for his headline-grabbing methods of addressing his climate concerns—from buying up vast swaths of U.S. farmland to backing wild-card experiments such as solar geoengineering and, most recently, criticizing tree planting as a viable means of reducing CO2.
During The New York Times Climate Forward Summit in September, the billionaire didn’t hesitate to share his thoughts on the role of planting trees to mitigate climate concerns, calling it “complete nonsense.”
“That’s complete nonsense … I mean, are we the science people, or are we the idiots?” Mr. Gates asked rhetorically.
Critics are quick to point out holes in the logic surrounding the claimed benefits of culling trees and burying them.
“This is a spectacularly bad and counter-productive idea,” Chad Hanson, a research ecologist and co-founder of the John Muir Project, told The Epoch Times.
He says existing trees and forests are “by far, our best and most effective means” to reduce any “excess of carbon in our atmosphere.”
“Trees continue to sequester and store more and more carbon as they get older, and this is true no matter how old they get,” Mr. Hanson said in countering that point. “Cutting existing trees and burying them eliminates their ability to draw down and reduce atmospheric carbon.”
No in-depth analysis exists on the asserted benefits or secondary environmental effects of tree thinning and debris storage.
Representatives of Kodama didn’t respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.
The argument to leave mature forests and dense canopy intact—strictly for CO2 sequestration—has support from top scientific researchers.
William Moomaw, founding director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is among what he calls the “proforestation” school of thought on storing atmospheric carbon.
He’s an avid supporter of the planting of trees and advocates for leaving older and middle-aged forests alone, because of their superior carbon storage abilities.
Culling to Mitigate Fire Risks
Tree thinning also has a debatable track record in wildfire management, but has a growing bench of supporters in the public and private sectors.
Officials hope to use the method on millions of forested acres by 2030.
“We estimate that a total of 50 million acres of forests in the U.S. need hazardous fuels and forest health treatments to address the growing wildfire crisis,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Winn told The Epoch Times.
He said 20 million of the acres are on national forests and grasslands, and 30 million acres are on other lands.
“Nearly a quarter of the contiguous U.S. remains at moderate to very high risk of severe wildfires,” Mr. Winn said.
“Forest Service research has demonstrated that trees are stressed by overcrowding, often causing fire-dependent species to vanish, and allowing highly flammable fuels to build up and become literally fodder for massive forest fires,” he said.
“This is why the process of mechanical thinning is so crucial to forest health. It is, in part, the thinning of dense stands of trees that make wildlands better able to withstand fire.”
As a stand-alone practice or combined with “prescribed burns,” Mr. Winn maintains that tree thinning can change how a wildfire behaves and make it less destructive.
He also mentioned such “fuel treatments” have gained traction “as a means to reduce carbon emissions by increasing the resilience of remaining carbon stocks.”
“A forest that is not resilient to wildfire carries higher risk of carbon loss,” Mr. Winn said.
On the other side of the debate, Mr. Hanson didn’t mince words when asked to share his thoughts on the use of tree thinning in wildfire mitigation.
“Wildfires are overwhelmingly driven by weather, especially hot, dry, windy conditions. Most of the current science is finding that dense forest conditions create a buffer against extreme summer weather,” he said.
“Denser forests have more cooling shade due to higher forest canopy cover, and higher tree densities create a windbreak against the gusts that drive flames during a fire.”
He said tree thinning undermines that buffer.
Thinning creates “hotter, drier, and windier conditions that spread flames faster, and often more intensely,” he said. “These conclusions are backed up by dozens of scientific sources and hundreds of scientists.”
Mr. Hanson says there’s a need for more trees, not less, to combat these challenges.
Pro-tree thinners counter Mr. Hanson’s point by saying more woody material needs to be removed since decades of drought have dried out the forests. But this, too, is contradicted by science.
That evidence suggests that fewer trees could equal even less water in forests already struggling with drought.
“If you thin a forest, very often you are introducing sunlight and wind that are drying things out. Unless you have a tree species adapted to low-intensity, relatively frequent ground fires, you might be making the forest more flammable,” Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, told The Epoch Times.
As a wildlife biologist and published researcher, Mr. Molvar is passionate about preserving America’s forests. He said not all trees are equal when it comes to withstanding fire.
“The ponderosa pine is the species that is most commonly invoked. In California, there are Live Oaks and Valley Oaks that may be somewhat adapted to these types of low-intensity, high-frequency ground fires as well. It doesn’t work with Spruce and Fir, Lodge Pole Pines, Mountain Hemlock, or other types of closed canopy systems. So it’s very tree-specific,” he explained.
That said, Mr. Molvar noted that research in northern Arizona’s Ponderosa Pine forests suggests that species of pine have already adapted to frequent, low-intensity burns. However, he believes this has been “misapplied” by industries that profit from tree removal, particularly logging.
Saving Homes, Lives
Tree thinning has been deployed as part of a wildfire management strategy for years and has produced arguable results.
Mr. Hanson provided a list of U.S. wildfires in which he believes tree thinning made the rogue blazes much worse.
“Unfortunately, there are many instances where tree thinning was associated with fires spreading rapidly toward towns, ultimately destroying them,” he said.
He specifically mentions fires in California, including Paradise in 2018, Greenville and Grizzly Flats in 2021, and Berry Creek and Feather Falls in 2020.
“Many other towns [were] destroyed when fires swept rapidly and intensely through vast areas where tree thinning had been previously conducted, supposedly to act as a firebreak and save the town,” he said.
“Tree thinning does not stop fires; it makes them burn faster, often toward homes.”
Mr. Molvar agreed and noted the tragically destructive Jasper fire in South Dakota’s Black Hills region in 2000 as another example.
“The Jasper Fire … burned entirely in an area that had been heavily thinned by the forest service. And this was Ponderosa Pine, so this was the kind of tree species where thinning was expected by the timber industry, and maybe justifiably, to reduce fire risk,” he said.
Mr. Hanson and Mr. Molvar agree there are better ways to mitigate wildfire damage than cutting down more trees.
“We should instead focus our attention on helping communities become fire-safe through home hardening and defensible space pruning of vegetation within 100 feet of homes,” Mr. Hanson said. “The science is clear that those actions are highly effective in saving homes and lives.”
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