By Christopher Dunn, James Johnston and John Bailey

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Last summer’s fire season was a reminder that we all are affected by land management decisions. Ash fell in Portland. Brookings was evacuated. The valleys along the Interstate 5 corridor were filled with smoke. The Columbia Gorge was closed. Central Oregon experienced another large fire.

We all perceive fire and the natural world differently. This is a good thing. Diversity in thought and perspective helps solve complex issues. That is why the collaborative approach to forest management pursued by the Forest Service and Deschutes Collaborative is so important. It is critical that stakeholders work together and make decisions based on facts. A guest column on March 4 by George Wuerthner titled “Logging doesn’t restore the forest” was short on facts.

Wuerthner’s column falsely claimed that the Forest Service and Deschutes Collaborative are creating even-aged plantations. Neither the Forest Service nor the Deschutes Collaborative are creating even-aged plantations or planning to do so. They promote thinning, or the selective removal of trees to reduce stand density for the benefit of retained trees. Clear-cutting creates even-aged plantations. These activities are drastically different in purpose and outcome, and even-aged plantations are rarely fire resilient.

Thinning, in contrast, is a tool that helps us manage fire. Thinning does not preclude fire. Neither the Forest Service nor Deschutes Collaborative claims that it does. Thinning does reduce wildfire risk. Wildfire risk encompasses the likelihood of occurrence, fire intensity, and resource susceptibility. Does thinning reduce wildfire risk to zero? No, but thinning does help reduce risk.

Thinning improves firefighter’s ability to contain a fire by lowering spot fire potential, increasing line construction rates and reducing fire intensity along containment lines. This reduces the probability of fire occurrence and the potential for fire to negatively impact important resources like spotted owl habitat or municipal water supplies.

Thinning reduces fire intensity by removing ladder fuels that transmit fire from the ground to tree crowns. Prescribed burning helps more by combusting forest fuels. Thinning also reduces competition for resources, increasing the vigor of retained trees so they can heal from fire injuries.

Is thinning a panacea for our current fire problem? No, but Wuerthner’s assertion that thinning drastically harms forested landscapes does not align with reality. In most landscapes, less than half of total forested area is even viable for mechanical thinning. Untreated areas will retain their current structure and fire risk. These dense areas will continue to burn at higher severity. Extreme fire weather will continue to overwhelm firefighters. Even thinned stands are prone to higher mortality under those conditions. Snag forests are inevitable.

Does thinning restore the forest? No. Restoration includes returning natural ecosystem processes to the forest, such as fire, which thinning inherently does not do. The Forest Service and Deschutes Collaborative know this. They do not suggest otherwise.

Thinning CAN, however, restore forest structure and be a first step in forest restoration. Thinning targets forest “baby boomers,” or those trees born during our war on fire. Thinning prescriptions try to retain large trees in spatial patterns similar to those observed historically. Thinning also reduces drought stress, restores understory biodiversity and facilitates desired future insect effects.

We all have a responsibility to correct the unintended consequences of past management practices and pass along a more resilient forest to our children. A broad base of research in forest ecology, silviculture and fire management indicate thinning and prescribed burning are valuable actions we can take today. Monitoring these treatments allows for learning new facts and adapting future strategies to protect our forests and communities.

Wildfire is inevitable, an important ecological process, and the greatest tool for reducing large-scale wildfire risk. Fire can also be a damaging. Therein lies our challenge. The important question now is how to reintroduce the right kind of fire, in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons to landscapes while protecting valuable resources and assets. Thinning is one positive step forward.

— The authors are affiliated with the Oregon State University College of Forestry: Christopher Dunn and James Johnston are research associates. John Bailey is professor of silviculture.