Smoke Pollution

Smokey Farm

In Northeast Washington on August 1st, 2017 we woke up to smoke from wildfires.  It wasn’t as thick here as it was in other areas, but it was bad at varying levels throughout the month.  Now that September has started it feels like August was clear.  The smoke is so thick that visibility is impaired within 100 yards and nearly nonexistent within a mile.  Your eyes burn and you find yourself continually coughing.  There’s no escape.  Some people have been living with it throughout the west like this every day for well over a month.  This is smoke pollution and it’s likely to be a problem for years.

Carbon Source?

As bad as it is, it makes me wonder about the bigger picture.  Andrew Spaeth, Forest Program Director for Sustainable Northwest, based in Portland wrote about this very thing in September of 2016 in his post for The Climate Trust titled “Pacific Northwest Forests: Carbon Sink or Carbon Source?” Have these forests been a quiet cause of carbon emissions and climate change?

Smoke in the forest
The Colville National Forest covered in a thick blanket of smoke.

When you drive around areas that are supposed to be places of natural beauty and splendor, and it feels as though you’ve been dropped into Beijing it makes you wonder what it all means.  This is supposed to be the part of the world that is capturing carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen.  It sure seems like it’s become the other way around over the last 10 years, getting progressively worse.

Aftermath of to action
Massive fuel loads, even near roads lead to massive fires

These forests are becoming a wasteland.  How long will it take before the trees start to grow back and produce oxygen?  Many of these forests are burning hotter than ever.  I have personally seen where these forests burn so hot that it burns entire root systems out.  It scorches the earth to the point where recovery is a long and difficult process.

So here we are trying to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint, but we’re turning our back on the very forests that are the lungs of the earth.  We need to manage these forests to save them.  We need to put the science in high gear and do what needs to be done.  That means thinning out vast acreages of forests in a way the provides them a chance to withstand fires.

Thick forests

Thick forests falling over
A conservation approach can help save our forests by reducing fuels

Thick forests lead to thick smoke. When the number of trees and the amount of brush in the forest reach many times the number that was there naturally, they not only burn hotter but create greater volumes of smoke and pollution.  Let’s say that there is three times more burnable material in the forest in 2017 than there was in 1977.  This means that in 2017 every acre of fire equals at least three times the amount of smoke 40 years ago.  If the number of acres burned in 2017 reaches 10 million acres in the United States, that means that it could be the same amount of smoke and carbon pollution of 30 million acres of burn in 1977.

Based on data collected by Georgia Tech, these new fires with more fuel are creating more health complications and pollution.  This NPR story tells the story pretty well.  Their findings were that the hotter fires we have today, fed by massive amounts of dry fuel in the forest are much worse for humans, animals, and the environment.  This new information should lead even more urgency to a solution.  Fires are going to happen, but do we need to leave this much debris in the woods?

Burnt Bark
Fire resistant bark on Ponderosa Pine

The tree species that are native to fire-prone forests are naturally wildfire resistant with thick bark and limbs high off the ground.  They need spacing that allows them to survive these intermittent fires.  In today’s public forests those trees are invisible because of a sea of small trees and brush.  When these fires start we lose all those old growth trees.  We can save them by removing the other trees that have enough value to pay for the effort to get them out.

A better way

What a novel concept.  We can build businesses that thrive from the by-product of restoring our national forests.  Sawmill technology has moved to efficiently process small and medium sized logs, not the big old growth logs of the past.  We need to build businesses that are right-sized to the needs of the problem.  We can estimate the need and build the facilities to use the trees that need to be removed.  Why aren’t we doing this?

Smoke polltion
128-foot portal log crane at Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville, WA operates despite the smoke.

We’re not doing it because the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are effectively paralyzed.  Some of that paralysis is from lawsuits from environmental interests, and some of it is built into their culture.  A risk-averse culture that doesn’t think it’s safe to try new things or make significant changes.  Most of the conservation groups in the West agree that management is necessary.  Still, there are some that think any management is too much.  They cannot see the forest for the trees.  We cannot appease them, and we shouldn’t try.

We need to quickly mobilize and get with key leaders from conservation groups and find the issues that lead to consensus.  Once we do that, we should give those findings to Congress so they can draft legislation that works.  We don’t need something that will have conservation groups wanting to turn the tide back their way once they get political support.

We need to be proactive about this.  The forest industry and the conservation movement need to realize that we have common goals.  Once we realize that we can support our collective interests, we can see real change that benefits us all.

8 thoughts on “Smoke Pollution”

    1. Thanks for the information on how dense our forests have become and how we need better forestry management practices. And maybe it is “they cannot see the forest thru the smoke.”

  1. Well said by Russ Vaagen, who’s “walking the talk.”
    I think with the agencies, it’s more about “risk taking” and pushing the edges of what they are capable of accomplishing. The need for thinning forests has been “assumed in Forest Plans in order to elevate timber outputs.” The problem has been and still is, very little thinning has ever been done to live up to the Plan assumptions! Similar assumptions were made to increase harvests with “tree improvement genetics, and fertilization” in many places; very little of which was accomplished. Now we find forests so dense that they are unable to compete for available water and nutrients. Worse yet, when a forest is growing fuel 5-10 times faster than is being consumed (harvested), these same forests begin to be weakened and insect epidemics occur, as we have all witnessed for the past 20 plus years, leaving behind dead and dying forests to feed catastrophic wildfires. We see and breath the results today.

    1. Thank you, Ted. One small piece that is being overlooked is the issue of how volume is calculated. On the Colville National Forest, I would estimate that at least 40% of the logs by volume are 7″ or less in diameter. That means that a significant amount of the volume being reported is volume that would not have been counted in the 1980’s or before. As you are probably aware they also count firewood, pulpwood, and in some cases biomass as board foot volume. I’ve heard some conservationists say that we cannot get back to volumes even close to the Reagan Era, which topped out at just over 12 billion. I’ve heard some say that they are concerned if it gets near 6 billion board feet. If the FS was reporting 6 billion bf sold in 2018 that would be the equivalent of something like 2.5 billion board feet.

      Note that we are seeing reports of sold volume in the 2.5 to 3 billion bf now. If calculated using the same formula in the late 80’s it would be closer to 1 billion bf. And they also use some conversion from cubic board feet to actual board feet. This is how they count biomass, firewood, and chip wood that is never destined to become a board foot.


  2. Great article summing up an important issue. As someone who works exclusively with private, industrial timberland, and am not as familiar with public land issues other than what I read in the news. That being said, it seems like the Equal Opportunity to Justice Act is the biggest problem. From what I have heard, this legislation effectively incentivizes groups to sue the USFS. Unless this changes, will any meaningful change in land management occur?

    1. Herb,
      Thanks for the comment and question. Yes, EAJ is an issue. It’s become less of an issue in some areas because of successful collaboration in areas like NE Washington and parts of Idaho and Oregon. In those areas, groups decided to participate in the development of the project rather than sit back and file lawsuits. There still are groups that prefer to wait until the collaboration is over and then file lawsuits. I think it’s because they are against harvest of any kind and they are lazy. In some jurisdictions, these lawsuits are still holding up projects. In others, they have not been successful and the projects continue.

      Recently I heard of a case where a group is still going forward with the lawsuit even after the timber was removed. To me, this means they are simply attempting to win the case so they can recover legal damages through the EAJ. This shows that for at least some, this has little to do with the work in the forest and more to do with a loophole they can’t help from exploiting. It’s because of this that the dispute resolution process will need to be changed.


  3. I replied but it did not go thru. Try again! The USFS dan do little considering the political degeneration on the national level for decades and some of the radical factions existing. This is a subject for political science, rather involved, but also not. The USFS I joined first in 1947, Idaho, was the former one, now radically changed, in some ways worse. It reflects society, which is not what I grew up in. So, the outfit is sort of a victem of the times. Hank

    1. Thanks Hank. I think you’re right. I will say that the environmental movement did such a good job of demonizing forest management that even now when many conservation groups have started working to improve the situation, the mainstream urbanites still think any harvest could be construed as damage. This is starting to change as information flows more freely, but it’s still a major challenge facing the industry and the forest service.

      I appreciate your comments and your years of work.


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