Environmentally-friendly logging and forest thinning help prevent catastrophic fires
Published on Feb. 1, 2020
Today, many towns and cities in the arid West have expanding populations, as people have been building homes on the outskirts of populated areas.
More people are moving into “natural” areas to have the benefit of privacy, natural beauty and recreational opportunities. Developers are building neighborhoods to accommodate the influx, and many homes are in or next to forested lands.
As a result, fire departments are now fighting fires along the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), defined as areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire.
Most structures within the WUI that burn are not destroyed by direct flames when a fire comes close, but from embers.
Burning material may be carried by winds over long distances and fall into flammable fuels at structures and sometimes are not immediately detected.
As the fire front passes, these embers may start small fires that spread to the home and then from home to home in a neighborhood.
Protecting homes in the WUI is done by periodic thinning of nearby forested land and reducing the buildup of fuel that could carry a catastrophic fire can help.
Some of this work can be done with horse logging, which allows the area to retain the aesthetic natural look and beauty of the lands surrounding these homes.
Dick Clemow, who owns forested property near Missoula, Mont., has been doing a lot of forest thinning with draft horses.
“We had a really bad fire year in 2000 – in Montana, Idaho and other parts of the West – with the Bitterroot Fire, the Clear Creek Fire and many others,” Clemow says.
“Everything around Missoula was on fire, with thick smoke for most of the summer,” says Clemow. “I realized then that all the hand-thinning, firewood harvest was important.”
He continues, “When I first came here and bought property in the early 1980s, I didn’t understand why professional foresters were saying people need to log it.”
“Many people still don’t understand this fact of life. Logging has a bad image, but it’s something we need to do,” says Clemow.
“After the horrendous fires in 2000, I went looking for a horse logger. I found a few, but there are not very many out there,” says Clemow.
“Since I am a ‘do-it-yourself’ type of person, I got my own draft horses and learned how to do horse logging myself,” he says.
He continues, “The sad thing is there’s not much market for timber. Lumber is expensive, but people logging hardly make a living.”
“People don’t realize how much work it is to fill a logging truck with a load of logs. If one is doing it with just a chainsaw and a team of horses, it’s a huge amount of work, for very little pay,” he says. “It takes me all winter, or about five months, with a crew of four people, to put 12 truckloads of logs together,” explains Clemow.
“There’s no market today, with most of the sawmills and pulp mills gone,” says Clemow. “Logging used to be one of the major industries in the West, with sawmills in almost every rural town.”
He continues, “Then, the forests became off-limits to logging, with more of it designated as non-roaded areas, and a different mindset in the Forest Service about managing timberlands.”
“So today, instead of harvesting this resource to supply lumber, posts/poles, firewood and other wood products, the forests simply burn,” says Clemow.
He continues, “Rather than having an industry that provides livelihood for people in rural communities and wood products for our country, taxpayers pay millions of dollars for fire control instead.”
“I did a demonstration in March 2019 for our local Forestry college, they invited landowners, and I did one of the workshops – a demo with my sawmill – to try to get private owners to manage their forests,” says Clemow
“The problem is there’s no money in it, and as the mills get fewer and farther between, transportation costs to get the logs there becomes too high to make it feasible,” says Clemow. “The wood must be hauled long distances, and with the price of diesel, it just won’t pencil out.”
“I am only doing it as a labor of love, because I enjoy working in the woods and restoring forests. The work that I do in and around Missoula is grant-based,” he says.
“The wood only pays for about one-third of the work, and the government provides a land-owner grant for the forest thinning work,” he explains.
Most forests need a huge amount of thinning management. Trees are so thick in some areas that one can hardly ride through them.
“We have to go through and do a lot of what’s called pre-commercial thinning – to slash and bash, pile and burn -just so we can get into the forest to work on it with horses. Bulldozers just drive over all that material but we can’t do that with horses. It’s all hand work and very labor-intensive,” says Clemow.
“With dry summers and hot days, I don’t know how we can adequately protect the forests. If a fire comes through here at night and the wind isn’t blowing, my forests might survive. But in most situations when a fire goes through any forest in the heat of day with a wind, it’s a goner,” he says.
“It can be worse, however, if it hasn’t been thinned, because with all that fuel it burns hotter and destroys more,” he says. “If it is thinned, it has a chance. We need a use for the wood, so thinning can be feasible and attractive for people to do it.”
“The optimum time for this kind of work is in the fall after the fires are over. Some people do call me in the fall, realizing they need to get ahead of this problem, but all the emphasis that gets placed on it in late spring/early summer is misplaced,” says Clemow.
He notes he feels the Forest Service is interested in doing a good job of stewarding the forest resources and that sawmills would take all the trees they could, but we need to find more markets.
“In Europe ,they use every branch and twig. They go through their forests with balers to bale up the slash and haul to electrical generating plants to make electricity. Here, we just waste the forest residue,” he says.
“Some of the schools around here have wood-fired biomass boilers for heating, so we need to be able to continue to provide that fuel,” says Clemow. “Draft horses and horse logging could be part of that. Some people still want to go out and work in the woods.”
Heather Smith-Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Please send comments on this article to email@example.com.