In February, 2006, Dr. Tom Bonnicksen peppered the op-ed sections of numerous newspapers with an opinion piece claiming that "extremists are using hyperbole, unsubstantiated claims, and convenient myths to oppose" logging burned forests and "cite myths about the Yellowstone fires of 1988 to argue we should not restore burned forests." He blames the National Park Service for the fires and comes close to calling the top fire ecologists in the country liars.
What does Bonnicksen mean by "restoring forests?" He promotes logging the burned trees and planting new ones, primarily commercially valuable ones. One wonders how forests survived without us (see the impact of "Post-fire Logging" at the bottom of our Forest Fires page).
When someone spends so much effort to promote an idea as Bonnicksen has, especially with inflammatory language, it is often helpful to consider their motivation and connections. Due to his economic and political interests, it is difficult to view Bonnicksen as the objective observer and expert that he portrays himself. Bonnicksen is on the advisory board for the following organizations: The Forest Foundation, a non-profit organization supported by the California Forest Products Commission. "The Forest Foundation strives to foster public understanding of the role forests play in the environmental and economic health of the state and the necessity of managing a portion of California's private and public forests to provide wood products for a growing population" (from their website). According to public documents,Dr. Bonnicksen has been paid by the Forest Foundation to write opinion pieces in newspapers and to give presentations to promote land use policies favored by the logging industry ($57,387 in 2004 and $51,519 in 2005). He also offers consulting services regarding timber and vegetation management. Nothing wrong with any of this of course, but it should be taken into consideration when measuring an individual's objectivity.
National Center for Public Policy Research. "Firm in the belief that private owners are the best stewards of the environment, The National Center's John P. McGovern M.D. Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs advocates private, free market solutions to today's environmental challenges" (from their website). These are the same folks who said "There is no serious evidence than man-made global warming is taking place," and that "There are many indications that carbon dioxide does not play a significant role in global warming." - NCPPR website 4/04.
Dr. Bonnicksen's statements and credentials are questioned by respected scientists
In 2006, a group of respected scientists issued a public statement condemming Bonnicksen's political approach to science and his failure to reveal his conflicts of interest when discussing fire and forest issues. An article detailing the matter can be found in an October 21, 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times.
“He's always introduced as the leading expert on forest recovery, and he's just not. There's nothing in his record other than just talking and hand-waving,” said UCLA ecology professor Philip Rundel, one of several academics who issued an open letter to the media this week questioning Bonnicksen's credentials.
Also in 2006, the University of California sent Bonnicksen two "cease and desist" letters for falsely claiming to be affliated with UC Davis.
To diminish the fragility of the fisher population in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (the fisher is an intelligent, weasel-like forest mammal), Bonnicksen claimed there were about 1,000 of the animals in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Experts have estimated a total population for the entire southern Sierra to be between 300-400. The California fisher will likely be granted endangered species status soon.
Here is a paper from some of the "many people" Bonnicksen is apparently labeling as extremists and less than honest:
Turning Protected Wildlands into Tree Farms and Biofuel
With the support of the Forest Foundation, Dr. Bonnicksen wrote a booklet entitled "Protecting Communities and Saving Forests." Although it purports to be a treatise on how to reduce fire risk through ecological principles, it doesn't take long for the objective reader to realize that the document is designed to promote the economic interests of the wood products industry. For a complete analysis of the booklet, please download "Exploiting the Fear of Fire for Economic Gain", an article in Issue #28 of our quarterly journal, The Chaparralian. A copy of Dr. Bonnicksen's booklet can be obtained on the Forest Foundation's website.
On December 5, 2003, Dr. Bonnicksen testified in a hearing for the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health of the US House of Representatives. Below are some of his comments with our follow up analysis.
B: "Brushlands in Southern California face the same problem as forests. They have grown old and thick." This is more a value judgment than anything based on scientific research. As explained on our Fire & Nature page, chaparral ecosystems are radically different from forests. The two are not comparable. See our Myths page for additional information.
B: "Historically, most of California’s forests were open because Native American and lightning fires burned regularly." We don't know this. This is an assumption based on a few anecdotal observations by early explorers who visited a limited number of locations. Much of what was seen as open forest land may very well have been the result of unchecked burning by miners, ranchers and early settlers (see two quotes from Bonnicksen himself at the bottom of this page indicating his own doubts about the issue). The point is, we can't make conclusive statements about what was because the data is extremely limited. The question remains if Native Americans needed to burn on the massive scale Bonnicksen is suggesting, one wonders how North American ecosystems survived without us. B: "Brushlands like chaparral and coastal sage burned hotter (in relation to historical forests). These hot fires often swept over thousands of acres. They were stand-replacing fires that renewed the brush on about a 40-year cycle. Even so, they were much smaller than today’s brush fires." Research over the past ten years refutes this notion. See the article "The Baja-Southern California Fire Hypothesis" on our Fire & Science page. B: "Some people believe that horrific brushland fires are wind-driven events. They are wrong. Science and nearly a century of professional experience shows that they are fuel driven events. Wind contributes to the intensity of a fire, but no fire can burn without adequate fuel, no matter how strong the wind." Dr. Bonnicksen is not a wildland firefighter and this kind of opinion clearly reflects that fact. The two most important variables in determining if a fire becomes "horrific" or not are fuel moistures (the amount of moisture in the vegetation) and wind. Of course you need fuel for a fire to burn, but fuel (vegetation) will not burn unless the conditions are right. This is why some forests (like lodgepole pine forests in the Rocky Mountains and forests in the Pacific Northwest have natural fire return intervals over 200 to 300 years). However, when conditions do line up (low humidity, extended drought, and winds), fuel type becomes a secondary variable. This is why grass fires can quickly become major events. Please see our Grass Fires page for more details. Also see the papers "How important is fuel age" and "Fuel Age and Fire Spread." Yes, you need fuel to have a fire, but it takes wind and low fuel moistures to turn it into a monster. B: "...the October fires of 2003 were concentrated in older brushlands. As expected, firefighters also found it easier to stop the fires at the boundaries of younger less flammable patches of chaparral, even in Santa Ana winds." This is an example of selecting the data that best fits one's theory, while ignoring the rest. Huge amounts of acreage burned younger-aged fuels. A significant amount was less than ten years old in both the Otay Fire and areas just east of Scripps Ranch during the Cedar Fire. During the 2007 Firestorm in Southern California approximately 100,000 acres burned that had already burned during the previous 5 years. The 2007 Witch Creek Fire re-burned a significant portion of the 2003 Cedar Fire scar. From a wildland firefighter perspective, there is an important point that needs to be understood. We don't stop wildfires, wildfires allow us to control them when weather conditions improve. Sure, fires often stop at previous fire scars, but frequently they do not. And yes, firefighters are more likely to set up direct attacks on the fire in areas where the fuel load is less, but under dangerous weather conditions all bets are off. One of the common denominators in tragedy fires where firefighters have been killed has been light, grassy fuels. B: "Science shows that brushlands are resilient, no matter how often fires burn or how hot the fire." This goes against more than fifty years of chaparral research by dozens of scientists. Anyone familiar with the literature knows the best way to eliminate chaparral is through repeated burning. This is how much of California's open range land was created (see our Threats to Chaparral page for additional information).
Dr. Bonnicksen's basic solution for reducing wildfire risk is through logging and converting "excess" trees and chaparral into biomass fuel. However, since there are no biomass or wood processing plants near many of the areas Bonnicksen says need "treatment," he suggests that,"...the initial public expenditure will have to include providing subsidies to build the infrastructure needed to make the restoration of fire-resistant forests financially feasible."
When confronted with some of his claims during a San Diego radio interview shortly after the 2007 wildfires (that large Southern California wildfires are not wind-driven events and that shrublands are resilient to frequent fires), Bonnicksen indicated he was being misinterpreted. The Congressional Record indicates otherwise.
In early 2008, Bonnicksen released a publication through the Forest Foundation that promoted a new angle in their efforts to promote more logging: older forests need to be logged in order to reduce global warming. US Forest Service scientists evaluated his model and found it "greatly inflates the net effect of wildfires", makes "questionable assumptions", and cited references that "do not meet the standard that would be expected from a typical peer-reviewed paper."
Although there is nothing wrong with promoting particluar kinds of economic development, such recommendations should be measured against the economic interests of those who make them.
Using the Press
Bonnicksen frequently writes editorials and letters to the editor in local papers to promote his viewpoints. The following exchange was published in the San Diego Union-Tribune's weekly Quest Science section on May 19, 2004 criticizing work presented at the San Diego Fire Recovery Network's Science Conference (April 21) as reported in a Union-Tribune article "Heated Debate" on May 12. It illustrates the polarizing dialogue that exists in the politics of fire. Our response to Bonnicksen's letter follows as well as other related information.
Reader's letters: San DiegoUnion-Tribune
Reader's Letters May 19, 2004
I want you to know that scientists are not as divided over fire suppression in brushlands as you state in your article (Heated debate, May 12). On the contrary, nearly 100 years of science, including my own research, support Dr. Richard Minnich. Many professionals also support Dr. Minnich. It is not a question of two scientists disagreeing (i.e., Dr. Minnich vs. Dr. Keeley) about chaparral fires. It is a question of Dr. Keeley disagreeing with a well-established body of science and experience. Dr. Minnich has published and presented many papers and reports over many years on chaparral research. He is well respected in the scientific community. Therefore, Dr. Minnich's conclusions carry more weight than Dr. Keeley, who has far less experience in chaparral fire management. In addition, I do not find either Dr. Keeley's science or his arguments persuasive, nor do most knowledgeable people.
Dr. Keeley's advocacy of the idea that we cannot control chaparral fires by controlling fuel is faulty, even if we ignore science and use common sense. Try to burn a hot fire in your fireplace with one log, even in a strong wind. Now try to do it with a stack of logs and no wind. Clearly, the latter is a hotter fire than the former. The same is true in chaparral. The older and thicker the chaparral the hotter it burns. It could not be otherwise regardless of wind. Please remember lives and property are at stake, as well as the biodiversity of the chaparral ecosystem. Dr. Keeley's arguments, if adopted, are scientifically indefensible. They also could lead to the deaths of many innocent people. Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Forest Science, Texas A&M University
Readers' letters May 26, 2004
In response to Thomas M. Bonnicksen's letter (Quest, May 19), the primary purpose of science is to consider a body of evidence and objectively evaluate that evidence. This is a painstaking process requiring time, patience and humility. Sometimes, in an effort to prove a favored theory, contrary evidence is ignored and ego becomes an overwhelming force.
Propelled by the intellectual excitement and emotional energy that moves knowledge forward, the scientist strives to maintain a delicate balance between desire and truth, knowing full well one is capable of influencing the other in unconscious, yet dramatic ways. It is a balance we struggle with in every aspect of our lives.
Unfortunately, many lose interest with the slow process of science and fall victim to dramatic pronouncements and polarizing statements that have nothing to do with truth. An example are the inflammatory statements made by Thomas M. Bonnicksen.
Rather than objectively explaining the data as we know it, Dr. Bonnicksen chose to attack those challenging his ideas and focus on personalities rather than science. Politicizing discussions like this is a common pattern used by those who are attempting to defend old paradigms that are slowly giving way to new discoveries.
Based on dozens of studies over the past decade by many scientists, we now know that it is best to spend scarce fire management resources at the wild land/urban interface, not performing prescribed burns in backcountry chaparral. Southern Californians need to recognize that nothing will stop the front of a Santa Ana wind-driven fire. Three-year-old chaparral will burn as readily as 100-year-old chaparral under extreme weather conditions.
Our best defense is to design our communities with that in mind. Build fire-resistant homes and create defensible space around them. Let's concentrate on the best available science rather than creating counterproductive fire fights in the press. Richard W. Halsey
California Chaparral Institute
Response to Bonnicksen from the acting superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Russel J. Wilson
Fires vital for long-term health of sequoia forests
By Russel J. Wilson
Fresno Bee, March 11, 2005
On behalf of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, I would like to respond to Thomas Bonnicksen's recent opinion piece.
Bonnicksen spent only two summers, nearly 30 years ago, collecting data in sequoia forests. The state of scientific and empirical knowledge regarding giant sequoia forests has grown exponentially since Dr. Bonnicksen collected his data. As a result, his ideas, though once in vogue, have been superseded by a more comprehensive and sophisticated picture of forest structure and fire ecology.
The information that I'd like to share is based on current science, decades of field fire operations and a long-term monitoring program in our parks. The information has been collected, validated and published by the National Park Service, the United States Geological Survey and members of the academic community.
Giant sequoia trees have a close relationship with fire. By studying the fire scars on their growth rings, scientists know that over the last few thousand years sequoias experienced naturally caused fires an average of every five to 20 years. Therefore, a 1,000-year-old specimen could have burned approximately 60 times. To survive, and ultimately thrive, in this fire-prone environment, sequoias develop a thick layer of bark to insulate themselves from heat. Most importantly, fire allows these trees to reproduce by clearing the forest floor, creating sunlit forest gaps, adding nutrients to the soil and opening cones to release seeds.
Given this close natural relationship, the National Park Service initiated a prescribed burning program in 1969 to reverse the harmful effects that a century of fire suppression had caused, choking our forests with excess trees. Bonnicksen claims that this program has resulted in "decades of destruction" and "the loss of thousands of huge trees." Are things really this bad?
Park Service monitoring of prescribed fires in sequoia forests has shown that five years after a fire, the number of large trees (mostly pines and firs) is reduced by approximately 9%, which is still within the natural range. If the parks had never suppressed natural fires over the last century, these few large pine and fir trees and many excess small trees would have been cleared away long ago. Their removal makes space for other new, young trees and rejuvenates forest conditions for all kinds of species.
Bonnicksen points out that chain saws can be a valuable tool for forest management. Indeed, the Park Service sometimes uses chain saws to thin forests around developments to protect public safety. So why not use saws much more extensively -- or even as a replacement for prescribed fire -- in national parks?
First, much of the forested land in national parks is too steep or remote to be thinned with chain saws and building expensive road networks to complete this work defies laws passed by Congress to establish national parks. Secondly, it is not cost-effective over large areas ($2,000 per acre for mechanical removal vs. $130 per acre for prescribed fire). Thirdly, no amount of mechanical removal will replace the role of fire in a giant sequoia forest. Chain saws do not replace nutrients or stimulate the production of seedlings.
Bonnicksen implies that the Washington sequoia could have been saved from fire simply by raking around the tree. He does not mention that the tree was hollow from past fires, or that the fire in the tree's crown most likely started from a blowing ember landing in the opening to the hollow, 200 feet above the ground. No amount of raking would have changed that outcome.
But why was the fire that produced the fateful ember allowed to burn in the first place? It was allowed to burn to restore resilience to a forest from which all fire, human or natural, has been excluded for more than a century. We cannot continue this exclusion. It is not possible, nor desirable.
Plan that works
The efficiency of the National Park Service program has been proven over time. The public overwhelmingly supported our new Fire and Fuels Management Plan. This plan is balanced and scientifically sound based on the current level of knowledge (not information from a generation ago).
We have an integrated, multi-strategy program that consists of many different tools: fire suppression, wildland fire use (the management of lightning-caused fires), prescribed fire, and, yes, even mechanical fuel reduction around structures. We use each tool at the right time and in the right place to safeguard the public and preserve park resources.
Russel J. Wilson is acting superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Which is it?
"Historically, most of California's forests were open because Native Americans and lightning-casued fires burned regularly." - Bonnicksen, T.M. 2004. Restore forests before memory fades. California Forests 8: 14-15.
"The term open and park-like, although descriptive and appropriate for the time in which it was used, has often conveyed a false impression of the structure of the presettlement forest community." - Bonnicksen, T.M. 1982. Reconstruction of a mixed-conifer forest. Ecology 63: 1134-1148.