A few vociferous Utah lawmakers are pushing a theory that the Great Salt Lake can be “saved” by unleashing bull dozers and chain saws on Utah’s forests. The idea is not new, and just about all its assumptions are wrong. 

Massive logging in the Sierra Nevada was proposed years ago as a solution to the California drought, but was judged to be minimally and only transiently effective, with even less efficacy during droughts. Unless logging of valuable, mature trees is followed by frequent removal of “understory vegetation,” the increase in stream flow will not be maintained. The 2008 National Academy of Sciences consensus panel report on forest hydrology concluded: “cutting trees for water gains is not sustainable: increases in flow rate and volume are typically short-lived, and the practice can ultimately degrade water quality and increase vulnerability to flooding,” like what has been happening throughout California.

Newer research shows even short-term increased stream flow is not a consistent result of deforestation. In some cases it actually decreases stream flow, in particular, in more arid forests like in the Southwest. To increase stream flow significantly would require essentially denuding our forests, and as the climate crisis advances, the drought continues and temperatures rise, even any benefit from clear cut logging will be lost.

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The chain saw caucus is also ignoring the larger picture. Loss of forest mass not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, but also sacrifices a critical pathway for carbon absorption long into the future. Due to decades of logging, American forests now have far less biomass than they would have if managed by mother nature. Deforestation is a key accelerant of the climate crisis, called the greatest threat to global public health by more than 200 medical journals in 2021.

Claims that our forests are massively “overgrown and unhealthy” and “fuel reduction treatments” i.e. logging, are the cure, is largely a myth promoted by the timber industry, politicians and their allies in the U.S. Forest Service. Independent experts, including the most widely cited forest ecologist in the world, Dr. David Lindenmayer, author of 48 books on the subject, says, “logged forests always burn at greater severity than intact forests.” The climate crisis has become the main driver of Western forests’ new fire vulnerability. Fire frequency and intensity are directly related to drought, temperature and wind, not tree density or “excessive fuels.” In fact, dense tree stands act as wind breaks, retain moisture and decrease forest temperatures.

Through underground mazes of roots, fungi and bacteria called “mycorrhizal networks,” trees share resources like water and nutrients, helping each other survive stresses. Forest thinning disrupts mycorrhizal networks leaving remaining trees more vulnerable to disease, pest attack and drought, shortening their life span.

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Logging requires road building and skid trails, leaving lasting ecosystem damage: soil compaction, surface erosion, increased stream sedimentation, degraded water quality and aquatic habitat, reduced biodiversity, spread of invasive vegetation and suppression of forest regeneration. Nearly 85% of forest fires are human caused, and roads invariably increase human presence in the forest and ultimately more fires. 

Forest trees provide the same benefits as urban trees, such as stabilizing local climate by transferring heat from land surfaces to higher in the atmosphere and buffering temperature extremes. On a global scale, forests reduce earth’s temperature about 0.5 oC. Trees release water vapor and biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) which promote cloud formation, and contribute further to cooling and formation of condensation nuclei, more cloud formation and ultimately precipitation.

Trees sequester particulate pollution, absorb ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ultrafine particulate pollution through the same stomata they absorb CO2. 

Burning “slash piles” of thinned trees and branches, as the U.S. Forest Service is doing throughout the West, including the Wasatch Mountains, is climate malpractice and public health malpractice. Logging destroys forest carbon absorption, and burning the biomass releases all that carbon and pollution into the atmosphere. For multiple reasons wood smoke is deadly, the most toxic type of air pollution the average person ever inhales, whether it comes from a fireplace, a wildfire, or a prescribed burn. In fact, the lower combustion temperatures in prescribed burns produce more dioxins than wildfires

With their extremely myopic view of our forests, the “chain saw caucus” is proposing environmental calamity in Utah and failing to “see the forest through the trees.”

Dr. Brian Moench is the president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) and the board chair of the international coalition of Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution (DSAWSP).