Ablaze in Our Forest Home
Erin Devlin, Planetary Health Alliance Intern
MPH Candidate, Oregon State University
The first thing I do when I wake up these days is check the fire map and the AQI (air quality index) for my home and the places near us. We left our house in Milwaukie, Oregon as the Riverside Fire in our county continued to grow, due less to the danger that the fire would reach us and more to the inability to keep the heavy smoke from seeping into our house and into our toddler’s lungs. Not everyone has had the privilege to leave our area, and as we all sit behind windows watching various levels of smoke and fog obscure the horizon, our senses have been rewired. The hazy red orange of the sky and the smell of a campfire might hit too close to home for a while as we manage traumatic responses to their ubiquitous presence during this time. The places we spent our recent summer weekends picking huckleberries and swimming in lakes are up in flames. Planetary health solutions for the crisis of the West Coast haze can’t come soon enough, and this blog post takes lessons from a few of the case studies (download the anthology here) to apply to our path forward.
“Health and Haze” in Indonesia tells the story of the respiratory effects of burning peatlands, and shows the importance of an integrated governmental response. “The Interconnectedness of People and Planet” in Aotearoa New Zealand exemplifies better ways to follow Indigenous leadership by showing how to respect the life source of our forests. “Going Circular” in Santiago, Chile gives us clues on how to apply this type of sustainable model to our forests. We have a lot to learn from these case studies, and it will take time, effort, and unlimited determination to transform our system in the face of competing interests. In addition to these case studies, a 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting session on the connections between deforestation and wildfires shows the parallels between our wildfire and previous events in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the Western United States and highlights the effects of poor air quality on human health and a public health response.
Connections with Health and Haze:
Indonesia’s annual dry season from June to October lines up nearly perfectly with our dry season in Oregon. In both locations, face masks don’t provide adequate protection for people living through haze events caused by extensive fires. As in Central Kalimantan in 2015, we are experiencing growing economic and health impacts from our current haze event with an extreme, though yet unknown, price tag. The case study highlights how both short-term and chronic exposure to haze causes respiratory symptoms, reduces lung function, and leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Planetary health solutions in Indonesia have involved central and local government collaboration to control sources of fire and limit the depth of peatland use, impacting primarily the private sector. The private sector’s negative reaction to increased regulation was met in their case with consultations on restoration activities and more clarity on how to continue their work. We can learn from their model to protect our forests and allow the forest ecosystem to protect us against fire with its own natural fire retardant strategies.
Many articles are coming out about the combination of causes leading to the scale of our current wildfires, attributing them in part to hotter temperatures from climate change, but also to forest management, the proximity of homes to forests, and the human activities or weather events that directly precipitated the flames. We didn’t know that 2020 would be the worst year yet for forest fires on the West Coast, and at this time we can’t predict exactly what 2021 or 2050 will bring. I want to address a couple practices to look out for in the wake of these fires that benefit the logging industry at the expense of the health of our forests and ourselves.
Is it true that protecting the forest from logging leads to higher levels of fire severity? This misconception points to the accumulation of biomass to justify active management and logging of our forests. Using a Random Forests algorithm, Bradley, Hanson, and DellaSala (2016) found that protected forests with greater biomass and potential fuel for fires experienced less severe fires. Just as peatlands that retained their water table and moisture levels can protect themselves against fire, the natural system of even dryland forests protects against the extent of wildfire we see today. The last 200 years of land management has not prioritized old growth forests’ carbon storage, water filtration, or resiliency against this level of large-scale destruction. As part of the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting session, the CEO of Vibrant Planet Allison Wolff described how California forests store more carbon than tropical rainforests, and yet only 3–4% of old growth remains. She estimates that the acreage lost to wildfire will continue to double annually until the forests are gone.
The other danger in the aftermath of this wildfire season is “salvage logging”, removing felled trees from burned areas. Intended to use the wasted wood from a forest fire before its supposedly useless decomposition, this strategy has been pushed legislatively in our region for too long, recently demonstrated by the response to the 2017 scenic Columbia Gorge fire with house bill H.R. 3715 that encouraged expedited salvage logging. Instead, non-intervention policies after a forest fire would allow the forest ecosystem to adapt, restore, and increase its resilience as a habitat for plants and animals (Castro, Puerta-Piñero, Leverkus, Moreno-Rueda, and Sánchez-Miranda, 2012). A meta-analysis of studies about salvage logging suggests that salvage logging does not meet the management objectives of protected areas, nor does it increase the risk for reburning (Thorn, et al., 2017). The cost to our health and habitats is too high to outweigh profits from logging these areas. It is critical that the land burned in 2020 not be subject to salvage logging, but instead be allowed to regenerate for the following centuries. Lessons from the “Health and Haze” case study emphasize the importance of government policies that put the long term health of our natural resources above the short term interests of private enterprise.
Connections with The Interconnectedness of People and Planet:
In the Maori homeland of Aotearoa New Zealand, there is a deep understanding of the interconnected flourishing of human health and the natural environment. Despite the relevance of this multigenerational, collective worldview to the prosperity of people in their country today, environmental destruction disproportionately exacerbates ongoing effects of colonialism and climate change on the Maori people. Planetary health solutions have begun to include the Maori concept of hauora that values the emotional, mental, social, and spiritual well-being of families in natural resource policies. In 2014, a large forested area called Te Urewera gained legal personhood, giving the forest the same rights as a person. In 2017 the Whanganui River became the first river in the world to gain this status, followed by the sacred mountain, Mount Taranaki.
Before settler colonialists initiated timber industries in the Pacific Northwest, Native land management strategies had been in practice for thousands of years. Robin Wall Kimmerer magically describes old growth cedars in Braiding Sweetgrass, detailing how Native communities peeled off cedar bark ribbons to sustain human life without harming the trees (2014). Fire was used as a land management tool to both call the salmon from the sea and renew the soil, and Indigenous fire stewardship has gotten renewed attention in the wake of fires from Australia to the Western United States. In our region, tribal stewardship has been proposed for national forest lands with a recognition of the long standing relationship between people and the land, and the social-ecological impact of European colonization on community well-being and traditional lifeways contributing to economic, diet, and health problems (Long & Lake, 2017).
The inequitable effects from our current wildfires go further when we consider the health of city residents. The 2015 American Housing Survey by the U.S. Census found that about 30% of residents in the Portland Metro Area lack any air conditioning, and nearly as many have only room air conditioning. Central air conditioning, along with the use of air filters, is recommended to keep homes smoke-free during times of hazardous air quality, so access to clean air becomes dependent on location and wealth. Easing the impact and reversing trends started through a legacy of white supremacy requires partnership in leadership and transformative policies recognizing the value of natural resources at all levels.
Connections with Going Circular:
Santiago’s privatized water management service run by Aguas Andinas along the Mapocho River demonstrates the positive impact of investing in a circular economy model. What they have accomplished in preserving and maintaining their water resources applies to our own situation in Oregon. We currently treat our forest land as a renewable resource under what Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics calls a degenerative linear economy, likened to an industrial caterpillar. We take, make, use, and lose our trees instead of learning from their complex natural systems and focusing on regeneration at each stage of decomposition. Raworth prefers the term cyclical economy, but the same concept of capturing and using waste products to close the loop applies to the Mapocho River water management. Water is needed for survival, just as we need our trees, but the process for living within the system must allow for full regeneration at the rate of use. As we witness the rebirth of many of our forest lands in the years to come, a circular or cyclical model may need to take into account the air, water, and forests of future generations of our communities.
The regenerative economy is based on the principle of generosity, a value we can learn directly from our beloved state tree, the Douglas fir. In The Overstory, Richard Powers writes that “before it dies, a Douglas fir, half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament. We might well call these ancient benefactors giving trees.” I hope the comparisons to case studies in places where planetary health solutions have taken root helps us as we go forward in stewardship of our forests, and opens the door for more equitable representation, propriety of land, and ultimately human health outcomes.
Bradley, C. M., Hanson, C. T., & DellaSala, D. A. (2016). Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States? Ecosphere. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.1492
Castro, j., Puerta-Piñero, C., Leverkus, A. B., Moreno-Rueda, G., & Sánchez-Miranda, A. (2012). Post-fire salvage logging alters a key plant-animal interaction for forest regeneration. Ecosphere. doi: https://doi.org/10.1890/ES12-00089.1
Duff, H., Faerron Guzmán, C., Almada, A., Golden, C., & Myers, S. (2020). Planetary health case studies: An anthology of solutions. doi: https://doi.org/10.5822/phanth9678_4
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Long, J. W. & Lake, F. K. (2017). Escaping social-ecological traps through tribal stewardship on national forest lands in the Pacific Northwest, United States of America. Synthesis. doi: . https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10041-230210
Powers, R. (2018). The Overstory. New York: Norton & Company.
Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. London: Random House Business Books.
Thorn, S. et al. (2017, May 21). Impacts of salvage logging on biodiversity: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: https://doi-org.ezproxy.proxy.library.oregonstate.edu/10.1111/1365-2664.12945