Interview: Daniel Mathews on trees, fire, and public policy

As forest fires consume hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon and Washington, Daniel Mathews' "Trees in Trouble" moves to the front burner

The release of Daniel Mathews’ Trees in Trouble earlier this year was swallowed up by events that seemed of more immediate urgency than a book about a specific effect of climate change. The fate of pine forests in the West deferred to the reading public’s growing understanding of how devastating the covid-19 pandemic was going to be and how threatening President Trump was to American democracy itself. But maybe we don’t have to connect too many dots to see how entangled climate change, pandemics, and the violation of democratic principles really are. But I digress.

I have known Mathews since the 1980s when we met socially and then professionally. I edited some of his nature essays in The Oregonian’s Northwest magazine, and his Cascade-Olympic Natural History: A Trailside Reference has a prominent spot on my shelf of reference books. Since then we’ve had dinner many times and even hiked together a few times. In my mind, that disqualified me from reviewing Trees in Trouble, his exploration of the condition and prospects of the Western pine forests, Ponderosa and Jeffrey, Sugar and Bristlecone, Lodgepole and Two-needle Piñon, often through the eyes of long-time researchers in field, tramping about their forests.

An interview seemed appropriate, though: We could talk about the book and the topics surrounding it without some of the formality of the typical interviewer/interviewee relationship. And then as we neared the end of the process, the massive fires that were burning in California as he wrote Trees in Trouble, came to Oregon. 

As I type, the skies above Portland are relatively clear, a little murky with haze, but all around the state fires have escaped the forest and are running through populated areas. The problem that Trees in Trouble considers isn’t a sideshow in Oregon today—it’s the main event. The first question is actually the last one I asked Mathews, just this morning, after I started to understand the scope of the fires around Medford, the Santiam, the McKenzie, into the Willamette Valley and to the edges of Portland proper.

ArtsWatch: The fires threatening Oregon towns and cities and filling Oregon skies with smoke today come from Oregon’s forests. Trees in Trouble was written during the big California fires two years ago, which illustrated your discussion of the failure of fire suppression policies in Western forests. What is your response to the fire footage we’re seeing today?

Daniel Mathews: I’m heartbroken looking at the maps and seeing so many towns and forests I visited just in reporting for this book. This week’s fires are shocking and truly historic: it’s likely that more acres burned in the West than in any 48-hour period in written history, including the Big Blow-up of 1910. I fear that by the weekend we’ll see by far the most homes burned in Oregon, as well.

The blow-ups in Oregon, Washington, and California all result from a vast unusual weather pattern involving regional-scale strong East winds across the mountains lasting for days and falling at a hot, extremely dry time of year. Our Oregon East winds aren’t uncommon; what’s unusual is such a strong wind so early in the fall, together with the simultaneity of it from Washington to southern CA. With so many fires to fight, firefighting resources are stretched too thin for there to be much hope of quick containment. Climate change is responsible for about two degrees of how warm and dry the region got.

That said, here in western Oregon it’s possible that these fires are the long-term normal. Jerry Franklin and his colleagues have long said that western Oregon’s fire regime consists of large severe fires that come along very infrequently—hundreds of years apart—at times of large-scale East wind patterns in the early fall. In a further contrast to the pine forests of California and eastern Oregon, these fires can’t be blamed on the forests being too dense after decades of fire suppression. Thanks to the rain, our forests always have plenty of fuel to carry fire, but most of the time they’re too damp to do so.

Again thanks to the rain, forests here have an excellent chance of regrowing into something like what they were before. Looking at the heart of the 2017 Eagle Creek burn last month, I saw that even where the fire killed 90% of the mature trees, it spared a scattering of them to reseed the landscape.

One persistent theme of the book has to do with the tension between public policy and scientific research. How much should public policy be determined by the science of forest preservation and adaptation? How much has it been determined by that science up until now? Has that changed much during the past few decades?

I guess there are a lot of disconnects between science and policy in this country, but forest fire policy is one of the most stubborn. Recognition that our dry forests need more fire has been growing for 40 years or more among scientists, and it even became Forest Service policy a decade or two ago. But only on paper. Increasing the use of prescribed fire in the West is persistently, painfully slow, and managed wildfire—watching natural fires burn and being ready to move in and suppress them only if necessary—has been even slower, even though it’s officially approved. Chalk it up mainly to risk aversion and strangled budgets. And politicians.

The cycle that Trees in Trouble describes involves pine forests (mostly east of the coast rain forests), fire, beetles (and other pine predators), and climate variability. How do you think about those elements? What metaphors do you use in your own mind?

Climate change is kind of a warping or tilting of the entire field on which all of those beings live, eat each other, and die. Of course, climate has always been changing, but the last 5,000 years were more stable than the long-term average, and now the present century is changing WAY more rapidly. TILT!!!!

Whitebark pine and Clark’s Nutcracker, by Matt Strieby/Courtesy Counterpoint Press

How does a great pine forest feel to you as you walk through it? What is the experience like? (I’m thinking of Longfellow: “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks…”)

Breezes bring a balmy ambience to o’erwhelm my nose, whilst eyes embrace majestic amber boles … 

Nice! Of the pine forests you encountered, which ones felt most “primeval” to you, least disturbed? Or do they all bear the scars of human interventions at this point? 

Well, in these forests, it’s more a lack of scars that reflects the kind of human intervention we don’t like. (That would be relentless fire suppression.) Fire scars here and there, and charred bark crevices, reflect a healthy fire regime. And we don’t mind if some of those chars and scars resulted from human intervention.

We have to look at east-side pine forests with east-side eyes, not our old west-side assumptions where we hope to see as many big old trunks as possible, and a maximum of verdure in the understory.

I loved a stand I camped in on the Naches Ranger District that had a herd of elk, an osprey, a big meadow, and well-spaced big old yellowbellies (Ponderosa pines).

How did the first humans in North America affect the pine forests they found here, which were emerging from the Ice Age as they arrived, presumably. Are there records of burning regimes that affected pine forests by those earliest humans here?

Palynologists can put together a charcoal record of the bigger ups and downs in the quantity of fire in a given drainage basin, over millennia—the hottest millennium had the most fire—and archaeologists can give us bits and pieces of a record of when people were around. But I think the two records are a long way from being complete enough and granular enough to correlate them. There are some good studies of the DE-population of Indigenous people, 240 or 400 years ago, affecting fire regimes. But not the initial arrival of people more than 10,000 years ago. From the Cascade Crest east through the Rockies, there’s plenty of dry lightning to maintain a frequent-fire regime anyway, regardless of any human ignitions. Not a ton of lightning in California and western Oregon, so human ignitions made a bigger difference here.

I love the illustrations of the different pine species. Me too! Thanks to Matt Strieby of Battleground, Washington.

How many are there in total in the West? How about Oregon? 

Oregon has nine native species, possibly ten or eleven. The southwestern states bring in a lot more, for a total in the West of around two dozen.

Which are the most prevalent? Ponderosa

The most threatened? Whitebark

The most valuable commercially? Ponderosa (though Western white pine in the past, and Sugar pine on a per-tree basis).

This may sound crazy, but which ones are your favorite (and why)?

I just adore being among Ponderosa or Jeffrey pines, because of their color and their fragrance. But I’m staggered by Bristlecones pines. Lots of them reach two thousand years old, some of them more than five thousand. Nothing else in the world comes close (unless you mess with the definitions). And just looking at the shapes and textures and colors of them, I’m blown away.

A Redding, California, neighborhood a year after the Carr fire/Photo Daniel Mathews

You don’t talk much about logging and logging practices. How has logging affected pine forests?

It’s a huge effect. The shift toward dense, fire-prone forests including lots of firs in place of mostly pines resulted from a one-two punch from logging and a cessation of fire. In the early days of logging in eastern Oregon (and most Ponderosa pine country) the main tree they wanted was the big, mature Ponderosa pine. In contrast to west-side forests, the Ponderosa pine forests were sparse enough that they could just go in and cut and drag out the individual trees they wanted most. It’s called “high-grading.” A lot of what got left behind was young Grand firs and Douglas firs, which thrived in the absence of competition from the big pines—and in the absence of frequent low-severity fires, which would have killed a lot of them. Long before we got good at putting all the fires out, fires were largely taken out of the equation by grazing sheep, which chomped away the grasses needed to carry a ground fire. Removing the Indigenous population also contributed to the cessation of fires in some areas.

What percentage of them have been logged? Is there a link between our fire regimes and logging?

Some in the timber industry would like us to believe that traditional commercial logging would prevent forest fires including the high-severity kind that are detrimental. The record does not support this. Many of the worst burnt patches have been in young commercial plantations.  (I saw this yet again in satellite imagery of the Bear fire in California.) What can help is sophisticated thinning to restore forest heterogeneity while retaining big old pines. In some places that can produce some merchantable timber; in others, not.

What does a forest-healthy approach to dealing with fire look like in pine forests?

A lot more prescribed fire, and also natural wildfires being allowed to burn more acreage, at relatively cool and moist times of year and in locations well away from developed resources we want to protect, like homes.

How about beetles? What’s the link between beetle infestations and fire?

There may be a link, but it isn’t totally proven. Some studies find that Ponderosa pines respond to repeatedly getting singed by producing more or bigger resin ducts, and if broadly true that would help them defend themselves from beetles, since that’s the main function of their resin.

If we committed ourselves to healthy pine forests, whatever that looks like, what would the investment look like, in dollars and human energy? What would the payoff be?

Sometimes people look at a fire that did ten million dollars in damage and say, this would have been prevented by well-placed prescribed fires costing a hundred thousand. They’re not wrong. There’s something of a point there, but hindsight is cheap. To apply prescribed fire strategically across the entire forested West won’t be cheap. A total cost-benefit analysis… I don’t know. I’m sure someone has thrown one against the wall to see if it sticks, but you could never get everyone to agree that it’s the accurate one.

The payoff is forests that give us not only profound spiritual gratification, but also clean water, fish, wildlife, clean air, carbon sequestration, and more,  

About the author
Executive Editor

Barry Johnson has written about and edited arts and culture stories of various sorts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the Seattle Sun. He edited the arts section of Willamette Week and wrote a general culture column in the early 1980s and started at The Oregonian as arts editor in 1983, moving between editing and writing (visual arts, movies, theater, dance) until leaving in 2009. Since then, he’s been thinking about new ideas to help make arts and culture journalism ever more useful and engaged. Oregon Arts Watch is one of those ideas.

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