'Trees in Trouble'

With Memorial Day behind us, the informal summer season has begun, meaning big fire season is looming for the west.

For forests along the coast, the threat isn’t as dire as it is for inland forests. But because so much of our collective resources have been devoted to addressing these fires of catastrophic scope of late, and there have been far-reaching impacts on everything from loss of wildlife and timber resources, to watershed destruction, air pollution and insurance implications, this is a matter worth heeding.

Portland author Daniel Mathews’ new book, “Trees in Trouble,” can help you wrap your mind around the topic.

The trees he’s talking about are pines. The genus Pinus is represented by some two dozen species throughout the interior of the American West, and as climate change brings warmer summers, drier winters and increases in vapor pressure deficit, Mathews points out that fire isn’t the only thing we have to worry about. There are also insect pests, invasive plants and a lack of political leadership (and funding) to do what’s ultimately right by the forests — which is complicated, of course, by varying economic and academic arguments around what constitutes proper forest management.

Mathews takes us along as he talks with dozens of forest researchers who are working at field sites from British Columbia to New Mexico and places in between. He visits test sites in the forest and labs back in town. He reads through their papers with a fine-toothed comb and identifies the agreements and the arguments among scientists, which depend on the particular variables they’re working with.

Like most of them, Mathews believes that in the Anthropocene, humans have had way too many impacts on forests to warrant merely sitting back and letting nature take its course.

Even so, you might be startled by one of his early assertions: “Chainsaws can be tools of intelligent forestry.”

For particular types of inland forests, Mathews says the science points to thinning as a vital practice for prevention of catastrophic forest fires.

He also approves of the U.S. Forest Service’s policy (although it is not always put into practice) of limiting wildfires by — wait for it — letting more wildfires burn. This seemingly paradoxical approach came about after discovering that a century of aggressive fire suppression led unintentionally to the accumulation of more fuel, which ultimately led to worse fires.

One of the more recent developments Mathews explores is collaborations between folks who used to be archenemies — environmentalists and loggers. As forest resources become increasingly threatened, more people are trying to work out solutions to make forests more resilient.

Mathews writes in a chatty style, sharing many thoughtful insights. But some of the science he covers is pretty granular, and lay readers may occasionally find themselves flipping through pages that seem particularly dense in scientific detail.

A final note: this book is graced by beautiful drawings of pines by Battle Ground, Washington-based artist Matt Strieby.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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