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Comparisons between wildfire and forest harvesting and their implications in forest management

Posted date: October 03, 2018
Publication Year: 
2001
Authors: McRae, D. J.; Duchesne, L. C.; Freedman, B.; Lynham, T. J.; Woodley, S.
Document type: Other Documents

Citation

McRae, D. J.; Duchesne, L. C. ; Freedman, B.; Lynham, T. J.; Woodley, S. 2001. Comparisons between wildfire and forest harvesting and their implications in forest management. Environ. Rev. 9: 223–260.

Description

Emulation silviculture is the use of silvicultural techniques that try to imitate natural disturbances such as wildfire. Emulation silviculture is becoming increasingly popular in Canada because it may help circumvent the political and environmental difficulties associated with intensive forest harvesting practices. In this review we summarize empirical evidence that illustrates disparities between forest harvesting and wildfire. As a rule, harvesting and wildfire affect biodiversity in different ways, which vary a great deal among ecosystem types, harvesting practices, and scale of disturbance. The scales of disturbance are different in that patch sizes created by logging are a small subset of the range of those of wildfire. In particular, typical forestry does not result in the large numbers of small disturbances and the small number of extremely large disturbances created by wildfires. Moreover, the frequency of timber harvesting is generally different from typical fire return intervals. The latter varies widely, with stand-replacing fires occurring in the range of 20 to 500 years in Canada. In contrast, harvest frequencies are dictated primarily by the rotational age at merchantable size, which typically ranges from 40 to 100 years. Forest harvesting does not maintain the natural stand-age distributions associated with wildfire in many regions, especially in the oldest age classes. The occurrence of fire on the landscape is largely a function of stand age and flammability, slope, aspect, valley orientation, and the location of a timely ignition event. These factors result in a complex mosaic of stand types and ages on the landscape. Timber harvesting does not generally emulate these ecological influences. The shape of cut blocks does not follow the general ellipse pattern of wind driven fires, nor do harvested stands have the ragged edges and unburned patches typically found in stand-replacing fires. Wildfire also leaves large numbers of snags and abundant coarse woody debris, while some types of harvesting typically leave few standing trees and not much large debris. Successional pathways following logging and fire often differ. Harvesting tends to favor angiosperm trees and results in less dominance by conifers. Also, understory species richness and cover do not always recover to the pre-harvest condition during the rotation periods used in typical logging, especially in eastern Canada and in old-growth forests. As well, animal species that depend on conifers or old-growth forests are affected negatively by forest harvesting in ways that may not occur after wildfire. The road networks developed for timber extraction cause erosion, reduce the areas available for reforestation, fragment the landscape for some species and ecological functions, and allow easier access by humans, whereas there is no such equivalency in a fire-disturbed forest.