This a two part question. One, is the thinning of forests essential to keeping them healthy? The other, is it essential so that the forest is safe for people?
This first part of the question is the more important one, I think. Let’s take a look at history. Unfortunately we don’t have documented historical records that exist before the Europeans started to settle in America in any kind of numbers, in the time period around the 1620s. They wrote accounts of the Native Americans burning the forest so that it was easier to track game and move around. Although they would not have called it ecology, they were also cutting down the underbrush that will steal the nutrients from the old growth trees. Likewise, the Native Americans didn’t worry about carbon footprints or global warming, but they knew to respect Mother Earth. The trees were respected, and in some areas, considered to have knowledge that could be passed on.
There were other reasons for thinning out the heavy forests. You could plant a small field of maize in an open area of a forest. If it was covered with underbrush, then this wasn’t possible. The ashes left from the “small burns” would also serve to help fertilize the ground for various purposes. As I am sure they learned from Mother Nature, a small controlled burn is a lot easier to control than a full fledged forest fire that could destroy their entire livelihood.
Going back a little further in history, Mother Nature itself has used the same process since the beginning of time. A single lightning strike could start a small fire that would consume smaller trees and underbrush but not the larger old growth trees. Many types of trees, some species of pine, need the heat of the fire to actually be able to reproduce. Did the Native Americans learn this trick from nature? I would have to say that they probably did.
The second part of the question is the safety of people. If you don’t know the woods or forest, then you need to have a guide who does. It is a dangerous place to begin with. That being said, yes, forest thinning will make it safer for people who venture into the woods. It will clear out the underbrush so that the chances of them getting confused and lost are reduced. They will also have a better view in case a predator that didn’t get the message that they shouldn’t eat those defenseless animals with no teeth or claws happen to be in the area. In places like California, where people love to build houses in areas that are obviously dangerous, thinning the forest does the same thing that it did for the Native Americans. It cuts down the chance of a massive forest fire. We hear about these “firestorms” that consume thousands of acres. If you get rid of the smaller brush that acts as tinder, you may be able to reduce the chance of the giant fires, thus saving lives, property, and resources needed to protect these people.