December 13, 2019

To burn or not to burn? That question hampers forest-policy decision

Smokey had it right: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Only now it appears that you prevented too many of them.

The fire season of 1987, the year before the great Yellowstone (National Park) blazes, inaugurated a period of intense burning in the inland West, from eastern California to the Dakotas. This has continued, season to season, to the present.

This year is the worst yet. The area burned in 1994 has already exceeded that of any of the previous seven seasons.

By mid-August, the 1994 burn on western public lands, both federal and state, has exceeded 3,750 square miles. Some 30,000 firefighters have been mobilized to contain the fires, and 20 have been killed in action. The largest single blaze was the 122,000-acre Tyee Creek fire on the eastern slope of Washington’s Cascade Range.

What is the reason for eight years of relentlessly severe blazes? Forest managers point to one factor above all others: a century of artificial fire exclusion from the region — and from much of the United States.

The Smokey Bear campaign was, and continues to be, admirable in some ways. It raised public awareness of forest health and the importance of individual responsibility in preventing unintended fire “triggers” in wildlands.

However, this blaze of publicity, among the more successful government-sponsored education campaigns ever, caused an unfortunate backdraft in public policy. The touching account of the homeless, injured orphan bear placed undue focus on a “fire-exclusion” policy in federal land-management decisions.

Then, as now, these decisions were reached very much with an eye toward public acceptance. Charred trees and injured wildlife were deemed unacceptable. To suppress or contain all wildfire to the limits of practical endeavor remained United States Forest Service policy until the 1960s.

Even today, with the place of wildfire in the ecology widely recognized, a “zero-burn tolerance” ethic haunts Forest Service policy. The “let-burn” policy, hesitantly adopted in the 1960s and pursued today only in limited circumstances, still surrounds the agency with public-relations problems — and invites the obvious inference that more widespread use of timely, controlled and supervised burns might have been better.

“Fuel loading” is the technical term for the cause of the current crisis. Ancient, dry, insect-killed trees standing or lying with masses of other dead vegetation have accumulated because of a century of fire exclusion. But this dry mass must burn, will burn, and is burning right now throughout the inland West. The fires are consuming large areas. The Yellowstone firestorm of 1988 and fires throughout the West in 1994 will remain commonplace in the years to come.

Consider a conventional forest fire and its results.

By creating a temporary opening in forest cover and by heating and charring the soil surface, a forest fire stimulates long-dormant seeds of sun-loving plants to sprout. This sudden vigorous growth is beneficial for grazing and foraging wildlife — and predators, too. In time, the forest canopy finally crowds out the vigorous, light-loving shrubbery, and slower-growing, shade-tolerant plants supersede it. A new habitat arises, favoring different species. Another fire, perhaps at the very edges of this renewed forest, will at some point disturb a new habitat into existence.

The West has experienced an interruption in this cycle.

“The Western inland forests that we so love and cherish for what they do for the environment, for the economy, and especially for our souls have, for the past 100 years, been experiencing dramatic and unhealthy changes,” Neil Sampson, chairman of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters, reported last March. “The primary cause of this major, regionwide program has been the exclusion of fire from the forests.”

These stand-replacing burns are not the comparatively light, small-sized blazes that orphaned Smokey and Bambi and renewed their habitat. An extremely hot fire does not cause a habitat-renewing disturbance; rather, it reduces the area burned to its mineral base and consumes expansive areas, often more than a few hundred acres.

Even thick-barked trees do not survive. The superheated blaze consumes or sterilizes the rootstock, which is a major source of regeneration for some species, as well as seeds accumulated in the top few inches of forest soil.

A hot fire eludes control by firefighters and, as it ravages large forest areas, may even work physical changes in soil structure, annealing a friable layer of topsoil into a hardened, inert mass. Then erosion follows, with effects extending far beyond the site actually burned — and persisting more than a few years.

The 1992 Foothills Fire, burning 140,000 acres in Idaho, was such a fire. This three-day conflagration burned so fiercely and totally that some commentators have called it “nature’s version of the atomic bomb.” The Forest Service reported that “an entire population of rare bull trout was lost, and thin soils were baked. The largest known living ponderosa pine in Idaho, one that had survived centuries of frequent, low-intensity ground fire, was killed and consumed by this uncharacteristic crown fire.”

A large portion of the great burns of the 1994 fire season will also be uncharacteristic, superheated by the same induced winds that spread them across such massive areas. Instead of the recurring ground fires that reduce the build-up of dead woody material, large stand-replacing crown fires will be the norm throughout the West.

What can be done?

The National Commission on Wildfire Disasters, reported last March to the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, that bad fire seasons, worse than the 1994 season, are inevitable in the near future. In limited situations, controlled burns can be applied, but in many sickened, insect-plagued forests, the tinder is simply too high.

The technical challenge is great, but the political challenge is something else again. Lumber producers and loggers in the region have watched the forests age and burn while harvests have been obstructed through court-ordered lockups or administrative appeals. These onlookers appreciate the political difficulties.

The commission reported that “public-land managers generally recognize the problem on the affected lands, but cite differing agency missions and policies, conflicting laws and regulations, lack of program funds, shortages of trained personnel, and lack of public support as major reasons for the current limited level of response.” So a prescribed burn, still connoting destructive waste to many people, is a tougher sell than is emergency fire suppression.

Salvage logging reduces tinder without risk of uncontrolled burning. Though the project can usually pay for itself, it can be easily hobbled by the Forest Service’s existing administrative appeals process, which allows any independent interest group to delay or stop a harvest project.

A sensitive response, said Neil Sampson, “will challenge some of our most closely held public and professional attitudes about fire and its proper role in wildland ecosystems. It will not be easy to portray in 20-second media soundbites, or in simple, straightforward solutions. It will take decades to make the needed adjustments, not months or years.”

Reducing the fuel load throughout a full third of the American land mass, given the lack of forest-policy consensus in the United States, sounds something like reducing the federal deficit. There is, however, some will to craft a policy response. Not surprisingly, it is coming out of Idaho.

Congressman Larry LaRocco, an Idaho Democrat, advocates a “forest-health pilot project” on any of the three federally owned forests in his state. The forests would be thinned “using methods which would be light on the land and which would bring stand densities to within their historical range of variability.” Rep. LaRocco includes similar proposals in his National Forest Health Act and suggests that the Clinton Administration already has the authority to undertake emergency salvage operations.

Neil Ward is the communications manager for the American Pulpwood Association. Rex Storm is the APA Western Division technical forester.

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