Have We Destroyed Our Western Pine Forests?

I have been waiting to write about the wildfires ravaging the western United States until the worst of the fires were contained. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as I write there are 37 active large wildfires burning just over 900,000 acres. To date, more than 2.5 million acres of our western forests have been consumed by wildfire.

Fires can be devastating affairs, and this year’s fires in Colorado are no exception, with over 350 families losing their homes and wildfire claiming at least two lives.

Wildfire is a complex, emotional issue, and because of this it often provides agenda-driven fodder for politicians, special interest groups, and the media, some of whom end up making wildly stupid statements as they seek to use the devastation caused by wildfire to leverage their points of view.

The bottom line on wildfire is this: we have horribly mismanaged our western pine forests for the past century, and the devastating wildfires we are experiencing – and will continue to experience – are the direct result of this mismanagement.

Forget about western pine beetle and climate change and environmentalists who block logging projects. These are all the aftereffects of bad policy decisions at the turn of the last century. The big three policy mistakes that have led us to the brink of losing our pine forests were grazing, timber clearing, and fire suppression.

Western ponderosa pine forests once had park-like settings: trees were large and wide spaced, with an open understory of grasses. Fires under these conditions were likely just as massive, just as widespread, but stayed close to the ground, consuming the grass and new shrub and tree growth, keeping the forest natural thinned to a density of something like 80 trees per acre. We know that these were the historic conditions through the study of tree ring data, research in relict reference sites (areas that have gone largely unaffected by man), and even by looking at historic photos of our western forests.  

It was in the early 1900’s that everything changed. The railroads opened up vast new reaches of the isolated American west, bringing with them cattle and loggers. Cattle grazed off the grasses, interrupting the historic fire cycle, while the loggers clear cut what appeared to be forests of endless pine stands. Fire suppression had been a practice since the turn of the century, and with the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 wildland fire suppression became the preferred policy of the U.S. government.

Today, I have personally worked on tree thinning projects were tree densities on these exact same forests are around 800 to 1,000 trees per acre. You can’t walk through these forests; you can’t even see through these forests. They are full of spindly dried-up trees and tall shrubs with tons and tons of dead trees per acre. They are also devoid of wildlife. They are, in every sense of the word, unnatural. And when a fire burns in areas like these, the fire spreads directly from the ground to the crown of the trees, consuming and killing them as the fire spreads from tree top to tree top.

The consequences of our decisions could not be known in 1900. While some understood that wildfire was part of the natural ecosystem, the damage to property that could be caused by wildfire was deemed too costly to avoid. Indeed, a large wildfire in Wisconsin in 1871 had claimed the lives of 1,500 people. As a matter of policy, at the time, fighting fire must have appeared the rational approach to forest management. We were also feeding and housing a new and growing nation, and again, those western forests must have looked endless.

Today, and really since the 1960’s, we know better. Wildfire plays a critical role in the ecological balance of our western pine forests. But our forests have been mismanaged for so long that establishing a natural fire regime is almost impossible, and would require the active management of millions of acres of forest land to return these areas to a tree density that could accommodate natural wildfire. Some feel it is already too late.

I remain moderately hopeful. I believe that with some new tools and new government policy, we can restore some semblance of balance to our pine forests. Part of what I’m doing with this blog is arguing for a new approach to management of our public lands. I don’t believe that our antiquated set of land management laws can accommodate the magnitude of the effort required. And so I will continue to build my case for new laws and policies to move us toward solutions.

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