TCS Daily

Burn, Baby, Burn?

By Duane D. Freese - November 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Forest fires in California this year have burned more than 700,000 acres, destroyed more than 2,500 homes, caused $2 billion in costs and damages and killed 22 people.


Last year's wild fires in the West burned about 7 million acres, destroyed 800 homes, cost $1.5 billion and killed 23 firefighters.


Good thing that, according to many environmentalists. Well, definitely not the deaths. But forests? Sure. They were meant to burn periodically. A good fire can clean out the scrub brush, and the click beetles, and replenish the soil, and open up seeds of piñón pines. Seriously.


"Natural and controlled forest fires are integral to the health of all forests. They restore nutrients to the soil, create habitat for fish and wildlife and help eliminate the smaller brush and saplings that compete with the forests' large and fire-resistant trees," GreenpeaceUSA wrote in responding to President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative moving toward completion in Congress.


"Forest fires provide habitat, food and nutrients to plants, fish and wildlife living in the forest," says the Sierra Club in Beyond the Heat and Hype. "Fire is a natural part of forest life, allows plants and wildlife to mature and increases forest diversity. Trees downed by forest fires provide habitat for wildlife and nutrients needed to help keep forests healthy."


What's bad -- and what makes forest fires bad, according to these environmentalists -- is to log forests. As Timothy Hermach of the Native Forest Council (motto: Good-bye, Columbus) and writer and political activist Karyn Strickler wrote in Liar, Liar Forests on Fire, Why Logging Exacerbates Loss of Lives and Property:


"Stop timbering our forests and the fires therein will play the role that Mother Nature and God intended them to play -- a vital role of targeted renewal and replacement -- not one of total devastation as we are seeing in the fires raging in southern California today. There is no forest management plan that does the job as efficiently or effectively as the great forces of nature. Fire, just like insects and disease, are a natural and beneficial part of forest ecosystems and watersheds. Without these natural processes the forest ecosystems quickly degrade. Excessive logging removes and reduces cooling shade adding to the hotter, drier forests along with logging debris creating a more flammable forest. Current 'forest management' practices, road building and development cause forest fires to rage for hundreds of miles."


Who can argue with such ecological truths? Not the Forest Service. In the 1990s, they went along with this thinking.


But maybe the dinosaurs would disagree. In Argentina, you can find their bones on the eastern side of the Andes. They were made part of the soil by something else Mother Nature and God intended: the movement of the world's tectonic plates, which raised up the Andes, which then wiped out the verdant forest primeval in which the giants once dwelt. Lesson: Respect Mother Nature, surely; but don't adore her too much. And to avoid the fate of the dinosaur, adopt practices that make sense and adapt them to circumstances as we learn.


The environmentalists were right about the unsustainability of logging all trees. Denver's brick homes at the turn of the 20th Century are testament to what happens when you log without thought, as occurred in areas where timber and land were essentially free. That is what led to the creation of the Forest Service to begin with -- to make sure there was enough timber for the future; as well as to deal with another nasty problem -- forest fires.


While the last couple of years' death toll is tragic, the death numbers in some previous conflagrations were astonishing. In 1871, for example, more than 1,200 people died in Wisconsin and Michigan from what was known as the Great Peshtigo Fire. More than 400 died in the Hinckley, Minn., fire in 1894 and another 450 in the Cloquet-Moose Lake, Minn., fire, in 1918.


Most fires, like those in California this year and in Colorado last year, were caused by people, not lightening or other acts of God. Charles S. Sargent, as part of the 1880 census, looked at U.S. woodland fires that year. He found 1,152 originated from clearing land, 628 from hunters, 508 from locomotives, 262 from malice, 197 from improving pasturages, 72 from campfires, 56 from Indians, 35 from smokers, 10 from prospectors, 9 from coal pits, three from woodcutters, 3 from carelessness and two from travelers, and only 32 from lighting and another 12 from prairie fires.


In light of the fact humans were the cause of most fires and humans, along with little Bambies and Smokey Bears, were threatened by them, it is little wonder that among the main goals of the Forest Service was to suppress fires. And it is why most Americans since the 1950s have gotten the word from Smokey, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires."


The effort at saving our forests has worked - indeed, it's worked beyond its needs. As Alan Caruba of the National Anxiety Center has noted, U.S. forestlands that covered 732 million acres in 1920 cover 747 million acres today, including 490 million acres that can produce 20 cubic feet of wood per acre annually. Large tree standing timber has increased 30 percent since 1950.


That increase, though, may represent an unnatural overgrowth of trees. The density of the forests themselves may actually threaten biodiversity, as they are unsuitable as habitat for elk and deer. Further, overgrowth of old growth trees, such as the Douglas fir, means new Douglas fir won't grow. That eventually could lead to a mixed forest.


Even the forest preservationists among the environmentalists agree there's a problem from past efforts at fire suppression. What they differ about is the solution.


The preservationists prefer a hands off approach wherever possible, to let nature take its course. If that means big fires -- as long as they are not near populated areas -- so be it. Near populated areas, their favored course is to borrow a trick from the Indians, and have "controlled" burnings to get out the underbrush. In short, fire is your or, rather, Mother Nature's friend.


Only, while suppressing fires may have had its problems, using controlled burns also has shown to be dangerous -- with one destroying more than 600 buildings in Los Alamos, N.M. a couple years ago. Mother Nature can be a bitch.


Thus, most of those choking on the smoke and seeing through the haze may hope there is a little better -- less hazardous, more healthy for human -- way. After all what sense does it make to reduce pollution from cars, but encourage burning trees in ways that are as damaging to the air and potentially, according to some of the same group of environmentalists, the climate? Man burns, it's bad: Mother Nature burns, it's OK? Tell it to the dinosaurs.


President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative may be a step in a wiser direction. It isn't, as environmentalists claim, the old, vast clearcutting of past timber industry practice. That would be stupid. It attempts to mimic nature in a little safer way. It would allow some logging of old growth trees to those who clear out the undergrowth as well.


But as Roger A. Sedjo of Resources for the Future wrote in 2001 when he was a visiting scholar at PERC, The Center for Free Market Environmentalism: "Our forest today is very different from what it was 100 years ago. With this backdrop of a changed forest, the nation finds itself struggling with forest management systems that do not work."


He suggests that power over forest fires be returned to the people. He would encourage a greater local voice in managing the national forests and less power to national politicians and advocacy groups.


Yes, the locals screwed up in the past. So what? The national government and interest groups have hardly proven they are all knowledge and truth, either. National policies are one size fits all -- suppress fires, thin trees, let 'em burn. They don't work in all places, all the time. Local policies can be adapted to fit the situation and adopted in ways that make sense.


Give Californians, Coloradans, Arizonans and New Mexicans and residents of other states more of a hand in managing their forest resources. They can prevent forest fires, or cause them, and live and die with the consequences.


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