Let it burn 

George Wuerthner on fire policy’s failure

During his undergraduate days at the University of Montana, George Wuerthner spent his summers working for the U.S. Forest Service, including one season as a forestry technician on a timber crew on the Nez Perce National Forest in north-central Idaho. Toward the end of that season, Wuerthner’s crew was called on to walk through the woods, paint cans in hand, marking trees to be cut down for a timber sale.

“I had a vague uneasy feeling that by marking timber sales, I was contributing not only to the death of individual trees, but to the destruction of the forest ecosystem,” Wuerthner writes in the introduction to his recently published book, The Wildfire Reader: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. “I’d often heard from my forestry professors and coworkers that logging merely replaces natural processes like fire…Even then, I had inklings that the evenly spaced rows of single-species tree plantations cut on predetermined rotations were not the same as a naturally sustained forest.”

According to Wuerthner, fire is a natural process critical to maintaining healthy forests, and it can’t be replaced or mimicked by a timber sale. Wildfire, Wuerthner says, is to Western forests as rain is to rainforests:

“It shapes, sculpts, prunes, cleans, and sustains these magnificent forests,” Wuerthner writes, noting that fire plays a critical role in nutrient recycling by breaking down living matter. The Wildfire Reader, edited by Wuerthner, contains 24 essays written by forest scientists, policy analysts and conservationists, and sets out to dispel common myths about logging and its relationship to wildfire, and to offer a new approach to national forest policy: one that welcomes the return of wildfire after more than a century of fire suppression.

Wuerthner, an ecologist, activist and professional wildlife photographer, says the book’s primary thesis is that society assumes that wildfires are bad, and federal forest policies are based on that flawed assumption.

“Even though some agencies now suggest that fire can be okay if it’s ‘controlled,’ as in a prescribed burn, I don’t think we have gotten to the point where we see wildfire as a truly integral part of the landscape—something to be respected, but also something to tolerate or even love,” Wuerthner said in a recent interview.

Ignorance of wildfire’s historic role in the development of Western ecosystems, combined with increasing public awareness of the danger fires pose to ever more sprawling communities, has led many Westerners to develop strongly negative views of wildfire, Wuerthner says.

With The Wildfire Reader, Wuerthner hopes to help to shift such attitudes and practices toward a proposed set of policies aimed at reducing the potential for catastrophic fires, while at the same time encouraging tolerance for natural fire behavior.

University of Montana economics professor Tom Power’s essay, “Avoiding a New ‘Conspiracy of Optimism,’” examines an argument often advanced by critics of reduced timber harvesting: that commercial timber harvests on public forests are necessary to control fuel build-up and prevent catastrophic wildfires. Power suggests that argument has gained traction in the aftermath of an increased number of wildfires in the 1990s and early 21st century, combined with increased media coverage of those fires. But, Power argues, there has been a marked increase in residential development within or adjacent to fire-prone forestlands during that same time, and many of those homes contain design features, such as shake roofs and woody landscaping, that increase the odds they’ll burn in a wildfire.

“Residential settlement patterns in the 1990s often involved homesites in ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ settings. Entire subdivisions were built in forest, scrub or desert landscapes,” Power writes. “With the outbreak of wildfire, these residents, homes and communities were at risk.”

In other words, fires haven’t necessarily become more dangerous—human behavior has.

Ecologists Dennis Glick and Crystal Stanionis examine another angle on the sprawl conundrum in their essay, “Sprawling into Disaster: The Growing Impact of Rural Residential Development on Wildland Fire Management in the Greater Yellowstone Area,” in which the authors explain how real estate development has resulted in fire suppression policies that have had harmful impacts on native fire-dependent ecosystems.

“In a time of increasing residential development, many individuals are working to ensure Yellowstone’s grizzlies, wolves and geysers remain,” they write. “Yet very few lament how development affects wildfire—an ecological process common and native to Greater Yellowstone.”

Stanionis and Glick take the unpopular position that development in fire-prone areas should be prohibited in some cases.

“People are building houses in the woods and then expect the Forest Service and the state to defend their homes at great public expense. Worse, if a home does burn down, we call it a disaster and give them money to rebuild it in the same place,” Wuerthner says. “We have to recognize that there is a fire plain, like a flood plain, where building should not be permitted, or at least if someone builds there they should not expect the public to pick up the tab for their foolish decisions. That may sound harsh, but I don’t think we’ll see any changes until it costs people a lot of money.”

Still, Wuerthner recognizes that there are certain landscapes, such as forests and grasslands on the periphery of towns and cities, where large wildfires are unacceptable. The essays compiled in The Wildfire Reader set forth policy proposals that Wuerthner maintains would promote the creation of defensible perimeters around those areas, while at the same time allowing fire to return to the national forests and parklands, where it belongs.

Author, ecologist, activist and professional photographer George Wuerthner will give a slide show presentation on wildfire policy at Shakespeare & Co. on Monday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m.


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