13 Sep 2009, 10:29am
Ecology Management Philosophy
by admin

Fire Gods and Federal Policy

Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D. 1989. Fire Gods and Federal Policy. American Forests 95(7 & 8): 14-16, 66-68.

Full text:

THE ISSUE I am presenting is based on a summary of both the letter I sent to the Interagency Fire Management Policy Review Team and testimony I presented to a joint committee of Congress in January of 1989 on the Yellowstone wildfire problem. The issue is how to restore naturalness to park and wilderness areas while preventing such wildfires from occurring again. I will concentrate on the “let nature takes its course” philosophy that led to the Yellowstone fires. I will also provide a scientifically sound and responsible approach to resource management. My purpose is to encourage the use of scientific management in national park and wilderness areas.

I was critical of the Park Service fire management program when it started. I was a ranger-naturalist at Kings Canyon National Park where the program began. At that time, I wrote a white paper that pointed out the flaws in the fire management program and the entire ranger-naturalist staff agreed with my conclusions and signed the paper. This was the first documented internal Park Service critique of the fire management program. The points that we made so many years ago are still true today, only now the problem has grown worse and it has taken on a more ominous dimension with the Yellowstone wildfires.

I have been conducting research, publishing and speaking on fire management and restoration ecology in national park and wilderness areas for twenty years. Most of my research addressed the management of giant sequoia-mixed conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada. I also investigated the effects of the Yellowstone wildfires for members of Congress. After giving so much thought to this issue over so many years, I am convinced that the real problem is the lack of clear objectives for the management of national park and wilderness areas.

The wildfires that swept through Yellowstone and surrounding wilderness areas during the summer of 1988 were not a natural event. Unlike the eruption of Mount St. Helens (which could not be controlled) the number, size and destructiveness of the Yellowstone wildfires could have been substantially reduced. The changes that took place in the vegetation mosaic and fuels in Yellowstone during nearly a century of fire suppression were preventable and reversible. The Park Service was aware of the risks of letting lightning fires burn, especially during a drought. Mr. Howard T. Nichols, a Park Service Environmental Specialist sent to help in the command center during the Yellowstone wildfires, stated in an internal memo that members of the Yellowstone staff knew “that 1988 was a very dry year” yet they “were determined to maintain the Park’s natural fire regime.” Thus the Yellowstone wildfires were caused by a combination of decades of neglect and incredibly poor judgment.

Dr. James K. Brown, a Forest Service scientist, stated in a paper he delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in January of 1989 that, assuming a prescribed burning program was initiated in 1972, “threats to villages may have been prevented or greatly reduced.” Dr. Brown also stated “a program of manager ignited prescribed burning in subalpine forests such as lodgepole pine” is “feasible.” In an earlier paper presented at the Wilderness Fire Symposium in Missoula, Montana, in 1983, Dr. Brown also said that “To manage for a natural role of fire, planned ignitions, in my view, are necessary to deal with fuels and topography that have high potential for fire to escape established boundaries.” Thus, it is likely that the wildfires would not have reached the mammoth size of 1.4 million acres if only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars used to fight the Yellowstone wildfires had been spent on scientific management that utilized prescribed burning, especially if vigorous suppression efforts had been undertaken by the Park Service when each fire began.

The Yellowstone wildfires were only the symptom of a far more serious problem. That problem is the profound deterioration in vegetation and wildlife that is taking place throughout the national park and wilderness systems because of the lack of scientific management. The widespread damage caused by the Yellowstone wildfires, especially the destruction of the historic vegetation mosaic and its replacement with a monoculture of lodgepole pine, is a conspicuous example of deterioration. Fire is not the only area where scientific management is needed. For instance, the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone has declined because the Park Service is forcing the bears to fend for themselves in an unnatural environment. Beaver, antelope and bighorn sheep populations in Yellowstone have also been drastically reduced due to competition from an overpopulation of elk. Elk are also gradually eradicating aspen stands in Yellowstone, some of which have occupied the same site for over 10,000 years. The Park Service refuses to control the elk because it would violate their hands-off philosophy. The large number of elk that starved to death in Yellowstone this past winter because of the fires will only temporarily reduce the population, so the damage will grow worse as the elk population rebounds.

In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and Crater Lake National Park, no effort is being made by the Park Service to adjust burning prescriptions even though the fires are killing hundreds of ancient ponderosa and sugar pine trees. Dr. Edward C. Stone, from the University of California-Berkeley, and I warned the Park Service twelve years ago that these fires were killing unusually large numbers of large trees. We recommended that action be taken to reduce the mortality, but the warning was ignored. A study conducted by the Forest Service last summer proved that we were correct. The study showed that burning heavy litter that accumulated during the past century due to fire suppression is producing lethal temperatures deep within the soil that are cooking the tree roots. Numerous other examples could be cited, but the main point is that irreplaceable resources are deteriorating over millions of acres of land because the Park Service rejects scientific management.

The deterioration of precious park and wilderness resources can be traced to an anti-scientific management philosophy in the Park Service, and to a lesser extent in the Forest Service, that is known as “letting nature take its course.” This philosophy embodies the view that national park and wilderness areas are quasi-religious sanctuaries where “Mother Nature” resides and rules. People may enter these sanctuaries to see the forces of nature at work but they must not interfere with those forces. Adherents to this philosophy naively assume, without a shred of scientific evidence, that “Mother Nature” (i.e., lightning fires) will restore an undefined state of “naturalness” to park and wilderness areas.

When asked what the goal was for using fire to manage national parks, Mr. Jack Davis, the superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, told me that “we want whatever fire gives us.” That statement epitomizes the anti-scientific management perspective of the Park Service. Thus adherents to the “let nature take its course” philosophy make no effort to reduce the damages, or predict the changes, they are producing in biotic communities. Why? Because maintaining or enhancing resource values is not important — only the abstract ideal of “letting nature take its course” is important. Scientific management is impossible if the guiding philosophy rejects any alternative other than “letting nature take its course.”

The philosophy of “letting nature take its course” has turned the clock back thousands of years to a time when people placed their fate in the hands of mythical gods. You may think that this is silly, and it is, but it is also true. Decades of research have brought us to the point where scientific management is feasible, yet today the Park Service is relying instead on “Mother Nature” or God. Park and wilderness mangers no longer need a degree in science to manage resources, they need a degree in mythology. In the future, managing a park or wilderness will only require that rangers stand on mountaintops making incantations to the Greek god Zeus asking him to send thunderbolts to earth and fashion a new forest with fire. Who needs science when you believe that the gods are managing your forest?

How could such ancient ideas reemerge on the threshold of the 21st century? How could the Park Service adopt such ancient ideas when some of its own managers are active participants in a new and rapidly growing professional organization called the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) — an organization committed to using scientific management to restore and maintain biotic communities? The answer is simple: zealots within the agencies, encouraged by some preservation groups and ideologues in universities, have taken over our national park and wilderness areas and converted them into their own quasi-religious temples. Thus national parks no longer serve their original purpose of providing for “the enjoyment of the people,” as stated in the inscription on the stone gate to Yellowstone National Park, instead they satisfy the spiritual needs of a small but influential subculture.

Obviously, mere mortals do not manage the home of gods. People are supposed to stand back, showing an appropriate level of awe and wonder, and watch the gods play with fire. Thus it is the will of the gods if the fires threaten people, jeopardize their livelihood or destroy their property. “Crazy,” you say. It is crazy, but Audubon Magazine recently reported that National Audubon Society board member Scott Reed commented that “In my view the greatest environmental disaster coming out of the Yellowstone park fire was its failure to burn up [the town of] West Yellowstone.” Some university professors and environmentalists made statements in their testimony to a joint committee of Congress in January of 1989 that were less direct, but equally calloused. They suggested in their written and oral testimony that preserving fire is of paramount importance, and that people living around or visiting park and wilderness areas must take their chances with lightning fires.

Parks Canada has moved aggressively forward with socially responsible scientific management of their national parks while we have moved backward. Unlike the U.S. Park Service’s decision to let Yellowstone burn, Parks Canada is using prescribed fires based on scientific research to return the forests to a more natural condition. Cliff White, the Canadian fire management coordinator, stated in the March 1989 issue of Discover magazine that Canadians can not accept the notion about fire that “as long as lightning started it, it’s God’s way.” “We can’t use that here,” he said,” because God’s way is too rough.” The Yellowstone wildfires of 1988 demonstrate that relying on the gods to manage park and wilderness areas is “too rough.”
There are two principal reasons why it is convenient to rely on “Mother Nature” or the gods to manage national park and wilderness areas. First, the gods relieve the agencies of the demanding responsibility of dealing with the complexity of biotic communities. The gods also relieve them of the distinction between success and failure; the success or failure is God’s, not the agencies.

For instance, even though the Park Service initially let some of the Yellowstone fires burn, officials argue that they are blameless because they ultimately did what they could to stop the fires; or so they would like you to believe. Numerous documented examples were cited in the press showing how the Park Service actually interfered with firefighters. The Park Service remains unrepentant, however, and continues to blame “Mother Nature” for high winds and drought. In contrast, the Forest Service has acted maturely and responsibly by accepting its share of the blame for not responding more quickly to the fires during severe weather conditions.

Some environmental groups that support the Park Service also use the mystique of “letting nature take its course” as a political weapon to justify a host of anti-management, anti-people and anti-development positions. This philosophy is also a convenient way for them to attract new members who respond to romantic images more than scientific evidence. Furthermore, this philosophy serves as a justification to continually expand the boundaries of park and wilderness areas even though some preservation goals could be met through scientific management. Such groups will do anything to discredit scientific management so that they can use the philosophy of “letting nature take its course” as their key argument for preservation, including rationalizing spending $150-200 million and jeopardizing the lives of nearly 10,000 firefighters (plus park visitors and surrounding residents) to burn nearly one-half of our oldest and most cherished national park.

Inevitably, adherence to the “let nature take its course” philosophy compromises the objectivity of science. Those who subscribe to this philosophy reject in advance any existing knowledge, or proposed research, that questions park and wilderness policy. Thus, the Park Service ignores a large body of scientific knowledge, and it often spends precious research dollars to fend off criticism rather than to answer critical management questions. Even the partially taxpayer supported media blitz proclaiming the “rebirth of Yellowstone” that is now being carried out by the Park Service, ostensibly to revitalize tourism after the wildfires, is a thinly disguised effort to gain public support for a dangerous fire policy that failed.

The “let nature take its course” philosophy, which led to the Yellowstone wildfires, is founded on a false premise — that national park and wilderness areas were pristine or untouched by humans when they were set aside. They were not pristine! By the time that European explorers arrived, much of the vegetation and wildlife in park and wilderness areas was profoundly altered due to thousands of years of Indian use. The “let nature take its course” philosophy denies the widespread and important role of Indians in managing vegetation and wildlife, demeans their cultures and intelligence, and creates a false separation between people and nature. It places modern people in the position of being victims rather than responsible participants in nature. People do not cease to be part of nature when they enter a national park or wilderness area. More than ever it is important that people play an active and constructive part in managing their environment.

The “let nature take its course” philosophy will eventually destroy the very values national park and wilderness areas were set aside to preserve. The historically unprecedented wildfires in Yellowstone are just a conspicuous example of the potential magnitude of these man-made changes. National park and wilderness areas were not set aside to preserve fire or abstractions such as “letting nature take its course,” they were set aside for a host of values that fire may or may not have had a role in creating. The Park Service and the Forest Service must ultimately be held accountable for what fire or the lack of fire leaves behind, not the presence or absence of fire.

What can we do about this problem? First, and most important, we must follow the lead of our Canadian neighbors and reject the archaic “let nature take its course” philosophy that bars scientific management. Once we accept scientific management then the next five actions will be feasible.

We must recognize that Yellowstone is just the first park to go up in flames, there are many other national park and wilderness areas in a similar unnatural condition that will burn if immediate action is not taken to reduce the hazards. Complicating the problem is the fact that there are no safe lightning fires in large expanses of untreated forest, such as the lodgepole pine forests of Yellowstone. The only relatively safe method of managing such forests is mechanical treatment and “scheduled prescribed fires.” The Park Service is trying to avoid using prescribed fires in lodgepole pine forests by arguing that they are too dangerous, yet they advocate using lightning fires that are much more dangerous. Lightning fires can still play a role in some park and wilderness areas, but only in small pockets of forest that are isolated by rocky ridges or other effective barriers to the movement of fire. Fuelbreaks must also be constructed around visitor facilities and park and wilderness boundaries to provide even greater safety.

We must accept the truth that chance lightning fires alone cannot restore vegetation mosaics in park and wilderness areas to their natural or presettlement scale and diversity. Indian fires interacted with lightning fires to maintain vegetation in a mosaic pattern that supported a diverse and abundant variety of wildlife. The mosaic pattern of different aged forests also helped contain wildfires within limited areas because young forests are harder to burn than old forests. Today many lightning fires do not burn in a natural manner because they no longer interact with the effects of Indian fires. The vegetation mosaic that resulted from the interaction of Indian set fires and lightning fires worked for thousands of years to produce safe and attractive forests that supported a wide variety of wildlife. Scientific management could work for thousands of years into the future to produce the same benefits for us and our children.

We must acknowledge that some of the Yellowstone fires burned vast areas in single blocks covering tens of thousands of acres that will become dangerous fire hazards. These large blocks of young trees, intermixed with dead trees, will grow older and thicker as a unit, becoming a vast unbroken mass of highly flammable fuel. This will create a new cycle of massive wildfires. Therefore, we must break up these huge blocks of forest while they are young and easier to manage. This will create small scale vegetation mosaics like those that existed in the area during presettlement times. Thus, scientific management can restore a more natural condition and create higher biotic diversity on the burned areas than the “let nature take its course” approach, while also reducing the size and destructiveness of future fires.

As I have pointed out in several publications over the past few years, we do not have clear and measurable objectives for maintaining naturalness in national park and wilderness areas. This lack of objectives is particularly serious because scientific management is impossible without measurable objectives. There is no simple solution to this problem. Therefore, I recommend that multidisciplinary teams of independent scientists and managers be established to develop clear measurable objectives or “standards of naturalness” for restoring and maintaining vegetation mosaics and associated wildlife for each park and wilderness area. These teams should also devise safe and cost-effective management strategies to achieve those objectives.

Finally, resource managers must cease to act as if they know best and accept their responsibility to listen to all of the people, and not just a few groups. The Park Service and the Forest Service can no longer justify asking visitors or people living on the boundary of park and wilderness areas to place their livelihood, their property, and their lives at risk to agency policies over which they have no control. Such important decisions should not be made without public participation and full disclosure of all of the scientific facts.

The Yellowstone wildfires of 1988 have served an important purpose, unfortunately at great cost. They have stimulated a long overdue discussion among resource professionals and the public about the objectives and management of our national park and wilderness areas. I hope that these discussions will result in a clear sense of direction for resource management in the 21st century. This may be our last chance to stop the deterioration of our national park and wilderness areas. I believe that such discussions will eventually show that scientific management is our best hope for the future.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta