14 Apr 2010, 11:54pm
History Policy
by admin

Baden-Powell and Australian Bushfire Policy

By Roger Underwood

Editor’s Notes: This essay is one in a series (circulated to colleagues on the Internet, but unpublished) which examines reports, letters, stories and anecdotes from early volumes of The Indian Forester, the principal forestry journal of India since 1880.

Baden Henry Baden-Powell (1841-1901) entered the Bengal Civil Service at the age age of 20 and eventually became a Judge of the Chief Court of the Punjab and India’s first Inspector-General of Forests. He was among the first to bring European forestry to India. B. H. Baden-Powell was the son of Rev. Baden Powell (1796–1860), an English mathematician and Church of England priest, and brother of Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), the founder of the Boy Scouts.

Author Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management and is Chairman of The Bushfire Front Inc.. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.


IN AN EARLY chapter in these chronicles we met Baden Henry Baden-Powell, joint-founding editor of The Indian Forester, and later the Inspector-General of Forests (chief of the Forest Service) in India during the early 1870s. I have again been dipping into his wonderful journal, and have found to my intense interest a long article by Baden-Powell himself.

The article is based on a tour of inspection of the forests of Dehra Doon [1] in early 1875. It is interesting from many perspectives. In the first place, it was written at a time when formal forest management was being first introduced in what was then ‘British India’. The Indian Forest Service had only recently been created, and its tiny staff of European-trained foresters was trying to overlay European concepts of forest administration and management onto forests that had been, mostly, commonage for thousands of years. The concepts were visionary in terms of forest conservation and protection and in ensuring a sustainable yield of timber, but they imposed restrictions and constraints on rural Indians that were intensely unpopular.

The article also provides an insight into the attitude to fire held by the colonial foresters who occupied senior positions in the Indian Forest Service. These attitudes are especially intriguing because they were later imported into Australia when our first Forests Departments were being established around the time of World War I. Here they persisted up until the early 1950s, before being largely abandoned. Fascinatingly, however, they have resurfaced in the 1990s, this time embraced by environmentalists and a new generation of academic ecologists. To this day, the European/colonial attitudes to forest fire which were articulated in India in the 1870s continue to influence Australian land management — especially for national parks in NSW and Victoria — and also the approach to bushfire control adopted by our fire and emergency services.

The Baden-Powell report to which I am referring is published in The Indian Forester Volume 1 No 1 (1875) and, in addition to discussions on fire management, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the working life of the colonial forester at that time.

Baden-Powell first sets the scene:

On my way down to Calcutta, I visited Dehra Doon for the purpose of seeing Captain Bailey. Having only a few days to spare, I could not, as I should have liked to, make a regular tour through these interesting forests, but I did [travel out to] the Luchee-Wala sal forests.

Here he found a dense forest, dominated by sal (Shorea robusta) but with an undergrowth of grass and creepers. The sal trees were interspersed with grassy tracts which he called “blanks” and these immediately excited his interest. He also noted that “all the stumps and the larger trees were distorted and hollowed by fire.”

Baden-Powell does not say, indeed he would have taken it for granted that his readers understood, that these forests were far from being “virgin forests.” They had been an important resource for the local populace for centuries, their principal source of food and of timber for building, furniture, and fuel. They were also the commons on which they grazed their stock, and in some places planted crops. The grassy “blanks” Baden-Powell observed were not there simply by chance, but were maintained by deliberate burning, and the burning was done by the local people in order to maintain wildland pasture for their cattle.

But unmanaged timber cutting, grazing and subsistence agriculture were of no interest to Baden-Powell; indeed they were anathema to him. He was the Inspector-General of Forests and was driven by an ideal of a properly managed forest, a place where utilisation was carefully regulated, regeneration was encouraged, valuable trees were protected and (if possible) all other uses were excluded. The forests such as those of Dehra Doon, he intended, would be part of the grand forests of British India, an economic prize for India and for the Empire.

Almost immediately Baden-Powell notes that whereever fires had, for one reason or another not occurred for some years, “sal seedlings are filling up the blanks.”

He goes on:

It is incredible how anyone who has seen such a forest as Luchee-Wala can have the least doubt as to the frightful injury caused by fire. [Fire] will, if unchecked, prevent anything like timber growth, and quicker than people think, exterminate the Shorea altogether.

In Luchee-Walla I think there are not more than 30% of trees which are not injured for timber growth by the fire.” [emphasis added].

Baden-Powell was not a man to confine himself to mere observation. His paper moves from observation to prescription, and his ideal management structure and forestry program for the sal forests of the Luchee-Wala soon emerges. First, administration: the area must be subdivided into divisions and each division into compartments, with appropriate staff to look after them. Next, management: the objective must be to succeed in “covering the entire forest with a uniform crop of trees.” Finally, strategy: all timber cutting and other forest uses must cease to afford a period of regeneration, and fire must be permanently excluded. If a fire started, it must be stopped from spreading. This would be accomplished by a combination of fire breaks (narrow grassy strips in which burning would reduce fuels) and suppression operations by departmental staff, which would patrol the forest constantly.

Here in a nutshell is the basic management approach adopted for Australian eucalypt forests by Australia’s first foresters and here, replicated to perfection, is the modern approach taken by the managers of many of our forested national parks today. Here also we see both groups falling into the trap of thinking that “fire is fire is fire”; in other words they fail to distinguish between managed fires burning under mild conditions and high intensity, damaging wildfires.

To digress momentarily: one of the things I like about The Indian Forester is that its writers do not hesitate to deal with detail as well as policy. In urging his forest officers to the highest efficiency in fire suppression operations, Baden-Powell himself digresses momentarily to provide words of practical advice, based on his own experience, in putting such a plan into action.

I find that the [fire] patrols do not go into the forest, they fear the wild beasts… This is got over by simply giving a forester one, two or three guards under him so they may patrol together.

Advice is also given on the burning of fire breaks, and here Baden-Powell quotes the words of Captain Bailey [2], the local forest officer. Captain Bailey had taken on the job of burning 6 1/2 miles of fire breaks around six compartments in the Boolawala forest, and recorded his experiences.

I commenced to burn around the patches in the month of February. I found that in the morning the grass was so wet that it could not be made to burn at all. After about 2 hours (9 am) it seemed suddenly to have reached the burning state, and in a moment, an enormous fire sprang up, which was with the greatest difficulty suppressed.

However, with the assistance of “about 20 coollies standing by with green branches” and having taken the precaution of breaking up the proposed burns into small sections that could be burned progressively, he tried again the following morning. Thanks to “the greatest watchfulness” the job was successfully completed.

The tribulations of Captain Bailey also find their echoes in Australian forestry. How well I recall the first tentative steps towards developing safe methods of fuel reduction burning in the karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor) forest in the 1960s, and the occasions when, to our horror, an enormous fire sprang up!

Although I don’t know the sal forests of Luchee-Wala, I feel sure the situation there is similar to that in Australia’s fire-prone forests, indeed in any of the world’s forests that experience several months of hot, dry weather every year. In such forests, fire exclusion is a self-defeating policy and can never succeed. The longer fire is with-held from a fire-prone forest, the greater is the likelihood that a fire will occur, and when it does, that it will be an intense one.

Having said that, I understand and readily forgive Baden-Powell and his early Australian disciples (among whom Charles Lane-Poole [3] was perhaps the most influential). Their objective of covering every acre with timber-producing trees was understandable. This was at that most ironic moment in forestry history when timber had enormous economic value (especially through the supply of sleepers for the global expansion of railways), but also when forests were being decimated by clearing for agriculture. This was particularly the case in Australia in the post-World War I years when foresters like Lane-Poole were fighting to create the first forest reserves and to introduce the first systems of forest conservation, but were faced with fierce political and community opposition.

Moreover, early foresters were poorly informed and just finding their way. For instance, it is easy for a modern Australian forester to forget how perplexed our first foresters were by the phenomenon of lignotuberous advance growth in dry sclerophyll eucalypt forests. Forest officers trained in the ways of northern hemisphere temperate hardwoods, or of the monsoonal forests of India did not know what to make of the capacity of species like jarrah (E. marginata) to persist as an understory shrub for decades in the presence of fire, ready and poised to take advantage of a rare opportunity for regeneration. Lane-Poole’s successor as Conservator of Forests in Western Australia, Stephen Kessell, was the first to admit that “something is going on” that was not explained by traditional colonial teachings on fire and silviculture. Kessell correctly understood that where sustained yield of timber was an objective of management, a period of fire protection was essential following the opening-up of the canopy by timber cutting and lignotuber release. This would allow the advance growth to develop into clean saplings and poles, i.e., the future sawlog crop. But he also understood that complete fire protection was not possible, or even needed, in the remainder of the forest. Here he advocated a “creeping fire” every three years. Unlike Lane-Poole who never overcame his antipathy to fire, Kessell came to understand that fire and eucalypt forest could co-exist once the regeneration phase had passed.

We also need to remind ourselves that it is only relatively recently (since the 1970s) that fire ecology has actually been studied in the field in Australia, as opposed to being a theoretical construct based on European textbooks. As a result, the responses of our flora and fauna to fire are now understood and documented. Most of what we take for granted was unknown to the early foresters, for instance the rapidity with which the native flora flowers and seeds after fire, the critical role of smoke and ashbeds in regeneration, the high proportion of native plants that regenerate by resprouting and the astonishing resilience of the fauna to mild, “creeping” fire.

But whilst I am prepared to forgive our early colonial foresters, I despair at the post-modern environmentalists and academics who espouse anew the Baden-Powell and Lane-Poole philosophies. This is not done in the name of a future crop of timber trees, as was the driver for Baden-Powell and Lane-Poole, but in order to “preserve biodiversity”. This is a noble objective, but it cannot be achieved in Australian eucalypt forests by excluding fire. Even if fire exclusion is successful for a while, eventually everything, including the biodiversity, is incinerated in a large and unpleasant wildfire.

It is also interesting to reflect on the outlook of early colonial foresters such as Baden-Powell to the “grassy blanks” in the sal forests of Luchee-Walla. In effect, his view was… they must go! This attitude is also echoed by many modern environmentalists and academics, to whom grassland, especially grassland maintained by frequent fire, has somehow become the ecological equivalent of “politically incorrect”. I have encountered this phenomenon quite often, especially on occasions when I have urged the re-creation of the savanna ecosystems encountered by the first European explorers and settlers in some south-west forests and woodlands. Even as late as the early-1960s, when I first knew them, much of the tuart (E. gomphocephela) and wandoo (E. wandoo) forests, and the peppermint (Agonis flexuosa) woodlands along the south coast were still grassy savannas. All have since filled up with young trees and woody shrubs, a product of very long inter-fire periods introduced after the areas became national parks. The grassy glades described by the pioneer cattlemen have become almost extinct.

When queried about this, the environmentalists tell me that the grasslands were “an ecological artifact” maintained by burning by the Aboriginal people and later cattlemen. How easily they sweep aside the idea that humans are part of the natural ecology! How carefully they deny the presence of Aborigines in these areas for tens of thousands of years! How conveniently they overlook the fact that even without human ignition, fires are lit year-in and year-out by lightning, and that grasslands that cure over a long, hot, dry summer, as these southern savannas do, will always burn on about a 2-3 year cycle.

The linkages between colonial forestry in India and early forestry and fire management policies in Australia have been previously explored, notably by fire historian Stephen Pyne [4]. However, Pyne was writing in the 1980s, and had not at that time witnessed the flowering of the new generation of Baden-Powell protégés now calling the shots in many of Australia’s forested parks and reserves, or agitating to shut down the burning program in Western Australian native forests. Nor did he foresee the emergence of academics at our most distinguished universities bent on denying Aboriginal burning, and preaching the ecological evils of periodic mild fire.

It took the forestry profession in Australia the best part of two generations to break free of the ecological and management concepts imported from India and Europe, and to develop an indigenous bushfire management approach tailored to the indigenous forests. It will be interesting to see how long it is going to take Australia’s national park managers and their supporters in academia to make the same transition. Possibly not as long, thanks in part to the massive killer bushfires they are currently unable to control in forests where fire exclusion has been futilely attempted over the last 25 years.

- Roger Underwood, February 2010

End Notes

[1] These days usually spelt Dehra Dun, or Dehradun.

[2] Captain (later Lt. Colonel) Frederick Bailey had been an officer of the Royal Engineers stationed in India. Like a number of Army officers and public officials at the time, none of whom had forestry training, he was transferred to the Indian Forest Service to fill an urgent need for forest officers in the wake of the creation of the new Service. Later Bailey returned to the Army and became famous when on an expedition to Tibet, he discovered the rare blue poppy (Meconopsis baileyii), widely grown in gardens throughout the world today.

[3] Charles Lane-Poole was Western Australia’s first Conservator of Forests. He was trained in Europe, but was deeply influenced by William Schlich (India’s second Inspector General of Forests and later Professor of Forestry at Oxford) and D.E. Hutchins, an Indian Forest Service forester who visited Australia in 1916, wrote a detailed report, and was largely responsible for the appointment of Lane-Poole. Later Lane-Poole became Principal of the Australian Forestry School, a position from which he was able to influence a further generation of Australian foresters.

[4] Pyne’s The Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia is the most scholarly account of the development of fire policies and practices in Australia, indeed the only comprehensive book dealing with this subject.

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