28 Jul 2008, 11:12am
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
by admin

Shall the USFS Allow Fires to Incinerate Our National Forests?

Part II

We continue our rebuttal of the recent 3-part series the Idaho Statesman that promoted the idea of allowing forest fires to burn unchecked.

Let It Burn is illegal, destructive of a multitude of forest and human values, is not cost-effective, and is the worst idea that ever came down the forest pike. Let me count the ways.

4. Let It Burn Has Significant Effects on Fauna, Including Threatened and Endangered Species

The effects of fire on wildlife are highly significant. Wildfire has impacted birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and mollusks in habitats across the West, perhaps for thousands of years. Modern forest fires in dense stands tend to kill all the trees and thus alter wildlife habitat for decades or longer.

There are hundreds of animal species with special conservation status (Threatened, Endangered, Candidate, or Special Species) that occur in, or have historic ranges in western forests. Historically western wildfires burned frequently in low- to moderate-intensity fires, most likely of anthropogenic origin. Modern lightning-ignited fires are generally higher in intensity and severity and can have adverse impacts on species with special status.

Animals dependent on deep forests and old-growth conditions are particularly at risk from severe wildfires. These include such notable species as spotted owls, marbled murrelets, fishers, wolverines, salamanders, and frogs. Numerous other species of less notoriety are also impacted by catastrophic fires including entire guilds and communities of bird species, hundreds of arthropod species, turtles and tortoises, squirrels and other arborial mammals, and untold numbers of mollusks (woodland snail species are still being discovered).

A few animal species thrive after catastrophic fires, such as ants, termites, bees, and some species of woodpeckers. These are mainly detritivores that feed on rotting wood, or predators of detritivores. However, those species are abundant in unburned forests as well, are not rare, and are few in number compared to the species eliminated by catastrophic forest fires.

Modern forest fires in dense forests can convert entire ecosystems because the former forests are converted to pyrophytic brush. Whereas a forest ecosystem extends 150 feet or more vertically, the replacement ecosystems are short. Total ecosystem volume can be reduced by 90 percent or more following modern forest fires. So too biodiversity and biological production are reduced by that amount or more.

Conversion of forests to pyrophytic (fire-type) brush can be more or less permanent. Following catastrophic forest fires there is often more dead wood than before the fire because the living green trees are killed. Sprouting brush provides fine fuels and soon the fire hazard has returned, only more so. Recurring fires at 20 to 80 year frequencies eliminate tree species entirely. Thus ecosystems are permanently converted to brush. Entire animal communities are eliminated as well.

Brush dwelling species are common, and growing more common year by year as more heritage forests are eliminated. Forest dwelling animal species are the rarest in the West today, the most at risk, and the most likely to be extirpated by catastrophic forest fires.

The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to protect listed species, and requires federal agencies to consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service prior to undertaking actions which might significantly impact listed species. The US Forest Service has adopted Let It Burn policies with NO consultations as required by ESA. This is yet another example of the slippery slope into criminality that Let It Burn imparts to the USFS.

5. Let It Burn Has Significant Effects on Historic/Cultural Resources and Values

The West was not a pristine, untrammeled wilderness when Lewis and Clark crossed the continent in the early 1880’s. Instead the entire West was occupied by human beings and had been occupied for 10,000 years or more. The Corps of Discovery traveled on established roads and were led by knowledgeable local guides. Without the beneficence of the local residents, Lewis and Clark would never have survived their journey.

Native Americans utilized specific sites throughout the West for acorn orchards, berry patches, camas fields, home sites, religious sites, gathering and collecting sites, hunting copses, and fishing sites. These were interconnected by a network of trail systems that date back many thousands of years. Our national forests today still retain ancient meadows and remnant open, park-like forests along the evident travel routes.

Historically many types of vegetation were maintained by anthropogenic fire (Indian burning).

[N]ative societies were deeply integrated into their landscapes, and used a wide variety of materials collected over extensive areas (Lewis, 1993; Boyd, 1986; Beckham and Minor, 1992; Blackburn and Anderson, 1993; LaLande, 1995; Williams, 2001). But local material cultures persist only to the extent that key species and habitats on which they depend remain abundant, productive and resilient (Perlin, 1989; Diamond, 2005). Archaeological evidence from the Umpqua indicates that material cultures remained relatively unchanged for approximately 2000 years before contact (Isaac Barner, pers. comm., 2000) suggesting that the stewardship practices of recent peoples were sustainable … [I]f Indians were systematically burning forested landscapes, what ecological signals might we expect to observe? At the landscape level, we should find historic meadows, savannas and parklands located near archaeological sites and near the historic trails connecting them. It is reasonable to surmise that Indians would burn more extensively and more often around the areas where they spent the most time. — from Carloni, Ken. The Ecological Legacy of Indian Burning Practices in Southwestern Oregon. 2005. Doctoral dissertation, Oregon State Univ.

Historical (actual) forest development pathways throughout the West were mitigated by human beings, and evidence of this can still be found in the field. The presence of uneven-aged or multicohort old-growth forest stands constitutes strong evidence that such stands were shaped by frequent, regular, seasonal, low-intensity fire set by the human residents of those landscapes for thousands of years.

Our old-growth trees are the result of human manipulation of the landscape. Frequent anthropogenic fire created savannas and open, park-like forests where trees attained great ages. In the absence of human-set tending fires, dense thickets arise (have arisen). When dense thickets burn, all the trees are killed. Modern catastrophic forest fires (as opposed to historic tending fires) eliminate the possibility of trees growing to 100, 200, 500 years or older.

There is a growing realization among forest scientists that anthropology is as important to understanding forests as is botany.

I am struck by what appears to me as an intellectual bias; derived not from intent but from the inevitable inertia developed within a particular field of study. For example, fire and vegetation histories are freely considered in terms of possible correlations to lightning strike history, solar flare activity, and other physical phenomena, while the exceptionally well-documented human influences on fire history are often regarded as too speculative for serious consideration. Our perceptions are limited by our understanding; there is much to be gained by developing a rich critical understanding and appreciation of the tools, models, and theories of other disciplines. — from Anthropological and Archaeological Perspectives on Native Fire Management of the Willamette Valley. 2000. Thomas J. Connolly, Museum of Anthropology, University of Oregon Paper presented at the 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pacific Division.

Native Americans utilized specific sites and left ecological conditions altered from what might be thought of as “natural.” The alterations were not haphazard; instead they were well-considered and practiced modifications based on traditional ecological knowledge. Lightning fires did not shape the forests and landscapes of the West; anthropogenic (human-set) fires did.

It is now widely acknowledged that frequent, low-intensity fires once structured many plant communities. Despite an abundance of ethnographic evidence, however, as well as a growing body of ecological data, many professionals still tend to minimize the importance of aboriginal burning compared to that of lightning-caused fires. … Using more realistic estimates of native populations, as well as the number of fires each person started per year, potential aboriginal ignition rates were 270–35,000 times greater than known lightning ignition rates. Thus, lightning-caused fires may have been largely irrelevant for at least the last 10,000 years. Instead, the dominant ecological force likely has been aboriginal burning. — from Kay, C.E. 2007. Are lightning fires unnatural? A comparison of aboriginal and lightning ignition rates in the United States. Proceedings of the 23rd Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference: Fire in Grassland and Shrubland Ecosystems.

Numerous anthropologists, historic landscape geographers, forest historians, and forest scientists have recognized that anthropogenic fire was the principal disturbance agent across the entirety of North America for thousands of years.

The last few decades, however, have seen significant changes in the ecological basis for defining nature, as well as wilderness “untrammeled by Man” (Botkin 1990). … Researchers today are tending to believe that the concepts of “nature,” “natural,” and “wilderness” are human constructs and that people have been part of ecosystems since before recorded time. People, in this contemporary notion, are part of ecosystems, have evolved with ecosystems, have used parts and pieces of ecosystems for survival, and have changed portions of ecosystems for their needs. … By the time European explorers, fur traders, and settlers arrived in many parts of North America, millions of acres of “natural” landscapes or “wilderness” were already manipulated and maintained for human use. — from Williams, Gerald W. 2002. “Aboriginal Use of Fire: Are There Any ‘Natural’ Plant Communities?” IN: Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Influences and the Original State of Nature. Charles E. Kay and Randy T. Simmons (eds.) The University of Utah Press.

The Biscuit Fire killed many tens of thousands of acres of old growth trees. Entire Late Successional Reserves were destroyed. The former forest contained Douglas-firs, sugar pines, Brewers spruce, incense cedars, and ponderosa pines from 200 to 600 years old. How did those old trees get there in the first place? It was not from stand-replacing, mid-summer, lightning-ignited fires.

There have been human beings living in the West since the Pleistocene. Those people set fires every year for millennia. They did not fight fires, or prevent fires, instead they set them. Human beings torched most of the West every year, year after year, for at least 10,000 years, according to the best available science (Bonnicksen 2000, Stewart 2002, Pyne 1995, 2004, Carloni 2003, Zybach 2007, and many others). The ancient human mediation and human impact was not “natural” in any sense of that word. Thousands of years of annual fires induced a savanna/woodland, essentially a prairie with scattered trees. It was the elimination of aboriginal fires, not modern fire suppression, which allowed an incendiary thicket of young conifers to arise under the older cohorts.

To abandon our forests to catastrophic fires is to destroy the existing complex and historical structures and replace them with fire-type chaparral.

Ecosystem management cannot succeed in promoting stewardship if it fails to recognize that humans are an integral and natural part of the North American landscape. Ecosystem management has the potential for widening the gap between people and nature. Subdividing landscapes into ecosystems could create the false impression that ecosystems are real things. This illusion becomes more dangerous when people think that they live on the outside and nature exists on the inside of ecosystems.

Biologists developed the ecosystem model to describe physical, chemical, and biological interactions at a particular time within an arbitrarily defined volume of space (Lindeman 1942). They usually exclude people because the boundaries are sometimes drawn around small parts of the landscape, such as watersheds. Because management decisions come from outside, ecosystems appear as separate entities. Therefore, ecosystem management may reinforce the myth that nature exists apart from people if it does not explicitly state otherwise.

A corollary myth assumes that climate dictated the structure and function of ecosystems. On the contrary, climate provides either a favorable or unfavorable physical environment for certain plants to grow. It does not dictate which plants grow in that environment. Similarly, climate does not dictate human behavior. It only sets temporary limits. Human innovations in technique and technology can and do push back those limits. Therefore, climate is not the sole determinant nor even in many cases the dominate force in guiding the development of particular ecosystems. American Indians selectively hunted, gathered plants, and fired habitats in North America for at least 12,000 years. Unquestionably, humans played an important role in shaping North America’s forest ecosystems.

[T]he success of ecosystem management depends on understanding reciprocal relationships between native forests and indigenous peoples. … [L]ocal knowledge and practices that followed European settlement provide analogues for reconstructing pre-European settlement conditions as well as for suggesting answers to contemporary management problems. Equally important, we believe that ecosystem management cannot succeed unless current human residents of forests become intimately involved in decisions that affect their lives and surroundings. — from Thomas M. Bonnicksen, M. Kat Anderson, Henry T. Lewis, Charles E. Kay, and Ruthann Knudson. 1999. Native American influences on the development of forest ecosystems. In: Szaro, R. C.; Johnson, N. C.; Sexton, W. T.; Malk, A. J., eds. Ecological stewardship: A common reference for ecosystem management. Vol. 2. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science Ltd: 439-470.

The best available science has found that forest structures are human-induced via anthropogenic fire. Open, park-like stands were the historical norm. Unchecked forest fires in untended (unrestored) forests eliminate history and heritage. Native American voices must be heard. Ignoring or denying historical anthropogenic influences violates the law and destroys the very values that society holds most dear in regard to our forests.

Native American land managers are well aware of their heritage.

Tribes have been managing natural resource systems for thousands of years, but protecting tribal legacies for the future is no simple task. The resources that are essential to sustain tribal cultures are coming under relentless attack from a variety of economic and political forces. - from A School of Red Herring by Gary S. Morishima, Technical Advisor, Quinault Nation, Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005-2006.

Tribes are known to have been managers of natural resources for 10,000 years or more. In many areas of the United States, ecosystems found by early European settlers were not virgin wilderness untouched by the hand of man, but were instead forests altered through time by many generations of Natives that burned, pruned, sowed, weeded, tilled, and harvested to meet their requirements for firewood, fish and game, vegetal foods, craft supplies, and building materials. Periodic underburning not only produced desirable vegetative conditions but reduced fuel accumulations that might otherwise sustain intense fire. A severe fire in a tribal territory would have meant not only loss of property, resources, and lives, but also a long-term disaster for the well-being of the community. — from Sovereignty, Stewardship, and Sustainability by Larry Mason, Project Coordinator for the Rural Technology Initiative at the College of Natural Resources, University of Washington, Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005-2006.

Forest restoration implies that a forest will be returned to a prior condition. Nineteenth-century forest conditions on the Yakama Reservation appeared to be more sustainable than present conditions. For example, open pine stands were maintained in a healthy condition by frequent, low-intensity fires. The forestry program [on Yakama Nation lands] is using historic species composition and stand densities as references for restoration of forest health. … The pathway to sustainable forestry requires proactive management. — from The Yakama’s Prescription for Sustainable Forestry by Markian Petruncio, Ph.D., Administrative Forester, Yakama Nation, and Edwin Lewis, Forest Manager, BIA, Yakama Agency, Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005-2006.

We tended and managed the forest with many tools that were created from nature, but the most effective tool was controlled fire. … The tending of the forest with the use of fire produced annual crops which provided the daily necessities of the people; but what also occurred, by conducting low intensity burns annually for hundreds of years, was that the condition of the forest was healthy and in balance. — from The Forest Is In Your Hands by Nolan Colegrove, Sr., Forest Manager, Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, Forestry Division, Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005-2006.

The Tribes understood that both Indian-lit and lightning fires shaped the forest. Here in the Northern Rockies, fire, more than any other factor except climate, shaped the structure of our forest. It determined the kinds and ages of trees, how close together they grew, and the number and types of openings that existed. … From the stories of elders, the historical accounts of early Europeans, and the findings of modern scientific research, we know that Indians have been purposefully burning in the area for at least 7,000 years. — from Ecosystem Management and Tribal Self-Governance on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana by Jim Durglo, Forest Manager, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005-2006.

On my last trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area with one of our tribal elders, Harriet Whitworth, we followed the trails she had followed seventy years previous with her mother and grandmother, trails her family had followed for multiple generations. When we arrived at Big Prairie on the South Fork of the Flathead River, Harriet described what it was like when she was a little girl. She said it was a big, open, park-like area where there were enormous ponderosa pine trees, an abundance of grass, and many animals … [with] many clearings, a series of prairies in one place, and Harriet talked of how beautiful it was when she was a child. — from The Gift of Fire by Germaine White, information and education specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana , Evergreen Magazine, Winter 2005-2006.

Catastrophic Let It Burn fires destroy heritage, heritage that is protected by law under the National Historic Preservation Act. The NHPA requires federal agencies to enter into consultations with tribes and public involvement before initiating actions that alter or impact historical conditions and sites. Yet the US Forest Service has adopted Let It Burn policies with NO consultations as required by NHPA.

Let It Burn is criminally destructive in so many ways.

To Be Continued …

28 Jul 2008, 11:40am
by Mike

For more citations and discussion of historical anthropogenic influences on Western forests, please visit the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes [here].

28 Jul 2008, 5:39pm
by bear bait

If people were to use common sense, and compare our lives and our civilization today with that of yesteryear, much of what Mike is saying would become very easily understandable.

If you read a newspaper, or watch tv news, hardly a day goes by that some dwelling has not burned. In a technical age of fire retardants, special paint and materials, smoke alarms, electrical codes, the list is endless, someone manages to burn down their house. There is a known frequency to that kind of fire. Why, then, would there not be a frequency to fire in communal living with flammable dwellings pre-Columbian? You just have to know that native peoples had fires they did not want. You have to know they had strategies to not have fire they did not want. I would imagine that if you were setting up a place to live for a few weeks while some part of your annual livelihood was addressed, you set up camp in an area that was not going to burn you out. Whether you camped on a prior burn, or burned out a spot to live, I have no idea, but thinking people who survived for thousands of years did not routinely die in fire. Can’t you see two 6 year old boys chasing one another with a fire brand? And Dad telling them to quit or take a beating from Mom who was not happy about her seed gathering being put as risk for fire?

Grass seed farmers used to burn, just like the natives before them. Cleaned out the pests, smoked bugs out of the oak leaves, exposed acorns, made tar weed seed easy to gather. And after the fall rains, it all greened up and here came the waterfowl from the north to eat the new grass shoots. The deer and elk were hunted in the fall, for an extended time, in copses not fired and left as refuge areas and concentration areas where they could easily be hunted. That is the local burn knowledge from where I live. Each area has a different history and use for fire, but no matter what, it was there.

Wind driven fire in fine fuels will rocket through an area and burn in streaks, and die out when it hits an area of no fuel. On prairies and flats, that is one way and time to burn. Or, on a very still day, you can circle start a fire, leaving a piece of unburned line, and fire off some heavier fuel in the middle, escape out the open area, and fire it while you leave, and the fire will run to the heat in the middle, and poof! All gone. I have no idea how many ways people who burned for thousands of years had to burn landscapes, but I know they were good at it. They were there every year to do it again, for thousands of years.

Big old growth seems to be mostly on flats, where aspect does not allow fire to easily get in the crown. I would bet that big trees on flats are mostly anthropogenic in their being there. They were tended. To an animist culture, a big tree, or groves of big trees most certainly could have spiritual value. That would be a reason to protect them, tend them. After all, I have heard people in my lifetime of European origin talk about the “green cathedral” in reference to a particular area of forest. I am just speculating, of course, but I do speculate because there is no written history of the West, and what we know is from what we find in the vegetative expression still with us, and what we find as artifacts that were able to stand the test of time in a wet climate. To survive as a species, and a species that was essentially slow of foot, not particularly strong, short of tooth and mostly clawless, poorly clothed in a place of climate extremes, the species had to be clever and using a large brain. That they were here, for so long, is evidence that they knew how to manage a large landscape. I seriously wonder if that is true today. “Let it burn” is terrible science. I am aghast that academic forestry can support that insanity. And I am blown away that those who would protest thinning planted trees from logging three decades ago are willing to let heritage, old growth, millennium trees incinerate on their watch.

You can accuse me of being a Luddite, but you can’t accuse me of not thinking, of not reading the literature. I can find no, zero, real academic support for letting some subaltern in the USFS determine if a fire will not become a liability before winter snows. The problem that has been created by allowing fuel build ups of gargantuan proportions cannot be mitigated by allowing conflagration without landscape changes that will never recover to prior status. Simple logic: it takes 500 years to grow a 500 year old tree. Kill a forest of old growth today, and it will be 500 years before you get another. In terms of soil alone, it would be much better to have logged the trees. In terms of watershed protections, I just watched deluge hurricane water washing away New Mexico and you have to know that New Mexico has had conflagration fires ongoing for the last 10 years. The watersheds are no longer able to resist monsoonal storms and left over Gulf hurricanes.

Listen to Mike, folks, because he is just quoting the people whose lifetimes of academic study are in the areas he talks about. These are not quacks. These are cutting edge forest science people who cannot figure out what in the hell is going on in public land management other than the NGOs have a plan, and it is not being shared with the public. Evidently, parking lot moonscapes are the newly desired earth forms for our immediate future. And every day, we are assaulted by Yellowstone NP 20th anniversary “it’s all wonderful now” PR about new lodgepole growing. Yep. And that landscape has no relative values with Sierra landscapes, or Klamath complex landscapes or the dry forests of the rain shadow on the east side of the Cascades, or the wet side of the Continental Divide. Again, you give the media a paint brush and paints, and they will mix them all together and slather on a story that has little relevance to what the world is really about. A shame, but that is why newspapers are going broke, and information sites like this flourish. Nobody can buy off the contributors, pull advertisement.

Keep telling the true story, Mike. And tell it and tell it and tell it.



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta