12 Aug 2008, 7:38am
Saving Forests
by admin

Getting to the Goal

by bear bait

“Let is burn” is a random act of violence. To expect universal good to come from it is defies common sense and real world experience.

There is a large and directed campaign by NGOs of the Environment, “the greenies”, to stop fighting all forest fires in “wildlands” because they are “natural” and part of the ecosystem. That campaign defies a large body of academic opinion that “natural” has been mitigated by human land management regimes for at least 10,000 years, and that mitigation took the conflagration inferno part of the equation out of the forest long, long ago.

The greenies societal shortcoming is that they have no sense of history, and are not paying one bit of attention to the historians. The aboriginals SET fires, at OPPORTUNE times. It was never a random event. Lightening is a random event, but shaping a landscape as this one was shaped could only have come from directed set fires over thousands of years, from human beings managing their environment to provide for their welfare and peace of mind.

In addition, humans came here DURING AN ICE AGE, when passage across the Bering Land Bridge was possible because the oceans were lower. The First Peoples were here BEFORE forests in the now temperate zones, when land was covered with snow and great ice sheets. They embraced global warming. Forests arose with humans, and set fire early on determined forest configurations.

The pre-Columbian forest managers, who were able to continue to a degree until disease eliminated Native Americans from some areas of the country entirely and limited their impact on the rest of the U.S. if only because there were less than 10% of their pre-Columbian population left when Europeans expanded from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, created the large singular tree “old growth” forests.

The first residents, and their survivors, managed their landscapes with fire for millennia. Not a hundred years, but for thousands of years. That is how the forests the Europeans found got here.

Those are not the forests we have today. Again, the forests we have today are not the forests Europeans encountered. Disease and genocide, early and hard, erased the native land managers and their efforts, and what we have today is NEW, NEVER BEFORE SEEN forests, of scope and scale.

Essentially, there have been 100 to 200 years up to the present that our wildlands were without the native land managers and their fire regimes that used set fires at appropriate times to keep forests clear of underbrush, conifer regrowth, and fuel overloading. Genocide has its results, some of which are far reaching. Over-loaded forest fuels is but one result.

To say today that fire is “natural” is correct in the sense that fires will be set by lightning from time to time (or by a fallen electrical line as is the current Wildland Fire Use event in Yellowstone NP), and that the areas of most lightning occurrence will have the most fires and the most fire maintained landscapes. However, the paleobotanists, archaeologists, and historians who are studying all this say that lightning is far too infrequent and random to have produced the “old growth” forests that were here when Europeans arrived en masse. Also, the advent of vast new forests in the last 400 years, in areas with no record of having a prior forest on them, indicates that set fire is the only plausible answer to how the prior vegetative response might come about.

Missing the people who were the landscape managers, now gone to introduced diseases, these newer forests arose, and some were soon gone to conflagration as experienced in Oregon’s Coast Range in the latter part of the 19th century. Lightning in the Coast Range is as scarce as hen’s teeth, and to have a conflagration there you need man’s input to start a fire of consequence, and only then under a pretty good set of conditions not often found decade to decade. Fire historians and other academics have found great amounts of evidence that native burning in the Coast Range to select for certain plant responses and attendant animals concentrations was the common practice prior to Europeans, reservations, and the metes and bounds concept of land responsibility and ownership. If you start a fire and burn out the neighbor, you might find yourself in a lawsuit. In another time, that might have been the preferred method of diplomacy or warfare.

So, how to mitigate and rectify, shape, and manage the forests we now have is a big order. “Let ‘er Burn” is nothing more than a surrender. Arms in the air. I give up. Gee. That is the liberal left response to about anything.

Societies and countries shaped by social workers and poets don’t last long. Hard core results oriented task masters seem to take control, and for us to have meaningful, open and friendly to the human existence forests, we have to have strong and meaningful leadership with a plan and the resources to execute the plan. FDR was able to shape forests, and make them usable and accessible with his WPA and CCC programs. Raw man power, and attainable goals, and the jobless got the work done during a time of national economic depression.

“Let ‘er Burn” is not a goal. It is doing nothing. The outcomes are not predictable nor good in all too many cases. Lightning fire in a fuel rich environment gains power in an exponential progression, and can’t help you, the forest, or itself. It is inanimate. Won’t go where you want it to, but will go where conflagration takes it. And in its wake, all that you love and want in a forest is left dead, incinerated or forever damaged.

The fallacy I see in the popular media, and their buying into the USFS Auditor General (in the Bush Administration!!) point of view that property ownership, home locations, and prior fire fighting successes are the root cause of the forests burning in this century, is that the political elite are also buying into the genocide, the cultural genocide, that eliminated the successful managers of large forested landscapes. They are also buying into “no logging”, for any reason, anywhere. The fires are not because of past fire fighting efforts, but because the fuel load has overwhelmed the forest, and the people who once kept that fuel load under control have been gone for over 150 years, at the least. The European dominated population now in land management cannot get through the impediments of laws, lawyers, and centralized governance to be able to control the fuel build up. The Wilderness Act of 1964 has some downsides, and this is one of them.

If people moving too close to wildlands is a problem, then it is a problem of population growth, land conservation for agriculture, land use rules, and a democracy that cannot force people to live in tenements in SW Portland, which right now appears to be an idea that fizzled. People who live on private land, in a landscape prone to growing trees, have a reasonable right to not have public land fire trespassing on their lands and destroying their property.

The history of unfought fire, ignited in mid-summer, in an area of summer drought annually, is that those fires eventually go to town with a vengeance. Wilderness fires, unfought, seem to threaten Sisters, OR, on a too regular basis. That threat is going away temporarily because the available fuels are being burned, but the costs to save the rural-urban interface are huge and borne by a public that by and large cannot afford to live there.

Meanwhile the population grows, and not from native born births, but by immigration and immigrant births. The pressure on landscapes is political in that respect. That a Boomer population would rather live in a private retreat in the woods than in an urban bicycle brawl and failing school system, the urban setting, all at great monetary cost, is the reality. The fire that threatens those lifestyles and homes is from a misunderstood idea of how things work in nature. “Natural” fire was not a part of this landscape until Europeans decided to not set fires as their predecessors had done for millennia. Now we have to live with it.

The real question is whether we care for our landscapes, which means fighting fire. To not fight fire is to lose all those values that were thrust on the table to be negotiated and lost by rural economies. The lost opportunity to have a woods products industry is paramount. Those forests that are not thinned, not underburned, and not managed, are the ones stoking the megafires. The history of megafires is that they repeat themselves as is now the case in Southern California, where once native-maintained savannas ran as far as the eye could see, with vast herds of tule elk, blacktail deer, and now extinct pronghorns and wild sheep.

The 1988 Silver Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness was completely burned over again in the Biscuit Fire in 2002. Where is the new forest there? Where are those wonderful emerging stands of trees, and the mosaics of diverse vegetation? Not.

To not fight fire is to produce prodigious tonnage of hydrocarbon pollutants, and as new research is showing, to vast tonnages of mineral and organic soil components. Conflagration removes soil, propelled into the plume and deposited far, far away, some of it in people’s lungs. In 2007, the amount of greenhouse gases produced by wildfire in Oregon was as much or more than all the other man-made sources. It was half the greenhouse gas emissions. Cut forest fire acreages in half, and you would cut Oregon greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. I can only guess at how much greenhouse gas California has produced from this fire year, which is ongoing and robust. Unrestrained wildfire defeats all human efforts at greenhouse gas emissions controls. Makes them an exercise in futility.

On the other hand, we have the Tillamook Burn, which was a megafire every six years (1933, ‘39, ‘45, and ‘51). The very human response that the publisher of the Forest Grove newspaper campaigned for, replant it for our grandchildren, was what the residents did. We also built fire breaks, felled vast hillsides of snags, built roads, and today we have this vast green forest that really needs to be logged and replaced by trees that have their DNA in that geology, that geography. Today the Tillamook Burn is fire protected, massaged for income, for multiple use, for the great benefit of the counties within its borders.

And it works! It has been a success! A qualified success, perhaps, but better that than a vast, bleak landscape of snags, eroded soils, and silt and tree plugged rivers, soon to burn once again. That is the foreseeable future of the Biscuit Fire area, and it now appears, the B&B Complex fire area, too. No recovery is evident, but the butt ugly remains of “protection” are there for all to see along the Santiam Highway.

And those green areas with trees in them? Private land. Weyerhaeuser will sell you some if you want. Being the neighbor to the USFS, intent on NOT fighting fire, is not a winning position in the timber products business. If you can’t manage your asset, you sell it to someone who has the inclination to be burned out at some time.

I have had occasion to read about the CCC venture of FDR and his Depression era public works programs, and all the positive social ramifications it had. I think it is time to re-visit that type of program, and have it be the rock hard, bare bones deal that it was then. Long days, hard physical work, hand tools, people power rather than fossil fuel power, good food and lots of it, a safe place to sleep, a structured life of discipline. Perhaps the environmental and social results of such a program would allow the USA to break out of our mold of obesity, disrespect, decreasing societal mobility, and public landscapes in disrepair. A jar to the senses, as it were, to a country perhaps growing very complacent and as the Texas ex-congressman said, whiny.

The loss of 9 lives, a great tragedy in any sense, is no more than a transportation mechanical failure. A bus in Texas had a similar problem and killed many more people. We have transportation-based loss daily, and to expect that it will not happen in any venture is naive. Nor does that kind of accident become an indictment of the mission at hand, whether it be Vietnamese Catholics traveling to an event or fire fighters rotating out of a remote spike camp, or the rolled over van homeward bound.

Fighting fire is the job strong, motivated young men and women can aspire to, and a job that can take the edge off paying for college. It is a job for rural kids, good kids, kids who aspire to something better. That they can get killed is why the pay is good, the hours are long, and the adventure spirited. But most of all, putting out the fire is a noble goal, one that enhances our resources and keeps the paying public free from a wanton destroyer of lives and property.

To not fight fire would have much more catastrophic results, results rural kids have lived with and would rather not experience again. If you want to lower the dangers, lower the resource losses, then we must do to reduce fuels, and reduce the danger, in an arena dominated by Eastern trust fund money fueling NGOs with high ideals and no concept of the reality of flames at your door.

There never was a Wilderness not used by man, until European and Asian disease wiped out 90% or more of the land occupiers. The old trails, maintained meadows, tool manufacturing sites, encampment sites, all now within Wilderness boundaries tell a far different tale than the idealists with the lofty dreams of something that never was, and never will be.

We don’t have to like that we will have fires, and that they will destroy all they encounter, but we can do what we must to blunt their takings, to minimize their size. And then we can remove fuels, and set directed fire in a fuel poor environment, and have a forest that will exist for many human lifetimes. Our legacy. Trees, old trees, forever. “Let ‘er Burn” will never get you to that place. Only directed human effort over the longest of time will get us to that goal. Humans have done it before, and we are capable of doing it once again.

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