The year 2000 will be remembered in forestry circles as the year of the Big Burn. At no time in our previous record-keeping has the total acreage burned in our National Forests approached the levels of last year.
There have been an amazing number of fires on our National Forests in the 39-year period from 1960 to 1998—420,553 to be exact. Of these, 54 percent were caused by lightning and 46 percent by humans. The most common cause of human-started fires is arson—the deliberate setting of fires. Next on the list are campers and hikers, followed by hunters, fishermen, railroads, and equipment.
The number of lightning-caused fires has remained fairly consistent through the years, and there is no evidence that “global warming” has upset the weather patterns that might be a factor in their generation.
Lightning-caused forest fires occur more frequently in the West, largely because forests occupy a larger percentage of the land area there than in the eastern part of the country. Consequently, people in the East feel most fires are started by human activity; the Smokey Bear campaign has lent credibility to that misconception.
How forests and fires are managed
Forest and forest fire management policies have changed dramatically since 1960. The Sierra Club—once fairly understanding of the benefits of professional forest management practices—is largely to blame.
Since the mid-1960s, the Sierra Club has taken aim at logging in the National Forests. The group’s effort resulted, most significantly, in passage of the National Forest Management Act in 1976. That was a defining moment in the management of the National Forests, as NFMA stood professional forest management on its head.
Under the NFMA, Congress defined what silvicultural and management practices could be used by on-the-ground foresters. Forest professionals were required to consult with local residents, who were given the authority to approve or reject any National Forest Management Plan developed for their local forest. Most dangerously, the NFMA embodied in law the notion that economics should not be considered in the management of National Forests.
The Sierra Club used the NFMA to bring a halt to professional forest management. After the NFMA’s adoption, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed at least 55 suits in federal courts against many National Forests for not having a “correct” management plan. The Forest Service was overwhelmed and soon disheartened.
Forest management efforts deteriorated. Timber sales already in the pipeline were completed, and the number of new timber sales fell. The Endangered Species Act became a favorite tool of anti-timber environmentalists. The spotted owl in the Northwest, the red cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast, and the Mexican spotted owl in the Southwest became surrogates to stop timber harvesting.
Fewer mature trees were removed from the forests, and timber stand improvement sales slowed. The conditions that fuel fires developed rapidly, unchecked by the management practices that had been developed to protect the forests.
1980: The turning point
The turning point came in 1980. Timber sales underway when NFMA was passed were grandfathered in and took about four years to complete. After that, the fuel load in the forests began to build rapidly.
The results of that fuel buildup are shown in Figure 1. It is both informative and distressing. After 1985, the number of National Forest acres burned by wild fires increased dramatically. Between 1960 and 1984, an average of 162,276 acres burned every year; from 1985 to 1998, that figure quadrupled, to some 670,018 acres per year.
And the story gets worse. The year 2000 will go down in the record books as the worst fire season in the history of our National Forests. When the final figures are tabulated, over two million acres of National Forests will have been destroyed.
There are those in the environmental community who will claim this is a result of the Forest Service’s past policy of aggressive fire suppression. Fire plays a natural role in forest management, they contend: Just let the forests burn.
Their position is patently absurd.
Between 1920 and 1980, the Forest Service’s fire suppression efforts kept the acreage burned almost constant. Over most of this period, timber harvesting was carried out throughout the National Forests, and the forests were becoming healthier and more productive. If the suppression policy were flawed, there would have been a substantial increase in acreage burned long before the end of that period.
After 1980, the only factor in the equation that changed was the decline in timber harvesting and timber stand improvement (usually thinning) projects. As timber harvesting fell, the number of acres burned increased. That conclusion is inescapable.
Critics of the fire suppression policy also argue that, as more Americans use the National Forests for recreation, more fires are started and more acres are burned. An examination of the data does not support that position.
Figure 2 is a plot of the total number of fires occurring on National Forests from 1960 to 1998, with a linear regression trend line superimposed. The trend line does have an upward slope, indicating more fires are occurring over time, but the slope is quite modest: from 10,100 fires in 1960 to 11,500 in 1998. This represents a .3 percent per year increase in the number of fires over the 39-year period. That figure closely tracks the average annual increase in the number of acres turned over to the Forest Service during that period.
More fires, more difficult to extinguish
The real forest fire problem is not that more fires are being started, but that the average fire is getting larger, indicating fires are becoming more difficult to extinguish because of the higher fuel load. During the period 1960 to 1984, the average fire on our National Forests covered 16.4 acres. From 1985 to 1998, the average size rose to 60.4 acres—nearly a four-fold increase.
Wildfires are not pretty. They often are disastrous, not only to the forest but to human life and property. Large fires generate their own wind storms as the heat from the burning trees rises, creating wind drafts that can be deadly. The earth is often scorched so badly nothing will grow for many years. Valuable topsoil is washed away, and mudslides often silt up streams, destroying fish life and recreational opportunities. Wildlife suffers too, either perishing in the fires themselves or later, from lack of food and sustenance. The dead trees standing in a burned-over area provide a feast for bark beetles, which soon migrate to trees that survived, but were weakened by, the infernos.
Since 1970, 249 people (including eight in 2000) have died fighting forest fires. The value of destroyed personal property—homes, cabins, furniture, and priceless personal possessions—has never been calculated. There is no good side to wildfire.
“Prescribed” burning a flawed approach
“Prescribed” or “controlled” burns have become the solution of choice for anti-timber environmentalists. All the forests need, they say, is an occasional light burn of the fallen debris that accumulates on the forest floor. Such a burn will also keep seeds from germinating, they contend, reducing the dense “dog-hair” thickets that result from too many small trees growing too close together. Prescribed burns are a more “natural” approach to forest management, they say: after all, that’s what the Indians did to promote grass growth for the grazing animals so important to their food supplies.
The proponents of prescribed burns, of course, never explain why Indians burning the forests is “natural.” That rhetorical question aside, there are many fallacies in the prescribed burn approach.
First is the sheer area involved. The National Forests cover over 192 million acres. If a once-a-year prescribed burn program were launched to burn just 10 percent of that acreage, it would require controlled burning over an area the size of South Carolina (30,000 square miles). It’s difficult to imagine how such an undertaking could be managed.
A regular program of orchestrated burnings would damage the overall health of growing forests. Burning destroys vegetative material on the forest floor. Instead of forming humus and acting as fertilizer, the material is turned to ashes, which causes alkalinity in the soil. The impact on reproduction in the forest, necessary to replace the trees that die each year, would be disastrous.
Moreover—a concern most environmentalists would acknowledge—the burning of 19 million acres per year could present serious air pollution problems.
Public policy at cross purposes
Nineteen million acres simply cannot be burned without disasters occurring. The fire at Los Alamos in the spring of 2000 began as a “controlled burn” . . . and ended as a wildfire that destroyed almost 50,000 acres of forest and 400 homes.
Controlled burns require that conditions be “just right.” Humidity must be high, and expected wind velocities must be very low. Fire breaks must be constructed and, although roads are extremely effective in that regard, wilderness areas cannot have roads. The new “roadless initiative” launched by the Clinton-Gore administration and embraced by the Forest Service effectively prevents successful implementation of a controlled burning program.
There are other, more technical, reasons why controlled burns are ineffective. Not all forest types can be managed in this manner. Fires may be good for ungrazed grasslands, but they are not good for small tree seedlings. The hardwood stands found in the East and Midwest have often been burned by farmers and landowners to promote grass growth for grazing, and the stands show the result: They are devoid of young trees to replace the older trees as they mature and die. In the West, the mountainous terrain presents a formidable barrier to controlled burning.
The future of forest management
So how can the growing forest fire trend be halted? In broad terms, by restoring sound forest management practices.
Multiple-use is best for forests. Before the well-meaning but unknowledgeable extremists intruded on the process, our National Forests were being managed in a manner that boded well for their future. The amount of timber grown on them each year was increasing, the acreage of tree-covered land was growing, barren acres were being planted to trees, grazing by cattlemen was improving the range, recreational opportunities were increasing, more people were using the forests for camping and hiking, and forest fires were controlled. The multiple-use concept benefitted everyone . . . and it benefitted the forests themselves.
Passage of NFMA changed all that. Our National Forests became the battlegrounds on which environmentalists and Forest Service professionals waged war. The extremists gained the upper hand through a series of court decisions, and sound forest management practices were rejected.
Today, our National Forests are being run like National Parks, with recreation and visitors being the focus of attention. Campers and hikers may be fine people—but they don’t provide the materials to build homes for millions of people.
National Forests are being managed not by forestry professionals, but by supervisors who are geologists, archaeologists, and wildlife biologists. Until this situation is rectified and our National Forests are managed by forestry professionals in accordance with the original concept of multiple-use, we will continue to see them destroyed by fire.
Species decisions are best made by scientists. The Endangered Species Act must be revised so the Fish & Wildlife Service does not determine which species are endangered or threatened. That decision is best left to scientists, and should be put in the hands of an independent group such as the National Academy of Sciences. The Act must also acknowledge and appreciate that wildlife adapts and is amazingly flexible in its requirements for nesting or range. If no dead snags (so attractive to lightning strikes) are available, birds will nest in tall trees. Peregrine falcons, for example, nest on the ledges of tall buildings in some of our major cities.
Wilderness Area designations should be made thoughtfully, not politically. The Wilderness Area program needs a complete overhaul. In some cases, past Wilderness Area designations should be reversed. While it is easy for a legislator to recognize the “importance of the environment” by backing legislation to set aside one or two million acres as Wilderness, it is not always right. Acres should be declared as true wilderness—completely removed from multiple-use activities—only when they present no feasible alternatives. Even then, cleared fire breaks should be established in Wilderness Areas at reasonable locations for fire control and suppression activities.
Return forest management to trained forestry professionals. Finally, the environmental extremists must recognize that the management of our National Forests is not their strong suit. During the last 15 years, while they have been in charge, their flawed policies have had disastrous consequences.
Forest management decisions affect the careers of many people, the future of an important segment of our economy, and one of our country’s most valued and valuable natural resources. Those decisions should be the province of trained professionals with the education and experience to weigh and accommodate all reasonable uses of the forest—for our good, and for the future good of generations to follow.
Richard S. Bennett has taught forestry at the University of Wisconsin and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and was a forestry advisor to the Libyan government. He served as executive director of the Society for Environmental Truth for eight years and is now president of that organization. He can be reached by email at [email protected].
For more information
The Society for Environmental Truth is a nonprofit group that promotes the use of sound science to address environmental concerns and aims at bringing into balance the needs of people while improving our natural resources and environmental conditions. Contact SET at 4338 Murphey Drive, Corpus Christi, TX 78413; phone 361/814-6052; email [email protected].