The Lesson of Los Alamos

Published August 1, 2000

The fires sweeping across Los Alamos, New Mexico are tragic and prophetic. Hundreds of firefighters, bulldozers, and airplanes are battling the blaze. Pictures of flaming houses, 20,000-foot-high plumes of smoke stretching 300 miles, and blackened hillsides flood TV screens. Damage estimates exceed $1 billion; 1500 archaeological sites have been scarred or destroyed; and radioactive waste barely escaped being released into the air. Over 44,000 acres of forest and 260 homes have burned, and 25,000 people have had to flee.

Statistics and dramatic photographs cannot do justice to the human suffering such fires inflict. Even so, the Los Alamos fire is only a symptom of a far more serious problem: It is public policy that is causing America’s forests to go up in smoke.

The best-laid plans can fail

The Los Alamos fire, also known as the Cerro Grande fire, is just one among thousands that ravage western forests each year, and they are growing worse. The National Park Service and other federal agencies use prescribed fires to reduce the threat of wildfire, but even the best-planned fire can go out of control.

The fire set by Bandelier National Monument officials under conditions that anyone would call unfavorable, at best, is indefensible. At Bandelier they intended to “restore fire as a keystone natural process and to reduce hazard fuels” . . . but they started the Los Alamos fire instead. They set the fire knowing it was the second year of drought caused by La Niña. They even failed to heed a U.S. Weather Service warning that the potential for wildfire was extreme. It was too dry and too windy for a prescribed fire, but they lit it anyway. Bandelier superintendent Roy Weaver told the Albuquerque Tribune, “we knew this one was going to be pushing the limits a little bit.”

Park staff did the same thing in Yellowstone in 1988, when they allowed a natural fire to burn until it became impossible to control. When it was over, the fire had charred nearly one-half of our oldest national park. An internal memo documented federal officials “were determined” to let the fire burn even though they knew it “was a very dry year.”

Just like park staff at Bandelier, Yellowstone personnel remain unrepentant to this day. They continue to blame “Mother Nature” for high winds and drought.

The future of our forests

The Los Alamos fire and the let-it-burn Yellowstone fire are ominous signs of what lays ahead. The forest fire menace is growing more serious each year–and we are not using what we know to prevent it.

Today’s forests are a tattered and unhealthy remnant of the original forests. More than a century ago, we began to protect forests from fires, and we set some forests aside in parks and reserves to protect them from humans. Forests throughout North America grew thicker, and the patchiness that gave them their diversity disappeared. Policymakers did not consider that our forests had evolved with fire, and with more than 12,000 years of use by native peoples.

In the Southwest, ponderosa pine forests like those burning at Los Alamos are 31 times denser than the original forests. Frequent fires set by Native Americans and lightning once kept those forests open, but now they are so thick that any fire could turn the forest into a colossal furnace.

Today’s forests are far less diverse than they once were. Fires can spread freely across vast areas today because trees have grown to similar sizes, and there are fewer patches of young trees, meadows, and clearings to slow the flames. Fires are larger and more destructive, plant and animal species are disappearing, streams are drying as thickets of trees use up the water, and insects and disease are reaching epidemic proportions.

Our forests are in serious trouble. No one knows this better than federal officials who set prescribed fires. They also know the problem is so severe we can no longer rely on prescribed fire to repair the damage. Prescribed fire is an essential tool, but high costs, safety concerns, and air pollution restrictions prevent widespread and frequent burning. We have other tools available, but we cannot use them on most of the public lands where the need is greatest.

Fighting fire without fire

The only viable alternatives to prescribed fire are mechanical thinning and timber harvesting. These are the most effective ways to manage forests. They can be used with near-surgical precision, and they have the added advantages of creating jobs in rural communities and producing wood. Unlike prescribed burns by government officials, thinning and harvesting generate revenue.

Yet the Park Service resists these approaches, and environmentalists block every attempt to use them to restore our forests, believing it best to “let nature take its course.” They have convinced themselves that setting prescribed fires designed to change forests in predetermined ways is “natural,” while using a chainsaw or mechanical harvester to do the same thing is not.

We have reached a turning point in the history of our forests. Unless we begin a large-scale restoration management program now, many of America’s native forests will further deteriorate. Some may cease to exist altogether within a few decades.

The best way to reverse the decline is to use the original forests as models for future forests. The native forests that European explorers found provide excellent models for management because of their beauty, diversity, and abundance of wildlife. They also were inherently sustainable.

Such model forest restoration cannot be achieved by “letting nature take its course,” or with prescribed fire alone. It requires active management. We must use the safest and most cost-effective tools available to restore health and diversity to America’s forests.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D. is professor of forest science at Texas A&M University and author of the America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000).