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July 08, 2005


Is the Forest Service Destroying America’s Forests?
Dave

A couple of days ago a reader sent me this question/allegation: “Why is it your policy to burn down the public’s forests and permanently convert them to tick brush?” Few of us in the Forest Service believe this to be our policy, although some of us wonder whether it is sometimes, perhaps too often, the de facto outcome of our actions.

The allegation proves to be both interesting and troubling, in part because it is somewhat commonly held. In part it is interesting and troubling because variations of that view have haunted the Forest Service for some time. For example, Luna Leopold threw it at us years ago, at the close of the timbering era. Leopold’s allegation was: "The Forest Service has taken on the job of overseeing the destruction and disintegration of the forest empire of the American public."

The first perspective comes from a reader who believes we are willfully, if naively destroying forests by “Let Burn” policies and sometimes by prescribed fire activities. The other perspective, shared by both observers, is that active tree farming (as was practiced not too long ago by the Forest Service, and continuing somewhat today) destroys forests. Some others, incidentally, hold the perspective that active fire suppression in some cases tends to destroy forests.

We should not take these allegations lightly. How do people see us? How do we see ourselves? How often do we take time to seriously discuss who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve become, and where we ought to go?

After a couple of email interchanges, the reader got more specific and more colorful. Here’s a snippet:

For 50 years the Farce Circus ran their lands as if they were tree farmers. You guys practiced Weyerhaeuser clear-cut plantation methods, and managed to annihilate millions of acres of real forest. Then people like me demanded that the … forest annihilation stop. The Farce Circus has responded by burning down whatever forests they had left. Take the Biscuit Fire. Lightning hit, fires were detected. Helicopter crews were dispatched. But the fires were in "roadless" and "wilderness" areas. So the peabrains in charge, following their moronic Let It Burn philosophy, recalled the initial attack crews before they got to tiny, 1/4 acre strike sites. The fires subsequently blew up and burned a half million acres. Of that 224,000 acres (350 square miles) of forest were utterly destroyed. It is a wall-to-wall tickbrush now. There are no conifer seedlings. The "restoration" is limited to less than 10% of the former forest. One these summers lightning will hit again and the botanical gasoline will erupt into holocaust again. Actually, the Biscuit Fire is the second major fire in the area, a reburn, and more are expected. The Let It Burn policy has NOT changed and is still being ADVOCATED BY ARSONISTS in the USFS. The Kalmiopsis forest is extinct.

While trying to run down something on “tickbrush” I found a reply to a similar allegation at the Rogue Valley Independent Media Site. The reply (scroll down) portrayed the Biscuit Fire situation a bit differently:

botanical gasoline and evolution
23.04.2005 - 16:06
The Siskiyous for many thousands of years have comprised the northern edge of the California chaparral and mixed evergreen forest formations.

The "botanical gasoline" (good phrase) in Arctostaphylos and Ceanothus spp. is a key ingredient of that area's mixed-severity fire regime along with its steep, jumbled topography.

Species dependent on high severity fire for regeneration (Pinus attenuata (knobcone pine) and P. contorta (lodgepole)) occupy most of the high-severity patches "killed dead" by Biscuit. They're actively regenerating, just as they have after every severe fire in the Kalmiopsis since the Pleistocene.

Tired's assumption, that Biscuit was an unnatural fire that created an unnatural botanical community that will support an unnatural fire regime in the future, could not be further from the ecological reality of that place.

Half of the Kalmiopsis burned with low-severity effects or not at all. There's conifer seed sources everywhere.

There will high severity fire events in the future. Some will be big in spatial extent. But patch dynamics always will dictate the biological effects of fire at landscape scale. There will be high-, moderate-, and low-severity effects. Just like at Biscuit.

None of this stuff about a "killed dead" forest is a good argument for logging conifer snags, disturbing the soil, and introducing exotic vegetation that poses a real threat to ecosystem function.

Anybody who calls the Kalmiopsis a "moonscape wasteland" is fantasizing and never, ever walked the ground. ...been there
So I asked a colleague who has also walked the ground, as have the other two, which perspective seemed closer to the mark. The latter opinion prevailed in my opinion sample, admittedly biased and a sample so small that it would contain zero degrees of freedom if subjected to statistical analysis (something I gave up on years ago after being schooled in how to lie and cheat with statistics).

The email interchange triggered a memory. Years ago I remember Luna Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son, make a remarkably similar allegation, but in a timbering context. I wrote it up in an Eco-Watch post. Here, in part.

After acknowledging that there were many forces that drove forest managers to do things that violated their sensibility, [Luna Leopold noted]: "The Forest Service has taken on the job of overseeing the destruction and disintegration of the forest empire of the American public." Leopold’s remedy was that we need to adopt a new and completely different "ethos"--one based on ecology and a love for the land.

The two allegations might be summed up as, 1) through benign neglect (letting fires burn that ought not to) we are destroying the forests, and 2) through active intervention of a wrong kind (e.g. tree farming) we are, or at least were then, destroying the forests. These are just two of many allegations of mismanagement that come our way daily. We also get a few accolades, but American culture and the press tend to play up controversial perspectives.

This isn’t all bad. If we don’t hear dissent we are too prone to think that whatever we do is OK, or better than OK. Sometimes we need to hear bad news. We also need to grapple with negative allegations (and also positive allegations) and test them fairly against both intentions and the actualities of policy, plans, programs, and practice.

As we grapple with allegations, each of us would be well advised to dust off our copies of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Gifford Pinchot’s Breaking New Ground.

We should take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Have we too often simply substituted one set of targets for another, without adequately considering the need for them relative to the needs for managing both the forests and the people who use them?
  • How often do we gravitate to simply being robots of the bureaucratic state?
  • How often do we forget our administrative responsibilities to our mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands…?
  • How often do we forget our professional ethical responsibilities?
  • How often do we forget the words of Gifford Pinchot admonishing us to work first and foremost for the public interest—best determined by dialogue and discussion between managers, professionals, and the lay public.

Posted by Dave on July 8, 2005 at 03:49 PM | Permalink

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Posted by: Independent Forester

Patch dynamics and mixed severity fire regimes are eco-babble. If the Kalmiopsis was subject to such since the Pleistocene, where did the 500 year-old trees come from? The Biscuit Fire killed thousands of acres of old growth trees. Whole LSR’s were destroyed. The former forest contained Douglas-firs, sugar pines, and incense cedars, not lodgepole pines. How did these old trees get there in the first place?

There have been human beings living in SW Oregon since the Pleistocene. These people set fires every year for millennia. They did not fight fires, or prevent fires, or employ “ecosystem management”. Human beings torched the whole of the West every year, year after year, for at least 8,000 years according to pollen records from bog cores. This 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 fire suppression, that allowed a thicket of young conifers to arise under the older cohort.

This multi-cohort stand structure is not limited to SW Oregon. From Flagstaff to Wenatchee, from the Oregon coast to Montana, multi-cohort stands are the norm in uncut forests. Such forests have complex canopy structures, as well. Complex multi-cohort canopies are preferred habitat for many rare species, such as spotted owls.

To abandon such forests to catastrophic fires is to destroy the complex structure and replace it with fire-type chaparral. Yet we cannot set the West on fire every year, either. Even without fire the older cohort is dying from moisture stress caused by the dense competition from the younger cohort. It may seem counter-intuitive, but our forests are getting younger every year as the older trees succumb to insects and diseases. Even without timber harvest spotted owl habitat is declining, as is the population. In the ten years since inception of the Northwest Forest Plan spotted owls populations have fallen by 1/3.

We have to understand that doing nothing is not going to protect or perpetuate old growth forests. Nor will catastrophic fires in fuel-laden forests save the old trees. Wilderness is a political designation, not an ecological condition. We have to come to grips with the reality of the “natural” history of our forests, reflect on the stand dynamics that are occurring now, and decide what kind of forests we want our grandchildren to experience. If old growth, multi-cohort, spotted owl habitat type forests are the desired future condition, then we have to manage fire, stocking, and fuels to achieve that. Otherwise we will continue to convert ancient forests to chaparral.

Independent Forester | Jul 10, 2005 2:31:20 AM


Posted by: Independent Forester

Let’s think about this logically. There are forests in the West which are a mosaic of even-age patches of lodgepole pine (MEAPLP’s). But that’s NOT the kind of forest found in SW Oregon.

1) If SWO was MEAPLP’s, then what’s been fueling the economy there for the last 100 years? Is there a single LP mill in SWO? Can you name it?

2) Do MEAPLP’s succeed to old growth DF, SP, PP, and IC? If so, where? Can you cite a single acre anywhere where that has occurred?

3) MEAPLP patches are 40-100 acres in size. The Biscuit Burn was 500,000 acres, of which 224,000 acres had little or no conifer survival (check the BAER). Is that typical of MEAPLP’s? If so, where?

4) No inventory that I know of lists LP as a component of SWO forests. Can you cite one?

5) Are dead LP snags salvageable? Is LP the species being logged in restoration units?

6) Does the USFS introduce exotic vegetation as part of fire restoration? If so where? What exotic species does the USFS use?

7) Do spotted owls live in MEAPL’s? If so, where?

Maybe the “best” thing to do is abandon the forests to “stand replacement” fires. If so what should be the role of the USFS? Why do we need you? What is your function? What service do you offer the taxpayers? Is there any relationship between declining USFS budgets and current policies of “passive” forest management?

Independent Forester | Jul 10, 2005 11:28:25 AM


Posted by: Independent Forester

The web site linked in the original article is the Rogue Independent Media Center, and affiliate of Cascadia Rising and Earth First! Have we descended to the point where the U.S. Forest Service relies upon Earth First! for technical analysis regarding forest stand development?

The US Forest Service has professional forest scientists at research stations across the nation, including Oregon. Earth First! is a self-described extremist group, some members of which are on the FBI Most Wanted list for crimes against the USFS. Why go to the latter rather than the former for technical info on forests?

Independent Forester | Jul 11, 2005 10:03:17 AM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

Re: Rogue Independent Media Center and “affliations.”
To: Independent Forester and others

As I mentioned in the post, I found the comment from “been there” via a Google search. I went back to check out the allegations that I had cited a Cascadia Rising and Earth First! affiliate site. I couldn’t find any direct affiliation (maybe I missed it), although many local and regional news media tend to have a “slant.” But then again, so do the nationals tend to have a “slant.” Here is the Rogue Independent Media Center’s Mission Statement:
http://rogueimc.org/static/mission.shtml , in part:

“The Independent Media Center (IMC) is an open community resource where everyone is free to be heard in the Rogue Valley, using a website as a focal point. The website functions on principles of open publishing, allowing anyone to publish articles and have a voice.”

I grabbed the snippet because it offered what I considered to be another perspective on the issue that reasonably could be contrasted with the first. If it is unreasonable, then I will have screwed up. It won’t be the first time. But right now I don’t see it as an unreasonable perspective. Then again, I haven’t "been there." Hopefully others who have been there will chime-in, supporting eithar of the perspectives else offering new ones.

As to “Have we descended to the point where the U.S. Forest Service relies upon Earth First! for technical analysis regarding forest stand development? … The US Forest Service has professional forest scientists at research stations across the nation, including Oregon. … Why [not go to them] for technical info on forests?”

First of all I didn’t think I was going to Earth First!, but rather to an individual offering up a perspective. Second, in many things, including hopefully “blogs,” all forest and forest policy observers, commentators, etc. rely on Forest Service professional technical analysis, academic research and opinion, views from professional societies of various stripes, etc.

Remember that this is a blog, and opinions are going to be aired more frequently on blogs than in some other forums.

Dave Iverson | Jul 11, 2005 11:30:43 AM


Posted by: Forrest Fleischman

One reason that I might suggest to listen to the posting on the Rogue Valley Independent Media site is that it appears to agree with the published scientific literature. Specifically, an article published in the August 2004 issue of Conservation Biology that attempted to understand whether large fires in the Klamath Siskiyou Range were larger or outside of the range of historic natural variability due to 100 years of fire suppression found that recent large fires, including the Biscuit Fire, in the Klamath Mountains burned in patterns that were remarkably similar to all known historic and pre-historic patterns in the region.

The citation for this article is:
Odion, DC; Frost, EJ; Strittholt, JR; Jiang, H; Dellasala, DA; Moritz, MA. Patterns of fire severity and forest conditions in the western Klamath Mountains, California. Conservation Biology 18:4 927-936.
Conservation Biology does not have free public access to articles on the web, however, you can navigate to the abstract from http://www.conservationbiology.com, or find the journal in any decent academic library.
The authors are all well respected academic scientists, not affiliated with the Forest Service.

One of the problems I have with Independent Forester's critique of the Forest Service is that, like much of the public debate, it assumes that there is a single problem with fire, fuel buildup, and suppression throughout the American West. In fact, there are numerous different problems that depend on local-scale ecosystem variation. Part of the reason the Forest Service has run into so much criticism is that it has tried to apply a national level approach to what are in fact a very confusing set of local-scale problems.

The results of the Odion et. al. paper support this opinion. The authors focused on a set of fires in the Marble Mountains, and found that fire suppression in fact created conditions that perpetuated historic and pre-historic fire regimes. While fire suppression in some ecosystems leads to fuel buildups that create increased risk of fire, suppression in the chapparal/forest matrix of the Klamath Siskiyou region of Northern California and Southern Oregon actually reduces fire risk. Why? The longer the interval between fires, the more chapparal (i.e. highly flammable) type habitat succeeds to close canopy forest. The closed canopy forests are significantly less flammable - they are cooler due to all the shade, and have a less concentrated fuel profile. They found that areas logged or burned since 1920 burned at higher severity than older forest portions, and suggest that "fuels reduction" treatments misapplied to these older forests might increase, rather than decrease fire risk, by increasing the portion of the landscape with brushy chapparal.

Since a big fire like the Biscuit obviously increases the amount of brushy habitat, the question arises, is that "unnatural" or somehow outside of the range of historic variability. Odion et. al. find evidence in fossil pollen and charcoal records of historic periods with both substantially more and substantially less burning than recent decades. Given that recent decades have been fairly dry and warm, we might expect to be somewhat on the higher end of the spectrum simply due to climate. They also compare recent fires in terms of the percentage of area burned at high severity, and find that most have been fairly similar. The Biscuit is definitely at the high end in terms of percentage at higher severity, but this is due at least in part to a data collection anomaly. In most other fires, high severity was considered 100% crown scorch, while in the Biscuit they counted >75% crown scorch as high severity. If the data had been collected as they were in other fires, it appears that the Biscuit would've been anomalous not in the % of high severity fire, but in the % of moderate severity fire.

A final note, on indigenous burning practices. The best thing I have read on the importance of indigenous burning practices in the pre-conquest west is the following book:
Vale, T.R., 2002. Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape. Island Press, Covelo, Ca.
Although the authors have different conclusions for the different regions they study, their fundamental finding is that while natives definitely lit a lot of fires, their overall impact on the landscape was less than has been hypothesized by many authors (including Independent Forester). Native populations in many parts of the west were quite small, and their burning was limited to areas they used intensively - typically fertile river bottoms or other high quality environments. The Klamath-Siskiyou region is not specifically discussed, and I know that it was comparatively heavily settled, however it is my understanding that populations were concentrated in the river valleys, where resources were abundant, and that remote and extremely rugged areas such as the Kalmiopsis were probably used very lightly, and saw fairly limited native burning.

What would Aldo Leopold say? I think that he would urge us to be cautious tinkerers - to experiment carefully, try to hold the forests intact at a large scale, and make sure that the experimentation is set up in such a way that the results are both measured and meaningful.

Forrest Fleischman | Jul 11, 2005 11:44:40 AM


Posted by: Mike Dechter

I found Forrest's brief explanation of the Odion et al. paper really interesting. Their suggestion that misapplied fuel reductions projects might actually increase the risk of wildfire is a little different than what we're used to hearing from the public affairs world. But there's another element here and that is, how does it affect the ecological health of the forest? Sure treatments may increase fire frequency, but if it's not a threat to public safety then the treatments may still help move forest conditions toward desired management goals (by burning with less intensity).

A recent paper by Crystal Raymond and David L. Peterson touched on one aspect of this by specifically looking at the effect of prefire treatments within the area of the Buscuit Fire (published in Fire Management Today, April 2005 - http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/fmt/). The results were mixed. Those areas that received only thinning treatments suffered more crown scorch and percent cambium girdled on overstory trees than untreated stands. Thinned and underburned stands, on the other hand showed much less crown scorch and percent cambium girdled on overstory trees than untreated stands. In other words, some treatments actually increased overstory tree mortality, and others enabled more overtory trees to survive the effects of the Biscuit Fire.

To me these papers are a hint of the complexity of fire and the vegetated environment. Though I disagree that the Forest Service has a "policy to burn down the public's forest," I would argue that there is still a ways to go in understanding forest processes and resources and how forest management can be practiced to sustain them.

Mike Dechter | Jul 11, 2005 2:17:04 PM


Posted by: Independent Forester

Your anonymous blogger from Earth First! was dead wrong about lodgepole pine, but let’s just drop that like a hot rock. The new issue is whether Indians had any influence on the ecosystem. In my opinion, anyone who denies the impact human beings have had on the ecosystems of North America for the last 10,000 years is either profoundly ignorant or racist or both, but that’s just my opinion. Let’s see what actual scholars have to say about it:

“The strong tendency to be concerned only with the present or near future carries with it the serious danger that we shall fail to put enough weight on the long-term and secondary effects of our actions; that we shall do further damage to the very machinery of resource production that we seek to repair.” from

E.I Kotok, “The Ecological Approach to Conservation Programs” in Renewable Natural Resources, Section IV (circa 1950).

“From time immemorial, people have been great modifiers of the ecological niches they occupy. That observation is also a proper fit for the prehistoric period in North America, where archaeological evidence shows purposeful human manipulation of the environment to be an incontestable fact.” from

Willam G. Robbins and Donald W. Wolf. Landscape and the Intermontane Northwest: An Environmental History. USDA Forest Service, PNW Res. Sta.

“Indeed, the great weight of scientific evidence and hypotheses argues against the notion of the Americas as a pristine, Eden-like world where human imprint was barely perceptible. Scholarly research in the last two decades indicates the existence of sizable prehistoric populations in the Western Hemisphere and considerable human modification to forest, riverine, prairie, and basin landscapes.” (ibid)

“The important question is the form and magnitude of environmental modification rather than whether Indians lived in harmony with nature with sustainable systems of resource management.” (ibid)

“It often seems that the common impression about the American West is that, before the arrival of people of European descent, Native Americans had essentially no effect on the land, the wildlife, or the ecosystems, except that they harvested trivial amounts that did not affect the "natural" abundances of plants and animals. But Native Americans had three powerful technologies: fire, the ability to work wood into useful objects, and the bow and arrow. To claim that people with these technologies did not or could not create major changes in natural ecosystems can be taken as Western civilization's ignorance, chauvinism, and old prejudice against primitivism--the noble but dumb savage. There is ample evidence that Native Americans greatly changed the character of the landscape with fire, and that they had major effects on the abundances of some wildlife species through their hunting.” from

Daniel B. Botkin. 1990. “Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century” (New York: Oxford University Press)

See also:

Carl. O. Sauer, “Man in the Ecology of Tropical America”, Proceedings of the Ninth Pacific Science Congress 20 (1957) 104-110.

Carl. O. Sauer, “Man’s Dominance by Use of Fire,” Geoscience and Man 10 (1957)

William Cronan, “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983)

Richard White, “Land use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: Univ. Washington Press, 1980)

Karl W. Butzer, “The Americas Before and After 1492: An Introduction to Current Geographical Research”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, 3 (1992), 345-366.

William M. Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, 3 (1992) 370.

Neil Roberts, “The Holocene: An Environmental History” (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989) 5.

Dean A. Shinn, “Historical Perspectives on Range Burning in the Inland Pacific Northwest” Journal of Range Management 33 (Nov 1980) 418-19.

Eugene Hunn, “Nch’i-wana: Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land” (Seattle; Univ. Washington Press, 1990).

Richard White, “The altered landscape of the Pacific Northwest.” in Major
problems in the history of the American Northwest, II Clyde A. Milner, ed. Lexington,
Mass.: DC Heath.


Independent Forester | Jul 11, 2005 9:41:15 PM


Posted by: Independent Forester

Shall I go on?

“From the coastal plain of Massachusetts southward to Florida and westward to Texas, from California’s great Central Valley to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, grasslands flourished as a consequence of Indian incendiary activities.” from

Stephen J.Pyne, “Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982)

“Great portions of these bottoms has been latterly burnt which has entirely destroyed the timbered growth.” William Clark, 1806, from

Ruben Gold Thwaites “Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” vol. 3

“I will venture to assert without exaggeration the Natives have destroyed and principally by fire upwards of sixty thousand beavers and of this number not a Hundred have reached any establishment but all have been lost.” Hudson Bay Company trapper Peter Skene Ogden, 1827, from

M. A. Davis, ed., Peter Skene Ogden’s Snake County Journals. 1826-27. (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1961) 7, 9, 19, 118, and 126-7.

“Here I am [at midnight] sitting cross legged on the ground, scribbling by the light of the vast conflagration with as much ease as if I had a ton of oil burning by my side.”

John Kirk Townsend, “Narrative Journey Across the Rocky Mountains” (1839; Lincoln: Univ, Nebraska Press, 1978)

See Also

David Douglas, "Journals and Letters of David Douglas."

Bob Zybach, “Voices in the Forest” Evergreen Magazine, March-April 1994

Bob Zybach, 2003. “Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patterns in the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951”. PhD Dissertation, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR: 458 pp.

Thomas Bonnicksen, “America's Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery" (2000, New York: Jossey-Bass, Wiley)

And if that’s not enough, please visit:

Gerald W. Williams Ph.D., Historical Analyst, USDA Forest Service “References on the American Indian Use of Fire in Ecosystems”

www.wildlandfire.com/docs/biblio_indianfire.htm

Independent Forester | Jul 11, 2005 9:45:11 PM


Posted by: Independent Forester

I am sorry for being harsh. Upon deeper inspection, I have realized that none of you associated with this site are foresters. Originally I was fooled by the site name: Forest Policies – Forest Practices. None of you have woods experience, or a background in forest ecology, or forest science, or forest management. It is unfair of me to expect any of you to know what being a forester means.

Let me try to explain it. Being a forester means making a life commitment at a relatively young and inexperienced age. It means getting a degree in forestry at some “accredited” institution, and graduating as a kind of educated idiot. Then you are thrust into the reality of forests, being in them everyday for years and years, with all manner of difficult tasks, tough decisions, and overwhelming responsibilities. The learning never stops and the lessons can be painful.

After a time, if you are smart or lucky, you begin to figure it out. You take thousands of increment cores, count rings on countless stumps, walk and look, climb and look, crawl through thickets and look and measure, measure, measure. Patterns begin to emerge and impinge on your brain. You build age distributions, deconstruct stands, backdating them, and trying to figure out how they got that way.

You ask yourself, why are there a handful of big old trees with fire scars, and a thousand younger trees with no fire scars, on acre after acre, in the Sierras, in the Cascades, in the Blues, in the Siskiyous? How did those big trees get there? You fight forest fires, up close and personal, at huge personal risk, and then see their aftermath. None of the punkins survive, surrounded (as they were) by so many pecker poles. It’s simply not possible for anything to survive in those blast furnaces. Yet the punkins were there, some of them 250, or 350, or even 500 years old. Where did they come from?

The new forests sprout up from the ashes, even thicker with trees than before, or else with no trees at all, just abundant brush. You think: it couldn’t have been this way before. It doesn’t make sense. What’s coming back is utterly different than what was here, so different that it cannot possibly have been this way 250, or 350, or 500 years ago. You watch stands develop, decade after decade, and see that the new forests have none of the characteristics of the old ones.

You get forensic. You study and study. Then it starts to dawn on you. The forest opens up like a book and you read it, avidly. My kids hate to go hiking with me. I stop and say look at that bush, look at that tree, it’s so interesting. They say, Dad, come on, we want to get to the lake. We don’t want to look at a bush.

The forest becomes a concert, a symphony in space and time. You see the holes, what’s not there between the trees. You see the corridors in the canopy, the interconnected pores. You watch a hawk chase a sparrow into a thick tree crown, and the sparrow shoots through like nothing is there, while the hawk flounders, unable to penetrate the crown at all. You realize the forest is a three-dimensional lattice, with caverns, pathways, and caves, some big, more small, and zillion teeny spaces where only a single beetle can squeeze into.

In your mind’s eye you erase all the young trees, and just see the old ones, widely-spaced and scattered. You see the forest of the past through the forest of the present.

And you realize that you are on sacred ground. Not because some witch doctor shook a rattle here, but because people, real people must have walked right here. In some forgotten era somebody sat right here and took a nap. Somebody told a joke and their companions laughed. Somebody sat down and wept at some long forgotten tragedy. Two innocent lovers had a tryst, right here. Someone fought, and someone died, right here. The tidal wave of centuries, of millennia, comes crashing down upon you, and you see the eons unfold. And with that understanding comes a deep humility and gratitude. You are blessed to be right here, right now, in the concert hall, with a symphony of pathos and tragedy, humor and love, age and grace, tumbling and rumbling all around you.

There is nothing like it. It’s a connection with a time before time was.

You want to share that experience, but with whom? Who else can understand? How do you communicate an epiphany? Surely someday, someone else will feel the sanctity, just as you have, right here. But then catastrophe, a raging fire, and all is lost. It is gone. The signs, the whispers of the past, the echos of eons are consumed by fire and a dark and dirty landscape emerges. Something will grow here again, but the connections are lost. The past is forgotten. The new age militants, ignorant and haughty, come sneering through the smoke, bound up with pettiness and officiousness and a big chip on their shoulders. They spout bogus theories and ridiculous claptrap. They desanctify the ground with disrespect and disregard, and you know that no one will ever again feel the winds of time whispering through sacred groves.

That’s what it’s like to be a forester. That’s what it’s like for me. I’m sorry you don’t get it. I’m sorry. I’m in grief. I grow old and tired. The timeless beauty is mine and mine alone, not because I’m selfish, but because others are. It’s your loss, and I’m sorry for you. But remember this: when I beg you not to burn my forests down, I’m begging for you. I’m already rich, richer than I ever knew or hoped to be.

Independent Forester | Jul 12, 2005 2:23:58 AM


Posted by: alex dunn

I will avoid any more citations although there have been some good ones that I need to take a look at. I assume that we can all deal with a little stream-of-tinkering of the conceptual, non-citeable kind. Here it goes.

Yes, part of the problem is a national level blanket policy, however equally problematic is getting hung up on that national level stuff. I dont know anyone who is actively trying to return fire regimes to 'normal' that uses condition class as a guide for stand level analysis, planning, treatments, whatever we want to call 'management' or 'mismanagement' or whatever. Actually FRCC does not assign some arbitrary number of any sort, it just refers to how many fire return intervals a piece of ground has missed, leaving up to the person inerpreting the ground to decide how 'out of whack' it is. But I'm not going to defend FRCC, just the fact that national level direction is just that, much of it having some level of utility to the people on the ground.

Frequency, intensity, effects, severity, flame length, girdling of cambium, indvidual tree torching, historic range of variation, fire returnn interval, crown bulk density, regen, chapparal, tickbrush, etc. What about the unfortunate reality that in many areas of the country we actually do not have the luxury of seeing a true mixed severity regime operate 'freely', not to mention high severity, however historically prevelant(although we usually dont pay much attention to these high severity regimes cause they are in places like Alaska, unless they burn houses or evacuate towns named 'Chicken', or burn up Yellowstone). History is long, and it's hard to say exactly what happened last week let alone, you know, way back then or at a specific point in time seeing that its always changing. Do we know enough about how these landscapes react and interact with fire and people NOW to make a move?

Perhaps the Klamath Siskiyou is a bad example of the problem it being one of the most remote and inaccesible areas of relatively low elevation coastal montane forests in the Western US (ok one book recomendation, The Klamath Knot by David Rains Wallace:). At least in California and increasingly in SWOregon, a landscape that is truly untrammeled by man is the exception, unless its wilderness somewhere else in the state however that would most likely then be rock and ice...or desert. (hmmm we do have some similarities with our predecesors). Many of the rest of these human dominated systems do not exist in some kind of diverse landscape scale mosaic even if they are forested. From supression to tree farms to subdivisions, these lands have been homogenized by humans; in many of these altered systems fire threatens to further homogenize the landscape. We have a fundamental obligation to steward them actively, lest they become forest where we wanted golf course greens, or vice versa, depending.

I agree with Botkin that our own arrogance precludes us often from thinking of ourselves as 'part of'. We are certainly 'managing' the ecosystem, just not in the directon that is sustainable in the long term and often by default rather than intention. I would argue that county governments and private developers are playing a greater part in influencing the new 'high density' regime producing a never before seen mosaic that is appearing in many forests acrosss the countryside that arent in public hands. This aspect of the current regime needs to be addressed simultaneously.

That brings up the point of whether we can actually create a forest closely resembling what we set out for it to look like.

Although I agree with Dechter's general premise that we are really infants in this life of post-fire exclusion, bottom line for forests that used to burn alot and now dont very often (unless its a big weather driven event that suppression doesnt pick up): we need to get fire back in the system. It's the only way to maintain the forest's existence. However, currently, the structure of many, many forests, not all, is such that it just aint gonna happen (for social maybe more than 'ecological' reasons)unless there is some effort to make the entire ecosytem that includes humans and their built environment more fire resilient prior to burning, lest the fire burn hotter than wanted (wanted not normal nor within the historic range). Caveat: unless burning would accomplish the same goal by itself. Few forests not in wilderness and not inhabited by people are conducive to just burning alone to accomplish that goal. However, speaking of Cali and wilderness, a number of environmental organizations just signed a letter to the regional forester in support of not only prescribed burning in wilderness but perhaps, on a case by case basis, mechanical treatments. The signatories agreed that fire was an important component to maintain ecosystem function and that many of the systems in wilderness are in need of the missing disturbance agent, to the point that we may actually have to activevly manage them to that end.

I think the question of whether fuels reduction/forest health/silvicultural/
restoration/fire ecology/wildlife habitat work should go on in the woods (and tickbrush) should be answered with a resounding heck yes. Let's learn from our experience, it's only taken a little more than a hundred years to get here, I for one am in it for the long haul.

alex dunn | Jul 12, 2005 3:19:16 AM


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