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Fostering curiosity, education and empathy by exploring the controversial and the provocative.

Firestorm: The Wildfire Management Debate

Published July 30, 2018 | Posted in Articles

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
— John Muir

Can wildfires actually be “managed”? And if they can, should they be? What of the health of the forest? When do the needs of the ecosystem outweigh the protection of resources and human comfort? These are the questions fraught with conflict and dissension that addled panelists and audience members alike at the May 23, 2018 Interchange XChange: Can Wildfires be Managed?

As explosive a dialogue as the subject to which it pertains, the question of whether or not to interfere with the natural processes of the forest is not a new one and the problems Montana, California and a host of other states now face is one rooted in history. Following the Great Fire of 1910 – the largest in US history – which burned three million acres in the northwest in less than three days, the fledgling Forest Service initiated a strict policy to control and extinguish every forest fire. Despite raging debates within the profession about the wisdom of the policy, it held sway until well into the 70s, when fire ecology became a field of study and a focus for the range of stakeholders and citizens in the business of managing the nation’s forests.

Now, the aftermath of that policy is rearing its ugly head in mammoth fires, the scope and severity of which are only increasing. This pattern is expected to worsen in Montana with the impact of climate change and related rising high pressures, which can deflect precipitation, as it did in northwestern areas of the state during the 2017 fire season. “We have the tiger by the tail,” remarks veteran smokejumper and firefighting icon Paul Chamberlin. Though the policy to suppress and extinguish has birthed the current conundrum, Chamberlin has resigned himself to the current reality: “If we don’t suppress, they only get bigger.”

So, the issue seems to be one of intelligent stewardship: Can we manage the forest in such a way that the fires, though unavoidable and an arguably necessary part of the forest ecology, are less devastating, both to the forest and surrounding communities? This question, too, is unfortunately not so easily answered. Logger and forester Gary Peck would argue that logging can reduce fire danger by effectively managing the fuel source, while concurrently making money and use of an important and necessary resource: timber. Environmental activist and green party senate candidate Steve Kelly disagrees. “Logging does not mimic nature,” Kelly argues. “Managing vast areas converts them into something else – tree farms – that then must be managed in perpetuity and that costs money, a number nationally approaching the billions.” Dave Atkins, former forester and creator of an online magazine and resource “dedicated to forest journalism for a sustainable future,” advocates a road somewhere in the middle. The policy of putting everything out has destroyed the landscape’s natural mosaic pattern, the organically evolving patchwork of areas that results from natural burn processes, where one swath that may have burned the year prior, for instance, abuts an area of old growth. This mosaic creates naturally burn-free zones that effectively prevent the spread of fires through lack of fuel. “By applying fire science through prescribed burns, harvests, underburning, fuel treatments and active restoration,” Atkins advises, “we can put those mosaics back in there, making the forest more resilient.”

“We’re paying for the sins of our fathers,” agrees Chamberlin, “and we have a long way to go before we understand how to integrate all of these things we’re fighting about.” It is, ultimately, a question of whether the human community ever truly understands the natural world – the intricate homeostasis of the forests, the deserts, the oceans or the polar ice caps – at a level that allows for insight and informed intervention. Locally, our recent environmental history is littered with instances of “fixing” gone awry, from the bison management in Yellowstone failed wolf reintroductions. Whether it’s the “intractable position of humans believing we need to manage nature continuously” as Steve Kelly argues or a necessary product of figuring out “how to live on this blue dot sustainably” as Dave Atkins counters, we are interventionist as a species and perhaps for good reason. The best approach to respecting and protecting the world’s resources – human and non – may be a difficult and contentious one to determine, but our livelihood, and that of the planet, just may depend on it.

Photo: Genna Martin

Posts in This Series

Can Wildfires Be Managed?

Last year, Montana was engulfed by wildfires. Burning 1,103,252 acres that cost the federal government $140 Million dollars to fight. […]

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