Tom Power - September 24, 2012
Back to the Seasonal Political Blame-Game over Wildfires
Back to the Seasonal Political Blame-Game over Wildfires
The month-long pall of wood smoke filling Western Montana’s mountain valleys has led to increasing annoyance and frustration. Stinging eyes, runny noses, hacking coughs, and cabin-fever from being cooped up inside during what should be one of our premier outdoor seasons has taken its toll on all of us.
Some, however, see that frustration as fertile political ground. Politicians and ideologues have to make political hay whenever the opportunity presents itself. And a bad wildfire season is too good a political opportunity for some to pass up.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an op-ed piece by a conservative Bozeman writer lambasting environmentalists for blocking efforts by federal forest planners to thin the trees. By preventing the removal of fuels from our public forests, he asserted, environmentalists have caused “catastrophic wildfires.” Others have focused, instead, on the decline in commercial timber harvest on public lands, asserting that the failure to log our public forests causes the build of fuels that then feed wildfires. At least these logging advocates make clear what they are after and do not hide behind labels such as “thinning” or “hazardous fuel reduction.”
Of course almost no one is opposed to reducing flammable vegetation in the immediate vicinity of people’s homes and around our cities and towns. In fact, there has been a somewhat successful public education campaign to get private homeowners and land-use planners to do exactly that. Where things have gotten controversial is when “thinning” has been proposed dozens of miles from human habitation, deep in the wild backcountry.
Such backcountry forest thinning is controversial for several reasons. First, it is not clear that it works. In the right weather conditions, hot, dry, and windy, wildfires can roar through thinned areas and logged areas faster and with greater intensity than they do through un-managed natural forests. Second, roading and logging, even when it is called “thinning,” causes environmental damage in the form of water pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat. Third, it is way too expensive. We cannot afford to carry out forest thinning across the entire forested landscape, and we never will. It is a lose-lose-lose proposition that converts valuable and scarce public resources into pure economic waste.
We have had natural experiments that should have helped us understand this. For instance, back in 1987, near the beginning of the contemporary fire regime in the western United States, a chunk of southwestern Oregon’s National Forests burned. Part of that burned area was salvage-logged and new trees were planted. That same area was part of the larger Biscuit Fire 15 years later. That gave forest scientists a chance to study the impact of the active management of this forested landscape on its future flammability. What the scientists found was that the areas that had burned severely in 1987 tended to re-burn at high severity in 2002 while areas unaffected by the initial fire tended to burn at the lowest severities in the 2002 fire. The loss of fuel due to the previous fire did not stop the area from re-burning. In addition, the area that had been salvage-logged and replanted burned more severely than areas that had not been logged or replanted and had been left unmanaged. In fact the unmanaged forests, those not thinned, logged, or replanted, burned with the lowest severity. So much for the “need” for fuel reduction in natural forests.
There is no mystery about why our forests are burning and our valleys are full of smoke right now. In the Bitterroot and Missoula Valleys, we are closing in on the record for the longest period of time the region has ever gone without measurable rain. Instead of the “August singularity” in the second half of the month of heavy rain and cooler temperatures that typically has announced the end of summer and the beginning of fall, we have had day after day of sunshine. Most of those days would have been at above average temperatures if it were not for the valley inversions that have trapped the smoke and blocked the sunlight.
Although logging advocates point to the decline in timber harvest on public lands beginning in the late 1980s as ushering in two decades of large scale and intense wild fires, it is the weather that has ushered in those fires. Compared to the cool and damp 1970s, our wildfire burn season is now two and a half months longer. Across the West, the first wildfires of the year are starting earlier and, as this year, the last fires of the year start later and keep burning on into the fall. Our typical fire year is now 75 days longer than it was in the 1970s. Spring temperatures are higher and our mountain snowpack melts sooner, allowing the forests to dry out more quickly. Higher summer temperatures then help keep those forests in drought condition. That is the source of the increased flammability of our forests that gives wildfires a big head start and a much longer time to burn.
Long, hot, and dry springs, summers, and autumns, will mean more fires, larger fires, and more intense fires. There is no avoiding that. The only question is how we will respond to this new challenge. Will we look to the past and resurrect the fantasy of the discredited “multiple use clear-cut” where logging, under one name or another, is again presented as the only way to safely relate to natural forests, or will we look at what works and what is cost effective and get on with learning how to live safely within the spectacular natural beauty of our home here in Montana?