A Moral Responsibility to Tell the Truth
Jim Petersen talks with Lynn Bennett about the difference between fire resistance and resiliency, and the truth about Wildfires in the West's national forests.
9 MINUTE READ
The citizens of our country - those who own our federal forests - paid my salary for 38 years. I feel a moral responsibility to tell them the truth about what today’s wildfires are doing in the West’s national forests, especially the Salmon-Challis, where I completed my Forest Service career.
Lynn Bennett, U.S. Forest Service, retired, Salmon, Idaho
Barry Wynsma, a retired Forest Service friend from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, introduced me to Lynn Bennett in an email note that included a video featuring 38 years of wisdom that is still swirling around inside Lynn’s head. We subsequently spent more than two hours on the phone talking about the Forest Service thrall with managed fire.
“It’s insane,” he told me. “The current supervisor on the Salmon-Challis is very proud of the fact that he’s closed more than 65 miles of road in a drainage that has very high wildfire risk due to high ignition probability and dense fuels. Also he has likely closed more than 100 miles in other projects and additional roads under the guise of wildfire suppression restoration.
“In the last 10 years, the Forest has built less than one mile of new permanent roads for fuels and timber management,” Bennett continued. “The Supervisor believes that wildfire is the only way to “restore” this forest. Our fires are now burning so hot and fast that they’re jumping through tree canopies. Extreme fire behavior is common during high fire danger periods.
“He’s confused or is confusing the difference between fire resistance and resiliency. Most of the Salmon-Challis historical forest structure was not fire resilient. They were fire resistant. The difference is huge.”
Talking to Lynn Bennett is like drinking from a fully charged fire hose. You jump in with questions when he takes a breath.
“So what is the difference?” I quickly ask believing an easy answer will follow but it doesn’t. Bennett’s circuitous answer takes an hour and encompasses his entire 38-year career - a career that included duty stations in Wyoming and Oregon with the Bureau of Land Management, the Sandpoint Ranger District on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, the Helena National Forest in western Montana and the Salmon-Challis National Forest in central Idaho.
Bennett’s bigtime introduction to wildfire came on the Canyon Creek Fire, a 240,600-acre conflagration that competed for national headlines with the 1988 Yellowstone Fire, a $12 million colossus that burned about 800,000 acres inside Yellowstone National Park.
Canyon Creek was started by lightning inside the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness. It straddles the Continental Divide adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Currently, the Lolo National Forest is responsible for 76,000 acres and the Helena-Lewis and Clark manages the other 184,000 acres. But in 1988, the Helena and Lewis-Clark were separate forests.
Because Canyon Creek started in the Scapegoat Wilderness, the fire was given “prescription status,” meaning the fire would be allowed to play its natural forest ecosystem role. The quickly prepared impact analysis estimated the fire would burn somewhere between 600 and 30,000 acres.
The estimate was off by a factor of eight on the high end. Strong winds turned what looked like a ho-hum blaze into a fire storm on September 6 and 7. It grew from 60,000 to 220,000 acres in one day.
Somewhere in my videos is one shot by a Butte cinematographer who interviewed several ranchers after the smoke cleared. One broke into tears describing the 50-some cattle he lost, some burned beyond recognition.
“In today’s vernacular, the prescription status designation given to Canyon Creek would be called a managed fire,” Bennett said. “Fire crews would attempt to herd it across a large landscape for alleged ecological benefit.”
“But in 1988, I didn’t understand what was happening or why and I wouldn’t until I was exposed to the thinking of some very smart people who’ve spent their entire careers studying wildfires: Steve Arno, Wendell Hann, Joe Stringer, Leon Neuenschwander and Penny Morgan.”
Now I knew why Lynn had forewarned me that he was “a talker.” There was a story coming headed my direction.
“No problem,” I wrote in reply to his email warning. “I’m a talker too. Most of what I know about wildfire and prescribed burning I learned from Steve Arno, but I knew Leon well and I interviewed Penny a few years ago.”
When I interviewed Penny Morgan [she is a PhD fire ecologist at the University of Idaho] I devilishly accused her of being an arsonist. She laughed graciously and admitted she thinks fire needs to play a larger role in fire adapted forests. So do I, but my tolerance level is undoubtedly much lower than hers. When Bennett and I talked by phone last week, I asked him if his five wildfire tutors could be strung together in a logical sequence.
“They can,” he replied. “Shortly after my 1990 transfer from the Helena to the old Salmon National Forest I was named Interdisciplinary Team Leader for separate Environmental Impact Statements proposing timber sales in designated Roadless Areas in the Forest.
Region 4 and our Forest Supervisor arranged for me to have direct access to Joe Stringer, a lawyer in the Region 4 Office of General Counsel. Joe wanted us to be successful so he told me that I needed to learn everything I could about landscape ecology because the project would be a big appeal and litigation target.”
Stringer’s suggestion led Bennett to Steve Arno’s doorstep at the Forest Service’s Fire Science Lab in Missoula, Montana.
“They were very helpful and encouraging,” Bennett recalled. “Especially as it concerned the fire ecology of the Salmon. “Fire is our major disturbance regime, much more so than it was on the Idaho Panhandle, which get more moisture that we get here.”
After his duties as ID Team Leader and not long after Bennett was named Fire Ecologist for the Salmon-Challis, Wendell Hann and Bennett became office mates. Hann, who had been transferred, worked remotely from the Forest Service’s Washington Office, turned out to be a walking encyclopedia where ecosystems and fire behavior were concerned.
“Wendell had earned his PhD under the tutelage of Penny Morgan at the University of Idaho, so that’s how I got acquainted with their research. Penny had also completed a fire history study of the Salmon, so I was traveling with people who really knew what they were doing.”
He was indeed, but the two Roadless Area projects assigned to Bennett never went forward. Both were approved by Region 4 and both survived NEPA appeal challenges but his Forest Supervisor shelved the projects without explanation.
“Five years of work and a ton of taxpayer dollars, but I learned a lot,” Bennett said. “The episode became part of the reason I feel a moral responsibility to tell people the truth about what wildfires are doing in western national forests.”
“So what’s the truth?” I asked Bennett during the second hour of our phone call.
“You heard me say earlier that these managed fires are insane,” he replied. “It’s too easy for them to escape. Entire towns have been wiped out in California.”
Bennett was right. Two years ago I interviewed a fire ecologist and former wildland firefighter who was actively looking for locations where big box fires could be intentionally set - safely - for ecosystem benefit. He hadn’t found any. Towns were in harm’s way, municipal watersheds were too close, or designated critical fish and wildlife habitat would be threatened.
“You also heard me say that many in the Forest Service today don’t understand the difference between ecological resilience and fire resistance,” Bennett added.
“Yes,” I said. “You were going to explain the difference but then we got involved in your career track. So, what’s the difference?”
“Historically, the majority of the forests on the Salmon-Challis National Forest were fire resistant, not fire resilient,” Bennett explained. “Resistance plays a role in resilience, so it’s easy to confuse the two concepts. Katherine Strickler, a research ecologist and science communicator at Washington State University explained the difference in an essay I have. I’ll email her paper to you.”
While we were still on the phone, his email came in and I started reading it while we were still talking. “Resistance,” Strickler wrote, “is the ability of an ecosystem to persist or withstand disturbance and resilience is the system’s ability to recover once the disturbance ends.”
I then read the sentence back to Bennett and said, “Are you telling me that you have reached a tipping point on the Salmon-Challis beyond which resilience and recovery are compromised by the frequency and severity of your wildfires?”
“That’s correct,” Bennett said. “Even our thick-barked ponderosa pines, which are very old, are being wiped out by wildfires that burn through their canopies. These are trees that can easily withstand the heat of less intense and more frequent surface fires that burned here for thousands of years.”
“Seedlings don’t stand a chance even if the following fires are only grass fires,” he continued. “Ponderosa and Douglas-fir need to be six to eight inches in diameter at their base to withstand heat damage from even cool grass fires.
“Cheatgrass and knapweed are invading burnt areas,” he explains. “These are invasive species the Forest Service hopes to eradicate. We are witnessing true deforestation in our dry, hot forest ecosystems. I have no idea what comes next, but it won’t be the forests people living here want to perpetuate.
Bennett fears that resistance and resilience have been lost to wildfires that should have been more aggressively attacked in the early going, especially where unnaturally heavy fuels were involved.
“We are fast moving past the point of no return,” he said. “People living around here need to insist that the Forest Service abandon managed fire and the big box burnouts in favor of initial attack full suppression on wildfire or, better yet, safe and sane thinning and prescribed fire.”
For the Salmon, and likely many other forests, Bennett thinks that permanent road access would facilitate effective forest thinning and reduce unnatural fuels - and that keeping roads open and well maintained would also give fire fighters safer and quicker access to and egress from wildfires.
We have preached the same message on Evergreen pages for 30 years with little success because the Forest Service abandoned science-based forestry - including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire - after the government added the spotted owl to its threatened species list in 1990.
Bennett readily agreed. “It’s rare for Salmon-Challis to use mechanical thinning and prescribed fire in combination but they did on the Hughes Creek Project and they were successful in restoring dry conifer forest health and creating fuel breaks that are capable of stopping a high intensity crown fire. Why not do more of it?”
“Good question,” I replied. “Especially given the fact that the Forest Service has become increasingly cautious about committing firefighters in areas it considers too dangerous - like the steep country you have on much of the Salmon-Challis.”
“All the more reason to get on the fire as early as possible,” Bennett says. “Before it becomes so large and dangerous that you have no choice but to leave it to burn itself out. That’s the biggest lesson I learned on the Canyon Creek Fire in Montana. It’s a lesson that is repeating itself with increasing frequency all over the West.”
“So what’s left to discuss,” I ask the fully charged fire hose.
“The Salmon-Challis forest’s wilderness “let burn” and “manage fires for resource benefit” policies have burned about 40% of the Forest since 2000,” Bennett says following his first pause in our conversation. “Compare this to the precise and documented benefits of active forest management, which includes logging, thinning, and road building.
“The adverse effects of these fires include mass wasting, water supply destruction, loss of wildlife and fisheries habitat, forest conversion to shrub and weeds, loss of forest infrastructure including bridges, trails, fences and private property assets, and increased risk to human safety.
“Maybe it’s time to return to full suppression and increase the pace and scale of active forest management,” he continues. “The Forest Service’s experiment with managed fire has failed miserably wherever it’s been tried. Mixed conifer, dry site ecosystems are being destroyed, not restored.
“The inconvenient truth is that traditional silviculture practices yield precise beneficial outcomes and can be designed to prevent adverse resource impacts. In contrast, the herding fire approach has had unpredictable and often devastating landscape scale on forests and communities.”
“Is that it,” I ask.
“That’s it,” Bennett says.
You can read Katherine Strickler’s essay, Ecological Resilience and Resistance here.
You can watch the Cramer Fire Case Study video on YouTube. It begins with a sobering interview with Lynn Bennett.