We Best Check Our Guns and Knives At The Door

This is an article that Jim Petersen recently wrote for RANGE Magazine

Jim Petersen -
8 MINUTE READ
We Best Check Our Guns and Knives At The Door

Every major conservation group in our country – including the venerable Nature Conservancy - has endorsed the urgent need for the federal government to launch a large-scale, long-term thinning and prescribed fire program in the west’s national forests.

It’s a sunny late August morning here in the pastoral countryside about 15 miles northeast of Sedro Woolley, Washington. Save for the four feet of rain that fall here annually, this would be a great place to live. But here in the Land of Eternal Wet Feet, about an hour south of the Canadian border, it rains every 2 to 3 days. Too much for us.

Low elevation soil west of the Washington Cascades is deep, rich and very moist – spongy under foot in heavily shaded areas. Small wonder that ramrod straight Douglas-fir often grows five to six feet a year in western Washington – or that privately-owned forestlands here have been harvested three and four times since Frederick Weyerhaeuser and his partners bought 900,000 acres of virgin timber from railroad magnate, James J. Hill, in 1900 for $5.4 million. This is the timber industry’s Mecca.

We left home on Wednesday, drove as far as Cle Elum, Washington, overnighted in a beautiful RV park on the Yakima River, then drove the rest of the way here on Thursday. The traffic on Interstate 90 and 5 was atrocious – stop and go, bumper to bumper, 140 miles in five hours. We could have driven the 307 miles from our home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Whitehall, Montana – east of the Continental Divide – in about the same time.

But we are here, and the sun is out and the well-managed Douglas-fir, alder and western red cedar forests that dominate Skagit Valley lowlands are sequestering enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, converting it to wood and releasing copious amounts of oxygen into clear blue skies.

Julia’s sister, Angie, and her husband, Nate, welcomed us with open arms. Their sons, Lincoln, 5, and Teddy, 2, are hundred-mile-an-hour joys. They are named for their grandfather’s favorite presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

We are here for some much-needed rest and website training. Nate is a big-time web designer. He recently rebuilt our site and will be adding some whistles and bells this week that will allow us to fetch and display forestry and wildfire data in dazzling ways I barely understand. Computers and the Internet were in their infancy when I started Evergreen Magazine 36 years ago. I still don’t understand how it all works, but Julia does, so we’re golden.

I am blessed to be part of this loving family, though Iconfess that the still unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan, the Delta variant and the wildfire pandemic that grips the western United States have nearly undone me in this week. Are we still united? Some days I wonder.

In my nearly 78 years I’ve never seen so much social and political turmoil. Where and how to unravel this national calamity? With some rest, I hope to refocus my energy on the environmental and economic contributions forestry has made to our nation’s progress and promise. The technological marvel that shelters us today began in sawpits in Virginia’s Jamestown Settlement in 1607.

It has been my great privilege to develop lasting friendships with a handful of the last century’s icons in forestry and lumber manufacturing. I communicate regularly with those that are still living and I enjoy calling up memories of those who have gone on in hopes of finding some nugget of truth that I missed while they were still living. I have catalogued some of what I’ve learned in a series of website essays that trace our society’s “Felt Necessities.” These are the disruptive social, political and technological forces that have shaped and reshaped forestry, conservation and wood processing through time.

Of late, I have been doing a lot of thinking about Randy Moore, the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. I have never met him but one of my closest friends holds him in high professional and personal regard. I hope to have interviewed him by the time this edition of RANGE reaches you.

Moore is the 20th Forest Service Chief since the agency’s founding in 1905. I have known the last seven chiefs, none better than Jack Ward Thomas. Jack and I were friends for many years. We argued at times, but our friendship held because we had great respect for one another. In his final years, the kitchen at his home in Corvallis, Montana because the center of the universe for many wildlife and forestry students from the UM in Missoula.

Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, nominated Mr. Moore in June, on the leading edge of what has been one of the worst wildfire seasons in a century. He had been Regional Forester in the Pacific Southwest Region since 2007 and, before that, Regional Forester in the Eastern Region for five years. His career spans 40 years, so he checks most of the professional boxes necessary to lead the agency.

I italicize the word “lead” for several reasons, not least the fact that the Forest Service desperately needs someone at the helm who is capable of quickly reestablishing chain-of-command control of an agency that is out of control and out of time.

Internally, a great divide separates what was once the largest and most respected forest management agency in the world from what is now the largest fire department on earth. Externally, another chasm separates those who believe our national forests should be managed from those who believe nature should do the managing. There are nuanced subsets within these divides that can help or hurt Chief Moore. His success hinges on his early mastery of a regulatory maze that has confounded too many Forest Service chiefs.  

Execution – the day-to-day implementation of environmental regulations – is key. This may sound simple, but it isn’t. Politicians, lobbyists and lawyers will flyspeck his every word, then misrepresent him in every public forum in the country. They are entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their own sets of facts.

In my opinion, the most important fact is that more than half of the nation’s 193-million-acre federal forest estate is dying and burning in killing wildfires unlike any we’ve seen in more than a century. You can blame this on “greedy” lumbermen and loggers, climate change, excluding wildfire from forests, or whatever suits your fancy. None of it matters now.

The best evidence we have that minimizing forestry’s role in national forests was a bad idea is what has happened in the West over the last 30 years – these being the years in which managing tree growth was minimized in favor of allowing wildfire to play a more natural role in forest ecosystems.

The results of this colossal forest policy failure are on parade in our 24/7 satellite news cycle. Real time images of communities burning to the ground, forests turned to ash and ruin, thick carcinogenic smoke obliterating the skies above the West’s largest urban centers – a political no-no - and wildfires that take months to corral. How much more proof do we need that leaving forests to “nature” isn’t a good idea?

Tempting the fates, the Forest Service has toyed with what it calls “managed fire.” Basically, attempting to herd big wildfires across large areas filled with diseased and dying trees – the goal being to use fire to reduce the risk of even larger subsequent fires. But such purposeful burns constitute major federal actions requiring years of environmental analysis per the National Environmental Policy Act.

Allowing wildfire to play its more natural role might have worked 30 or 40 years ago – before western national forests grew so dense that they began to die – but it’s too damned dangerous today and, again, nothing in NEPA gives fire bosses permission to purposefully allow big wildfires to run.

Chief Moore’s baptism under fire has been very real. Now for the hard part: mapping a solid strategy for stuffing the Bad Wildfire Genie back in her bottle. It won’t be easy, but it is doable. Rapid initial aerial and ground attack is key, but he already knows this. My reminder isn’t necessary. Time tested and well documented thinning and prescribed fire are his safest and most effective tools for reducing the wildfire risk, but he knows this too.

What he will need is lots of public support. Serial litigators will force him to defend his congressionally blessed forest restoration plans in court, but I know he’s getting expert advice from professionals who know how to successfully navigate the layers-deep regulatory maze.

Chief Moore is also getting lots of unsolicited advice from Forest Service retirees who have watched their legacies go up in flames. These men – and they are mainly men – devoted their working lives to caring for the public’s forests. They battled wildfires, planted trees, conducted research, managed watersheds and wildlife, built roads and campgrounds and planned and supervised timber sales.

At its zenith, the now long-gone federal timber sale program accounted for about 16 percent of the nation’s annual timber consumption. The Forest Service hired thousands of World War II veterans. Thousands more went to work in sawmills and on logging crews, but the largest positive economic impacts were centered in the West ‘s homebuilding industry in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The esprit de corps that I see and admire in Forest Service retirees – many of them now in their 80s and 90s - was learned from drill sergeants. The 10 Standing Orders for Firefighters are patterned after the Marine’s 10 Standing Orders, and were written by the late Bud Moore, who headed the Forest Service’s fire and aviation program in the 1970s. Bud fought his way through the South Pacific in World War II. We became friends after he retired and built his home near Seeley Lake, Montana.

Bud wore many hats during his 30-plus Forest Service years. Most notably, he pioneered the concept of ecosystem management. So, yes, he saw a role for wildfire – especially in designated Wilderness areas. But he never would have condoned what is happening today. I know this because I spent hours at his kitchen table. “No,” he told me again and again, “There is no ‘let burn’ policy in the Forest Service.”

Is there such a policy now? It depends on who you ask. Many retirees insist the agency is whistling past a flaming graveyard. Randy Moore – no relation to my friend Bud – knows this too.

Turning the Forest Service away from its perceived fascination with wildfire and rebuilding its heritage as the world’s finest forestry organization will take years. Many see this as a no-holds-barred fight to the finish with constitutional flourishes and quotes from Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I don’t – and I’ll stack my grassroots hellraising skills up against anyone living or dead. Blessedly, those days are gone from my life. We spent too much time and money talking to ourselves and not nearly enough time or money conversing with our urban neighbors.

Every major conservation group in our country – including the venerable Nature Conservancy - has endorsed the urgent need for the federal government to launch a large-scale, long-term thinning and prescribed fire program in the west’s national forests. Congress knows this. Randy Moore knows it. Everyone who understands the power of forestry in the American experience also knows it.

We preach this truth daily on Evergreen web pages – and have for years.

Paraphrasing my friend Thomas, this is no time to be walking around the battlefield bayoneting the wounded, so we best check our guns and knives and the door. We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.