The west is burning again – still. The air in most of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and South Dakota tells the tale. For weeks it has been unsafe to go outside. The oppressive, acrid smoke continues to roll as our firefighters struggle to contain the seemingly never-ending onslaught. Budgets and personnel are at capacity, and there seems to be no relief in sight.
To date the U.S. Forest Service has spent 2 billion dollars on fire and we aren’t done yet. Last year’s fire bill to taxpayers was 1.7 billion dollars. Keep in mind we still have 86 fires burning in the West. The current estimate is that wildfires this summer, in a span of just three months, burned eight million acres nationally, six million of that is in the West; and let us not forget the many grassland fires that swept Colorado, Eastern Montana, and the Midwest this spring, leaving a wake of devastation. Our neighbors to the North in British Columbia have battled over 800 wildfires this summer. We and our forests are under siege.
The illustrious media has taken its sweet time responding to these wildfires as has Congress; an ongoing blind-spot. Most of our decision makers seem to have very little consistent interest in the western states, unless they live here. Montana is finally seeing come FEMA funding, but the response time is disgracefully latent. Montana may be the hardest hit state this year. It has been on fire since spring and their fire budget is exhausted.
Make no mistake, the state of our forests is absolutely the result of our collective choices, but it is also the result of factors we cannot always control or predict. We know more – and different – than we did fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago. Science changes, and it changes what we do – as it should.
These wildfires are not the result of: “We were bad and cut down all the trees and now we are paying for it.” Nor is it just the fault of one political party, solely due to the actions of agenda driven groups, all because of climate change, or entirely due to past or current forest practices.
The over simplistic, all-or-nothing type of narrative that seems to be so popular these days is shallow and divisive. It panders to a set of beliefs about forest management that is not only untrue but also misrepresents what we are doing in the woods today. It does not begin to represent the active stewardship which supports a collaborative dialogue, and proactive forest management and treatment protocols. Our best bet going forward requires that we assemble and implement a set of forest policies and practices that put the odds of success in the favor of resilient forests and communities…and that is what we must do now. Move forward.
Our forests are an ever-changing, ever-evolving organic construct. They do not exist in a vacuum or some sort of perpetual, unchanging steady state. The idea that we can turn back to clock to some earlier time in to recreate some intrinsic value we prefer, ignores science and nature. We all have an opinion about what a forest is and what we want from it. To that end, we must decide on a set of desired future conditions that support resilient forests and felt necessities; and then apply the knowledge and practices the many sciences of forestry provide. Always keeping in mind that by leaving our hopes and expectations solely to the vagaries of nature, we will get exactly what nature serves up.
This does not mean we get to do whatever we want, but it does mean we must be realistic and honest about our agendas and expectations and the intrinsic assets we value and expect from our forests. Explore Daniel Botkin’s work on this topic. Botkin is a PhD biologist and Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He invites us to ask ourselves a very important question, “Who (or what) are we managing for?”
At Evergreen, we are very interested in the research of Dr. Paul Hessburg, a landscape ecologist stationed at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Wenatchee, Washington. Read our interview with him on our website. You can also find information on his Megafires presentation – wildfires that exceed 100,000 acres – what is causing them, and what can be done about them. If you are interested in learning more about the science of fire and the state of our forests, consider attending his presentation that runs through October. These Megafires are larger and more destructive than any we have ever witnessed. Hessburg cites old practices of cut and replant as a contributor; but he also points out that this is not the way we currently manage our forests. He also cites the influence of climate change, overcrowded forests, disease and insect infestation, explosive growth in communities that border forests [the “WUI,” or wildland urban interface], previous and current forest practices, and the suppression of “good fire.”
And folks, please stop arguing about the cause of climate change. We have it and we need to adapt. Period.
At Evergreen, we have devoted a whole section of our website to community and forest fire resiliency. It is appropriately named, “Counties on Fire.” We are building a page where counties and grass roots organizations can access resources to advocate for fire resilient forests. If you have materials and resources on fire resiliency for forests and communities, please contact us. We are actively seeking submissions that build a comprehensive resource base.
So, let’s talk about stewardship. Many of you are expressing great concern about the wildfires raging in your region, your forests. A lot of demand for accountability, a great deal of finger pointing, and a slew of treatises on awareness. First let’s be clear, your region – your forest – is one of many on fire. Second, and pardon my candor, but where the hell have you all been?
This crisis has been building for a long time. The wildfires now burning on the urban doorstep have been terrorizing rural westerners for decades. The conversation about our expanding wildfire crisis, preventative measures, the associated risks and costs, is ongoing and the science is available. Those of us in the trenches have been screaming the warning to a fickle and self-absorbed public and Congress – for years. And as bad as this year has been, history and human nature suggest that once these fires are under control most will go back to their daily lives and say, “Whew, glad that’s over.”
By Christmas, the horrors of fire season will be forgotten. While some are ordering lattes and cherry-picking the science of forestry and environmental issues, the real scientists, foresters, conservationists, advocates, researchers, and emergency responders will be preparing and bracing for the next fire season. They will be doing the work for you, the public, once again. Meanwhile, the families of those who sacrificed their lives protecting your home, city, town, watershed – your forests – will have just begun to grieve their losses.
Newsflash: The fire is now in your backyard, and it is far from over. Expect this to become the norm if you are counting on someone else to handle it. More smoke for longer periods of time, more lives lost, more environmental and habitat damage, more recreation and historical sites devastated, more homes and communities destroyed.
We need real, full-time stewardship. We need a public that does more than pay lip service to the declaration “my forest.” A fair-weather friend of the forest is an impediment to solutions; and concern means nothing if one is only temporarily motivated at the point of crisis. We need a public that is willing to become educated on the ground, in the woods. A public that will familiarize itself with science, and is willing to speak up and advocate for resilient forests and communities.
It Is Time to Step Up
Get to know and understand the communities that sit in the line of fire. Do the math. It is time to internalize the enormous consequence of wildfire – well past the flame and smoke. Recovery takes years, decades. The devastation is economic, cultural, and environmental. Spend some time with a collaborative group that supports U.S. Forest Service capacity; get out in the woods with a logger, a forester, a Forest Service employee, a state forester, a conservationist, a tribal member, a biologist, a botanist…anyone who works in your forests. Do it all. Go. Even if you are dead sure you are right about what you think you know, you might learn something. Make sure you really know what you are talking about, because what we say matters, and what we do next will determine what we leave for our children and generations to come.
There is so much to learn about how trees and forests grow, die, use, produce, regulate, change, become resilient. Get curious about the cycle of things. If you think you know everything you need to know about forests, then you are not diligently educating yourself. There is always more to learn and yes, it may challenge what you think you know. It may even require a shift in your comfortable viewpoint. True stewardship requires critical thinking. Jack Ward Thomas, former Chief of the Forest Service used to say, “You better be damn sure about the By-God certainty of what you think you know.” Or as my father the forester used to routinely ask us, “What do you know for sure?”
Those who work in the woods are some of our most dedicated conservationists and stewards. They deserve our respect and thanks. We need them and we need their skill sets. Let’s stop stereotyping the practice of management, the industry and government employees that maintain a natural resource none of us is willing to live without.
Worried about the ozone? The smoke from wildfires is severely compromising our precious protective layer up there in the sky, to say nothing of your lungs. The long-term health issues associated with breathing pollution (smoke from wildfire is pollution) are well known. Who will foot that bill? If you are concerned about the output of factory air emissions, you should be enraged by forest fire pollution.
If you understand the science and value of carbon sequestration and the efficient sustainable use of fuels, these expanding wildfires should be making you very uncomfortable.
Concerned about endangered species? Don’t fool yourself into thinking that wildfires of this magnitude are “good.” Dead is dead. Those who brandish the Endangered Species Act as a litigation tool (using public funds) force a mutually exclusive narrative that is unnecessary. As nature has once again reminded us, righteous indignation comes at a very high price.
Several wildfires are currently burning on lands previously hit by wildfire, and/or where approved forest management plans and salvage work were stalled. Special interest groups who refuse to participate in the collaborative process, impeded progress that could have mitigated fire damage – all in the name of the “greater good,” of course. These last-minute, self-serving acts of serial litigation are divisive and demonstrate no desire to work together. It seems that including the science of climate change in the equation of stewardship escapes puppet environmentalists – as much as it does climate deniers.
As to our firefighters and first responders, it is high time we consider the ethics of sending someone’s loved one to fight wildfires in high-risk unmanaged forests – your forests. We require they lay their lives on the line to contain these infernos and save homes and communities that have not been prepared for fire resiliency. A reevaluation of our priorities is in order.
Considering all this and more, it is difficult to understand why our government has never seen fit to allocate money to a separate fund to fight wildfires. U.S. Forest Service dollars for managing forests are redirected to fight fires as they occur. In a bad fire year management and treatment are halted and might never be reimplemented. Consider what the fire budget must be for this year and how far in the red the U.S. Forest Service will be – your forest will be in forest management and treatment going forward. And what about next year? The year after? The next time you are inclined to throw the U.S. Forest Service under the bus, consider speaking up for them instead. They desperately need our voices.
Educate yourself about your region’s collaboratives. These all-volunteer groups often spend months or years building trust and decision-making capacity to help expand the scope and capacity of the U.S Forest Service’s efforts. Consider becoming part of a collaborative. They need you. They are always seeking new ideas, fresh perspectives, and a diverse constituency. Those who truly care about our forests are tired of fighting with each other. Collaboration helps depolarize the issues and get the work done.
Tribes have been practicing forestry for thousands of years in harmony with the land, not separate from it. We need to be listening to our Native American citizens. Our videos on Anchor Forestry compile the voices of our First Nations. There is a lot to learn from a culture that does not separate humans from nature.
Educate yourself on the comparisons between fire behavior and containment in a managed forest vs. an unmanaged forest. To focus solely on the cause of the Eagle Creek wildfire – or any fire – is shortsighted. Science tells us if it hadn’t been human initiated, it would have been lightning, a comet, a spark from the train tracks, etc. It is not just if (or more likely when) it burns, but how it burns. Our public lands are compromised and at risk.
Paul Hessburg asks, “How do you want your smoke?” My father always asked, as we at Evergreen do now, “What do you want from your forest?” We are the stewards of our public lands and we have a responsibility to look at the entire picture; the science, the facts, the patterns, and the needs. It is time for proactive, consistent stewardship driven by an educated public; focused on the management and care of our lands. Resilient forests and communities are possible, but the time is now – and every day – not just when we are breathing the smoke and feeling the heat.