30 Aug 2008, 8:07pm
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Friendly Fire

Stephen J. Pyne. 2007. Friendly Fire.

Full Text [here]

Stephen J. Pyne, World’s Foremost Authority on fire and one this country’s finest writers on any subject, has done it again.

His recent essay Friendly Fire is a compelling review of the Warm WFU (Wildland Fire Use fire) and it’s effect on forests. For the entire essay download from Steve Pyne’s Commentaries site [here] (click on  Friendly Fire [pdf] - Wally Covington and the 2006 Warm fire).

For background on the Warm Whoofoo see [here].

Selected excerpts from Friendly Fire by Stephen J. Pyne:

“If I were the Prince of Darkness, I could not have devised a better way to destroy the Kaibab Plateau.”

Wally Covington, professor, restoration ecologist, and a man who has been around burned woods all of his career, walked through the still-raw scar of a fire that had wiped out nine nesting reserves for the northern goshawk, shut down the only roads to the plateau, including one to Grand Canyon’s North Rim, threatened a substantial chunk of the remaining habitat of the flammulated owl and endemic Kaibab squirrel, may cause a quarter of the old-growth ponderosa pine to die, promoted gully-washing erosion, and rang up suppression costs of $7 million.

To help pay those bills the Forest Service initially proposed to salvage log some 17,000 acres of the burn, which has sparked promises of monkey-wrenching by local environmental activists. When trotted out before cameras after the blowup, the district Fire Staff Officer declared that if he knew then what he knew now, he would have made exactly the same decisions. Fire belonged on the land. This was an inevitable fire, a necessary fire, a good fire.

Wally Covington thought it testified to ideology gone mad, and had the temerity to say so and the clout to be heard.

I was there because I wanted to come home. Forty years before, in June, 1967, I had begun my own career in fire on the North Rim. Only five years previously had the opening salvo in fire’s great cultural revolution sounded. By my second summer the National Park Service had rewritten its policy to encourage more fire on its lands. I wanted to see what that revolution had wrought. …

William Wallace Covington, Regents professor at Northern Arizona University and Director of the Ecological Restoration Institute, was a child of the Sixties. Born in 1947, the middle of three sons, he was raised in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. His father, a jack-of-all-trades from prizefighter to radio announcer to barnstorming pilot, was above all an ardent woodsman, a one-time forester, who got himself and his sons where they could camp, hunt, and fish as often as possible. …

By the mid-1970s that was the collective wisdom of the day: fire had to reenter the landscape. The tricky issue was how. The National Park Service formally revised its policies in 1968. The Forest Service stepped through a sequence of half measures, allowing some wilderness fires in 1972, publicly converting in 1974 to the doctrine that fire management had to serve land management, and adopting a formal policy of fire by prescription in 1978. But ideas were easy. Implementation was tough, as both agencies struggled to make philosophy practical. The American public became rudely aware of what was happening when Yellowstone burned through the summer of 1988. Apologists cleverly framed the ensuing outcry by debating whether fire belonged in Yellowstone; that was easy, of course it did. What they avoided was the gist of the operational issue, how and at what cost and under what social compact should fire belong? Even as the NPS burned up $130-300 million (no one knows exactly how much) while failing to control the fires, the Park Service and its apologists managed to skip over the point where the philosophical rubber hit the road of real-world ecology. The agency was, it claimed, only doing what came naturally.

It was exactly this issue that the fire community has never resolved within itself. The revolution, like a bar magnet, had two poles that held the fractious particles within a common force field. The poles were bicoastal. One resided in Florida, focused on the Tall Timbers Research Station and the charismatic Ed Komarek; a sense of fire as used on private land, fire as historical and cultural, fire as a means to promote biotic assets, whether longleaf pine, bobwhite quail, or open-woods cattle. The other pole centered on the national parks of the Sierra Nevada, with its intellectual anchor in the University of California–Berkeley and its focus on public lands, and for its prophets such wildlife and rangeland professors as Starker Leopold and Harold Biswell. The Florida faction wanted fire in the hands of people; the California cohort, as far as possible, left to nature. Behind the wilderness model was the expectation that, while prescribed fire might be necessary as an expedient, the agencies would ultimately surrender their colonial oversight to the indigenous processes of nature. Prescribed fire was an expedient, to be succeeded by natural fire as possible. …

Unfortunately, putting fire back has proved more daunting than taking it out. Shortly after arriving in Flagstaff, Wally was working with Forest Service researchers keen to reinstate fire. They believed that reintroducing fire would be enough to clean out the clotted understory that choked the land like woody plaque. Plots were laid out, burned, and assessed. But everyone knew the results could only be good. After a few years, however, the field trials showed outcomes that were the exactly opposite of what had been predicted: loosed fires had killed few of the young trees without burning them up, while slow-cooking fires had girdled the bases of the old-growth ponderosa – the fabled yellow pine – two-thirds of which died over the next ten years. This was not what agencies wanted to hear. The Forest Service had just completed its painful conversion away from fire’s suppression to a doctrine of fire by prescription. Wally’s agency cooperators demanded he surrender his data on old-growth tree mortality since his work was under contract and hence the property of the Forest Service. The results, while obvious to anyone who visited the sites, were not published until 25 years later.

The solution was to establish his own program, which he did in 1978. In 1992 he laid out what became known as the “Pearson plots” on never-logged lands in the Fort Valley Experimental Forest outside Flagstaff (Gus Pearson was the first director of the forest). These would create a standard, a natural referent, a desideratum that Wally derived from his reading of Leopold. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, from an old Flagstaff family, became interested and had the Bureau of Land Management make available some land at Mount Trumbull in the Arizona Strip country on which to establish some field trials. (It probably helped that the site was so remote that it might be considered the Area 51 of fire research.) The next year Wally received a big NSF grant to create his baseline.

Detailed research into the history of the site showed that the current forest bore little relation to its presettlement predecessor. That forest had resembled a savanna with small groves of yellow pine dappling glades of grasses and forbs and washed by frequent fires across the surface. An onslaught of sheep stopped those flames in their tracks. Overgrazing ended fires, which found nothing to burn; this allowed reseeding to inedible woods, which grew in stunted thickets, starving everything on the site and encouraging the occasional ferocious fires that could wipe out even the canopy of ponderosas. A pavement of pine needles buried the site’s biodiversity.

Outside the Pearson plots, where logging had felled old-growth ponderosa, the forest structure had further degenerated. The landscape was deeply ill, and without aggressive treatment, it would die. It would shrivel during prolonged droughts, become sick with beetles and mistletoe, and ultimately burn up in an escalating fever of windy holocausts.

Wally concluded that fire alone could not reverse this decline, for fire could only act on what existed: messed-up woods were likely only to encourage messed-up fires. Rather, the solution was to first restore the structure of the old forest by thinning out all the intrusive conifers and then applying fire. Function would follow form, and preliminary experiments seemed to bear out his belief. At this point “restoration” acquired a historical dimension to Wally, for it was the forest as it existed before the shattering blows of settlement that seemed to furnish a reasonable target for restored health. Cutting the small stuff and getting surface fires back on the land would spare the old-growth yellow pine from extinction. While he shared with environmentalists a passion for Aldo Leopold, Wally read the Leopold of the land ethic and the Leopold who healed a Wisconsin farm deeply scarred by settlement, not the Leopold as prophet of the wild. Out of this experience evolved what became known as the “Flagstaff model.”

As the plots matured, drought brought a wave of wildfires to the region, scouring out large swathes of ponderosa forest that had occasionally torched but not known sustained crown fires. One after another, like sections of a giant faultline rupturing in quirky sequence, patches of ponderosa forest around Flagstaff erupted under conditions quite different from their evolutionary heritage, powered by drought and the explosive mantle of young conifers that had grown up like an immense shag rug under the old-growth canopy. To Wally the scene demanded quick and massive remedial action. A century of abuse had left the forest too enfeebled and vulnerable to recover from the kind of trauma such fires inflicted.

In 1994 Wally wrote a seminal paper on his conclusions to date. That summer off-the-charts wildfires shocked the national fire Establishment, sparking a new common federal fire policy and alarming thoughtful observers about what the future might bring. Secretary Babbitt enlisted Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain to provide political leverage. Meanwhile, the Mount Trumbull experiments scaled up the Pearson plots to something approaching operational acreage. In 1997 Wally’s efforts acquired a surer institutional identity with the creation of the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU, a congressional set-aside through the Forest Service. The Flagstaff model began to get national attention.

Which meant it also attracted national critics. Fire’s great cultural revolution had been a bubble in a larger pot aboil with enthusiasms, a kind of environmental Great Awakening, which for many became a kind of secular religion. It had its magical icons, among them reintroducing the wolf and dismantling Glen Canyon dam; but perhaps nothing commanded more practical symbolism than to stop logging on the public lands. Particularly with the use of the Endangered Species Act, that was slowly happening. Now in the name of fire protection, ostensibly to spare old-growth ponderosa from incineration, Wally Covington, a retread forester, was proposing to bring a species of woods-product industry back on the land. Critics suspected that the Flagstaff model was not about reintroducing fire but reinstating chain saws. When the Flagstaff model was cited in the National Fire Plan authorized in 2000 and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, Wally’s program became visible, powerful, and suspect. During the Southwest’s record 2002 fire season a color photo of treated Flagstaff forest appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

The polarizing of American politics meant compromise would not be easy. What Wally saw as science-based preventive medicine, others saw as forester-inspired quackery. What hard-core wilderness proponents saw as deference to nature’s way, Wally saw as surrogate religious sentiments - ecology as theology. Had he known what was to follow he might have traded his father’s Leopold for his mother’s Methodism, and cited Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, “For our God is a consuming fire.” …

A WFU fire was a burn that “advanced agency objectives.” In principle it seemed too good to be true. It promised to be cheaper, safer, and more ecologically wholesome. As with prescribed fire, it required preapproved plans and had rules, and as with suppression, a WFU required ready crews in reserve. But as long as the fire stayed within the domain allotted for it, it was doing nature’s work. It returned fire’s agency to nature. And not least, it absolved institutions of liability. They did not start the fire, nature did. Nature made the decisions, nature determined what would incinerate and what would survive. No one could be sued. …

A rogue WFU was regrettable, but did not alter the fundamentals. The failure lay in execution, not conception. Besides, in any conflict there will always be victims of friendly fire.

To some this might look like the ideological equivalent of money-laundering. But to many, raw with impatience over decades of dawdling with fire’s reintroduction and alarmed as fire consumed more and more agency budgets, an expanded program of WFUs seemed a slick solution. It could get the burn out the way the old logging-driven Forest Service had sought to get the cut out. This was where the smart money went, literally. The agency could not pay for the fire program it had, much less the one it wanted. But an audit of large fire suppression costs led OMB to conclude that, with WFUs, the agency was “taking meaningful steps to address its management deficiencies,” which is to say, working to get the amount of area burned up and the costs of fires down. …

Wally Covington first visited the Kaibab in 1975, and like so many others, found himself enchanted. Here was a place that might be spared the worst of the coming conflagrations; the Kaibab would be the apex of a management triangle that stretched from Flagstaff to Mount Trumbull. For 50 years only one large fire had blasted over the plateau, the Saddle Mountain Burn of 1960, which had begun in the park before ripping across the boundary. Since then there had been 300 acres burned in a wildfire on Powell Plateau, and two 1,000+ acre burns on the North Kaibab National Forest. While the absence of fire was of course the problem, big fires had not already gutted the woods. In 1997 Wally and his colleagues at NAU commenced studies with Grand Canyon National Park to reconstruct fire history, similar to what he had done at the Pearson plots. Those data would provide a baselevel to determine what preventative treatments might be needed. There matters stalled.

Part of the problem was that Wally had, in the eyes of critics, overreached himself. Convinced by the merits of the Mount Trumbull trials, he campaigned to extend those techniques into legally gazetted wilderness nearby. That caused pushback. Wilderness should be left to the wild. Besides, intensive treatment was expensive; ultimately it could only work if some market existed for the debris; small wood lumber, biomass energy, pulp, something. That looked even more like a wood-product industry in camouflage.

By now, too, the park had decided on other means. Flush with money lavished on the National Park Service in the aftermath of Yellowstone’s summer of fire, Grand Canyon finally got serious about a fire program, adopted a new fire plan in 1992, and began aggressively putting fire back into the land. Prescribed burns and WFUs began to blanket the woods. One fire, Bridger-Knoll, left for observation, bolted free and burned into the national forest and across some 50,000 acres. A prescribed burn (the ominously named Outlet fire) went feral, forced the evacuation of the North Rim, and even skimmed over and around the Canyon rim, reburning Saddle Mountain. (Revealingly, it started the day before a Park Service burning crew lit the fire at Bandelier National Monument that scoured out Los Alamos.) Probably 95% of the area burned since the park’s creation in 1919 burned in the 15 years that followed the 1992 plan. (For the Kaibab Plateau as a whole, roughly 90% burned between 1994 and 2006.) Whether or not biotic goals were being advanced, the park was getting the burn out – getting a mix of large-area fires, some of considerable ferocity. It had little need for Wally’s prescriptions. It had little stomach to hack down thousands of small-diameter trees that could only infuriate environmentalists, an undertaking that was in any event unnecessary and expensive. It was finally getting fire on the land.

Wally was sympathetic but dubious. This looked like faith-based ecology – sprinkle fire like pixie dust and everything will turn lovely. The park had an expensive, well-staffed program sharply attuned to fuel loads and potential fire behavior. But someone like Wally concerned with old-growth ponderosa knew that even surface fires could kill a significant fraction by slow-burn girdling around the accumulated debris at their base; the tree died a year or two later, well after any survey had passed on to new ignitions. That had not happened historically because frequent surface flames had flushed away the needlecast every few years; now a century of compacted biomass, the tangible residue of Kaibab history, was available to slow-cook roots.

Yet the park had no monitoring program in place to measure such biotic consequences. Nature would take care of itself. These ignitions, Wally insisted, were not natural fires; they acted on lands profoundly disturbed for a century; they might well be indistinguishable in their ecological consequences from those sky-blotting conflagrations that the agencies were warming would devastate the public domain and that had helped jar loose billions in federal funding to prevent.

Still, he regarded the Kaibab overall as redeemable. Then came the Warm fire.

“This fire really hit me hard.” …

The WFU program had promised to replace unnatural, damaging, high-intensity fires with natural, benign, low-intensity burns. In fact, it had replaced decades of small, low-intensity burns, held by aggressive suppression, with an eruption. The Wildland Fire Implementation Plan had not included among its required prescriptions an irony index.

Wally wonders “how much is left to work with,” if there is enough to save – if the scale and suddenness of the shock leaves sufficient flex in the land to warrant further preventative measures, or if the Kaibab will be left to sort out its own future. He points to a cluster of yellow pine. “They’ll be dead in a year or two.” This was a landscape in rehab, not restoration. The Warm fire, he says, “really took the wind out of my sails.” …

But the deeper reason for Wally’s alienation is that his vision runs cross-grained to environmentalist enthusiasms. A small-wood harvest program might work but only if long-term contracts would allow access to that cellulose-clotted understory. That looks, or can be made to look, like logging by another name. The environmental community wants nature to restore fire; the fire community wants fire back, by whatever means works soonest and cheapest. The restorative agenda proposed by the Flagstaff model requires too much research, too much money, too much time, and it looks too much like silviculture by another name.

As the era of big fires returned to the Kaibab, so too environmental groups had made their ambitions real. The Sierra Club and Southwest Center for Biodiversity had shut down logging. The Grand Canyon Trust had bought out grazing rights. Collectively, they had established the northern goshawk as an index species of ponderosa pine health, made forest plans sensitive to the flammulated owl, and blocked off portions of the plateau as sanctuaries for the endangered Mexican spotted owl. Yet in one gulp the Warm fire had burned through reserved nesting sites for the owls and goshawk, wiped out a chunk of old-growth, and shifted habitat away from pinedependent species including the endemic Kaibab squirrel (“the owls and squirrel haven’t found a way to live in aspen,” Wally notes). A naïve observer might describe the outcome as the fire equivalent of a clearcut.

He voiced public concerns over the fire, and proposed to stage a workshop to examine the larger conservation issues of the Kaibab that the Warm fire’s management raised. Forest Service officials then warned him that his public statements were becoming an issue. His criticisms might harm the cause of wildland fire use and “take away a tool from our toolbox” since the public, blinkered by Smokey Bear, couldn’t be expected to understand the complexities of fire management. The important thing was to get fire back on the land, and the fire community had to stand united. He was also informed that funding looked bleak for his Ecological Restoration Institute. And he was told there was no interest in a workshop on the Kaibab. …

What was not at issue was the doctrine of WFU, which was fast becoming the treatment of choice for western wildlands. This was not the fire the North Kaibab had wanted; but it was a fire it was willing to accept as the cost of getting the burned acres it needed.

Wally thought otherwise. “If you really want to destroy a ponderosa pine ecosystem,” he argued, “graze the hell out of it, suppress fire, cut old-growth, and then let wildfire run amok.” An “overzealous” WFU program could well be “the coup de grace” for the western wildwoods. …

Today the public domain is increasingly divided like Caesar’s Gaul into three parts. One part fronts exurban sprawl, and this is where the Flagstaff model is accepted as a relatively benign means to help shield communities from fires rushing out the public lands. A second part consists of wilderness, parks, and other ecological preserves, and this is where WFU will figure significantly. The third part is the land between those polarities, and it is up for grabs.

The arc between those oppositely charged plates is casting sparks, and the resulting fires will decide what kind of future those between-lands will have. If they are allowed to burn hugely because suppression cannot contain wildfires or because WFU fires are promoted, then they become in fact if not in name wilderness. Just as the WFU avoids many of the encumbrances associated with prescribed fire or thinning-and-burning, so the WFU sidesteps the political hassles associated with placing lands formally into the National Wilderness System. The lands become wild by stealth.

Ultimately the contest over the Flagstaff model is not about competing prescriptions of what diameter trees to remove and what sequence of burning to install but about conflicting philosophies of people and nature. Wally stands for an updated version of conservation in which humans have duties and must accept a responsibility to repair the damage they do and ensure that rare and valued natural assets get protection.

This is, in a sense, a more ecologically sensitive version of the multiple-use doctrine that has guided much of Forest Service history. Removing people will remove all the good things people do. The more vocal environmentalists want a nature left alone, the sooner the better, and look forward to a rewilding of public lands. Removing people will remove all the bad things people do. The assumption is that nature unaided will produce the best basket of environmental goods and services and that a naturally caused event like a lightning fire is nature’s way of catalyzing the process. But wilderness is not identical with the natural, the historical, or the biodiverse. In the end it celebrates a transcendence of Nature, or what its proponents have always said it does, wildness. Wild fire may advance other environmental goals, or it may not. The only guaranteed outcome is a furtherance of the Wild. …

Wally of course saw the story differently, saw that the Kaibab had experienced over many millennia the presence of anthropogenic fire. The tribes had moved from lowland to plateau with the seasons, just as visitors do today. But to make the Kaibab habitable, they had burned, probably just as Powell and his colleagues described. Of course the Kaibab had ample lightning, and granted time enough, that lightning would by itself impose its order on the land. But the regime that existed when sheep blunted the flames was not simply the outcome of natural ignition. It was a messy merger of both torch and bolt. Likewise, many of those fires had supported hunting, which on the Kaibab meant mule deer. The saga of the Kaibab’s disruption from historic conditions was not simply the result of removing cougars and wolves, or of suppressing lightning-kindled fires, but of also removing the keystone species for both: humans.

Wally read in that history a place for people. His critics did not, and reincarnated a version of Paiute forestry which this time held that people had been irrelevant or trivial. Whether they had burned or not did not matter since only the transcendent forces of nature such as climate could meaningfully shape the patterns of fire. Small numbers of wandering folk could no more alter those cosmic rhythms than could tassel-eared squirrels. The argument overlooks one of the defining features of fire, that it propagates, and it looks away from the inconvenient fact that it is humanity’s combustion habits that are now shaping even climate. …

For a while the agency succeeded, for everywhere a first-order fire protection system reaps large rewards, like the rye that waxes fat on slashed-and-burned old-growth forest. Young trees seeded in, as foresters knew they would. Burned area declined, and continued to fall even as burners were removed and new lands brought under the pale of protection. The proportional costs sank; the Forest Service had, as its founders declared it would, moved beyond fire’s grasp. It handled fire as it might annually weed a garden. For a while fire management claimed as little as 13% of budgets.

Then the reckoning came. It came in escalating economic costs, in the accumulation of ecological toxins, and in the inextinguishable loss of firefighter lives; the vicious spiral of more firefighting and more fires, more money and more damages. Those revanshist woods became fuels, the lost grasses shifted surface fires into the crowns and prevented controlled burns, expenditures shot upward, demanding more and more crews and airtankers to keep a lid on. The federal agencies faced a full-blown ecological insurgency for which summer surges of armaments could do little more than chase smokes and take casualties.

What should have been obvious from the start was that fire was not something done on the side like paving roads or collecting trash from campgrounds or investigating the occasional poaching. In fire-prone lands fire management was the defining feature of land stewardship. It synthesized everything: it shaped everything: it determined everything. It could never be put back in its bottle because it had never been in one. It had always been on the land, perhaps quelled but never snuffed out. There was no way to contain fire except by containing the land. Wally was right. To lose control over fire was to lose all the rest.

As the blowback worsened, the fiscal claims demanded by fire climbed. By 2006 it commanded 45% of the agency’s budget, and five former chiefs, watching in horror as fire costs ate up more and more of a fixed fund, signed an open letter that demanded congress reform the system. Dale Bosworth, chief during the 2005 centennial celebrations, noted that if trends continued another three, or five, or ten years, fire would take it all. He might have been quoting Henry Graves.

In the economy of nature, fire works with the “creative destruction” commonly attributed to free-wheeling capitalism. What is happening throughout the West, either by intent or accident, is the ecological equivalent to the economic shock therapy urged upon the countries formerly under Soviet communism. Those committed to change argue that the sooner the transition, the better; the more quickly the invisible hand of nature can take over, the faster the necessary adjustment to a “natural” market economy. That the system may begin to experience wild booms and busts, or that some valuable features might be lost in the transition, or that mixed economies might work best, is irrelevant. What matters is to break the grip of the old system and allow the new order to begin. That is not Wally’s way. …

The scope for Wally’s work on the Kaibab will likely shrink. There are too many critics who don’t want to see the Flagstaff model expand beyond Flagstaff; who fear any return to an era of saw and torch; who doubt that anything people do can help nature; who find the agnosticism of letting nature choose too convenient a way to avoid humanity’s own moral obligations. Wally’s vision that his experiments might extend to the North Rim and spare that beloved landscape from a violent conversion through a full-immersion baptism by fire is unlikely to happen.

Yet the work goes on. The ERI has students, projects, a slightly more secure funding; he remains a recognized presence, and for most observers and colleagues, an honorable one. He is, he jokes, one of the “silverbacks.” In the debate over the Kaibab he is marginalized rather than ostracized, an aging revolutionary who finds himself a member of the faction that accepted compromise when in revolutionary times it is the extremists who rise to power.

In a queasy way, he finds himself back in the cancer wards. He walks amid the charred yellow pine, shakes his head, yet wonders whether this might be a spot to maybe plant a handful of ponderosa seedlings to replace those giants lost, to reestablish the conditions that prevailed when the forest seemed robust. Another spot he would leave alone. He remains a man who thinks in terms of things done on the ground, and amid the doubts there is also determination.

“I don’t want to give up.”

 
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