Let It Burn Fires Blow Up All Over

Across the West wildfires that have been deliberately left uncontained have blow up out of control, drawing angry criticism of the US Forest Service from residents impacted by months of smoke and now onrushing flames.

The USFS designated over 100 fires ignited last summer as Let It Burn fires, allowed to flame and smolder for months until perennial fall winds whipped them into firestorms.

Let It Burn fires that have blown up in recent days include the Kootenai Creek Fire [here], Lily Lake Fire [here], Abby Fire [here], Lawrence Mountain Fire [here], Bielenburg Fire [here], Ninko Creek Fire [here], Table Mountain Fire [here], Arnica Fire [here], Bearpaw Bay Fire [here], and the Gunsight Fire [here].

The Kootenai Creek Fire [here] was ignited by lightning July 12 on the Bitterroot National Forest, 7 miles northwest of Stevensville, Ravalli County, Montana. The fire grew to 780 acres by July 25. A small crew of firefighters were withdrawn on that date after “temporarily securing the SE/SW corners of the fire by utilizing natural barriers and aircraft.”

A series of windstorms in September reactivated the Kootenai Creek Fire and it has grown to 6,300 acres as of yesterday. Private property miles to the east is now threatened by the fire, and 121 firefighting personnel have been recalled to fight it, along with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Over $2.5 million have been spent on suppression, many times the amount that it would have cost to contain and control the fire in July.

The same windstorms have reactivated many wildfires that the USFS allowed to burn unchecked for weeks and months. Communities miles away from the ignition points are now threatened.

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Fire Fund Grab by DC Parks Averted

The Washington Times reported last week [here] on the backroom switcheroo diversion of dedicated firefighting monies to racially exclusive “festivals” in DC parks. The Obamaloids hoped to steal $2.7 million from firefighting, allegedly to be funneled through a “non-governmental community organizer” group named Washington Parks & People.

Unfortunately for the remoras attached to the underbelly of the Obama Admin, the U.S. Senate put the kibosh on the fire funds diversion yesterday:

Senate rejects wildfire funds for D.C. parks

By Stephen Dinan, Washington Times, 09/24/2009 [here]

The Senate this week told the Obama administration to stop spending stimulus bill wildland firefighting money on urban parks in the nation’s capital — the first time either chamber has voted to reject one of the administration’s stimulus spending decisions.

With fires raging out West, lawmakers said, it was ridiculous to spend firefighting money in Washington, which has no national forests and isn’t considered a forest fire danger spot. In a voice vote Tuesday, senators voted unanimously to prohibit the U.S. Forest Service to spend any of its $500 million in wildland fire money in the city.

“This is ridiculous, it is outrageous, and we should not stand for it,” said Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who sponsored the amendment to the Interior Department spending bill.

The money, part of the $787 billion stimulus bill, came from a $500 million fund the Forest Service was given for “wildland fire mitigation.” …

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21 Sep 2009, 11:04am
The 2009 Fire Season
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Station Fire Damage Assessment in Progress

Do wildfires provide benefits? Or do wildfires inflict short- and long-term deficits and damages to landscapes: vegetation, wildlife, habitat, air, soils, watersheds as well as homes destroyed, other property losses, suppression costs, public health and safety emergency expenditures, etc.

Setting aside for the moment the $100 million suppression costs, as yet untallied emergency services costs, and the value loss of private homes and property, did the Station Fire provide “resource benefits”?

No, as a matter of fact, the environmental crisis is ongoing and long-lasting. The steep and now denuded slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains are expected to undergo massive erosion, mud-debris flows, and flash floods when the expected winter rain storms occur. More homes and roads will be destroyed by mudslides. Vegetation, wildlife, and people will be damaged again.

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports that a bevy of environmental experts will be documenting and assessing the damages, and suggesting and implementing mitigation actions (more costs) where they might do some good (prevent more damages).

Station Fire studied by experts looking at the forest’s future

By Thomas Himes, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, 09/19/2009 [here]

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST - A team of 45 scientists, economists and engineers have been commissioned by the US Forest Service to document Station Fire losses, predict the future impact of those losses and make recommendations to minimize risks in the future.

The Station Fire charred plant life and seared soil as it burned across 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest.

Before the fire, healthy shrubs and soil diffused and absorbed rainfall as it made its way down mountainsides to rivers and reservoirs, according to US Forest Service soil scientist Eric Nicita.

“If it rains on unburned areas, little plants act like pumps” and soil absorbs water into roots and the water table Nicita said.

But the Station Fire has made healthy shrubs and soil a scarce commodity in the Angeles National Forest, according to Nicita.

In burned areas, “hydrophobic compounds turn into gases and puts a wax like coating on the soil,” Nicita said. “The longer water has to accumulate, the greater the chance it has to cause erosion.” …

Note: for a recent excellent study on soil sealing, see Causes of Post-Fire Runoff and Erosion: Water Repellency, Cover, or Soil Sealing? by Isaac J. Larsen et. al. [here].

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21 Sep 2009, 10:58am
The 2009 Fire Season
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Smoky summer stokes demands for firefighting changes by Interior Alaskans

By Jeff Richardson, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner September 18, 2023 [here]

FAIRBANKS — Following yet another smoky, inferno-filled summer, fire officials acknowledged on Thursday that it’s probably time to update the strategy for battling Interior Alaska blazes.

The state might begin considering a “smoke response plan” when air quality in the Interior becomes hazardous, said Chris Maisch, state forester with the Alaska Division of Forestry. He said more areas near Fairbanks also could be made a higher priority in the state’s fire management plan.

Maisch made the comments at a public meeting at the Alaska Division of Forestry warehouse, where officials gathered to discuss the controversial 2009 fire season. Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said he called the meeting after receiving numerous complaints about the “let it burn” status that most fires in Alaska are given.

About 40 people attended the meeting, which came after a summer that saw nearly 3 million acres of land burn in Alaska. The past six years have been the worst period for fires in recorded state history, with more than 16 million acres blackened.

The current fire protection plan, which was adopted in 1998, gives areas across the state one of four fire-protection designations. The vast majority of Alaska is given “limited” protection status, which calls for virtually no response.

Tom Irwin, the Commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, said it’s usually a sensible approach. Fires are a natural part of a changing ecosystem, and the state doesn’t have the personnel or money to battle every blaze that emerges during a busy season.

“The fact is, Alaska is going to burn no matter what resources we throw at it,” Irwin said.

But a frustratingly smoky season in Fairbanks has some residents clamoring for changes. While lives and personal property are taken into account when prioritizing fires, the effect of thick smoke on a region isn’t currently taken into consideration.

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Firefighting Funds Diverted to DC Park Fests

Here’s a novel way to spend federal firefighting dollars: on festivals in Washington DC urban parks. From the The Washington Times:

EXCLUSIVE: Forest fire funds aid D.C. festivals

By Stephen Dinan, The Washington Times, September 11, 2023 [here]

Even with forest fires raging out West, the U.S. Forest Service this week announced it will spend nearly $2.8 million in forest-fire-fighting money in Washington — a city with no national forests and where the last major fire was probably lit by British troops in 1814.

The D.C. aid is going to two programs: $90,000 is slated for a green summer job corps, but the vast majority of the money — $2.7 million — is going to Washington Parks & People, which sponsors park festivals and refurbishes urban parks in the Washington area.

Forest Service officials didn’t return messages left seeking comment on why they spent money from their “wildland fire mitigation” stimulus fund in Washington, but members of Congress said city parks don’t deserve the money while fires are scorching millions of acres of land and owners are losing homes.

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14 Sep 2009, 4:41pm
In Memorium
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Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Passes

One of the greatest Americans ever, indeed one of the greatest humanitarians of all time, Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution, passed away Sept. 12. at the age of 95.

Norman Borlaug is credited with saving perhaps a billion lives. Few have come close to that achievement; Louis Pasteur and Jonas Salk are the only names in that pantheon that spring to mind.

Some clippings from the Web:

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug dies at 95

By Janet DiGiacomo, CNN, 09/13/2009 [here]

(CNN) — Nobel laureate Norman E. Borlaug, an agricultural scientist who helped develop disease-resistant wheat used to fight famine in poor countries, died Saturday. He was 95.

Borlaug died from cancer complications in Dallas, Texas, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University said.

A 1970 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug was a distinguished professor of international agriculture at the university.

Borlaug started at Texas A&M in 1984, after working as a scientist in a program that introduced scientific techniques for preventing famine in Mexico, according to the university.

Until recently, he traveled worldwide working for improvements in agricultural science and food policy, said Kathleen Phillips, a university spokeswoman.

Borlaug was known as a champion of high-yield crop varieties, and other science and agricultural innovations to help fight hunger in developing nations.

“We all eat at least three times a day in privileged nations, and yet we take food for granted,” Borlaug said recently in an interview posted on the university’s Web site.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006, according to the university’s Web site.

The agriculture institute at the university was named after him in 2006.

Borlaug also created the World Food Prize, which recognized the work of scientists and humanitarians who have helped fight world hunger through advanced agriculture, the university said.

A memorial service will be held at the university at a later date.

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The real cost of wildfires

by Bob Zybach, guest opinion, the Oregonian, 09/14/2009, [here]

The tab for U.S. wildfires as commonly reported by the news media is only a fraction of the full costs experienced by the public.

Darrel Kenops’ recent commentary in The Oregonian (”Balancing protection with beneficial use,” Aug. 25) makes the point that we export our environmental impacts to international destinations when we cannot find ways to locally meet our nation’s needs for forest products. Excellent point. But lost in this discussion are the year-in-and-year-out costs that citizens must bear each time a wildfire scorches mile after square mile of Oregon’s forests.

Real costs for wildfires are stupendous and insidiously invisible. It isn’t just the billion dollars or more diverted each year from other useful programs in federal and state budgets to stamp out fires as typically reported by the media. Most expenses are never assigned to the bottom-line costs of wildfire.

For example, less tangible values such as damaged wildlife habitat, degraded soil and lost recreational opportunities are difficult to value monetarily; yet, these are greatly valued by the public, as are clean air, clean water and beautiful scenery.

With co-authors Michael Dubrasich, Gregory Benner and John Marker, we have published a one-page checklist of real costs [here] that also should be tallied when the news media covers wildfire.

On this list are property costs, including damage to federal, state, private, utility and municipal facilities; public health, including asthma, emphysema and coronary disease; indirect firefighting costs, including crew training, equipment and inventories of supplies; and post-fire costs, including timber, agriculture and home losses. The checklist goes on to detail air and atmospheric, soil-related, recreation, aesthetic and energy effects, plus the loss of cultural and historic resources.

We estimate that, nationwide, the true costs of wildfire, over and above seasonal fire-fighting expenses, range between $20 billion and $100 billion a year — or between ten to fifty times what is typically reported to simply put out fires.

So what can be done? There are those who think that passive management of our publicly-owned forests is the correct path: those that espouse the “naturally functioning ecosystem” and “let-it-burn” school of forest management.

I doubt the public has much appetite for the kind of fires that occurred in the past, as described by Kenops, before we began excluding fire from the landscape. The massive fires of the past - extinguished only when winter weather arrived - are not acceptable today. Also not acceptable is the status quo. In effect, public policy for the past 20 years has been to fight nearly every fire that ignites, yet do nothing to manage the consequences of insect-infested, diseased, wind-thrown and overstocked forestlands.

There are successfully tested alternatives to passive management. Actively removing excess woody biomass, thinning stands of trees for beneficial use, and selectively employing prescribed fire are among them. These activities all have costs but some can be done profitably: creating long-term jobs, reducing risks for severe fire, beautifying our forests, protecting our resources, and offsetting our international dependence on energy and forest products.

These activities will have their own environmental impacts. But then, so does doing nothing. And, in the long haul, doing nothing is proving to be much, much more expensive.

Bob Zybach is the program manager for Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project Inc. [here]. Also see the U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project website [here].

13 Sep 2009, 10:59am
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
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Who Needs Science When the Gods Are Managing Your Forests?

Fire Gods and Federal Policy, an essay by Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D. published in American Forests in 1989, was controversial then and remains so. It is also an honest and accurate assessment of the a-scientific, mythology-based management philosophy of the National Park Service, and is as true today as it was in 1989.

The full text of Thomas M. Bonnicksen. 1989. Fire Gods and Federal Policy. American Forests 95(7 & 8): 14-16, 66-68 is now posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences [here].

Some excerpts:

… The wildfires that swept through Yellowstone and surrounding wilderness areas during the summer of 1988 were not a natural event. Unlike the eruption of Mount St. Helens (which could not be controlled) the number, size and destructiveness of the Yellowstone wildfires could have been substantially reduced. The changes that took place in the vegetation mosaic and fuels in Yellowstone during nearly a century of fire suppression were preventable and reversible. The Park Service was aware of the risks of letting lightning fires burn, especially during a drought. … Thus the Yellowstone wildfires were caused by a combination of decades of neglect and incredibly poor judgment. …

[I]t is likely that the wildfires would not have reached the mammoth size of 1.4 million acres if only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars used to fight the Yellowstone wildfires had been spent on scientific management that utilized prescribed burning, especially if vigorous suppression efforts had been undertaken by the Park Service when each fire began.

The Yellowstone wildfires were only the symptom of a far more serious problem. That problem is the profound deterioration in vegetation and wildlife that is taking place throughout the national park and wilderness systems because of the lack of scientific management. The widespread damage caused by the Yellowstone wildfires, especially the destruction of the historic vegetation mosaic and its replacement with a monoculture of lodgepole pine, is a conspicuous example of deterioration. …

In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and Crater Lake National Park, no effort is being made by the Park Service to adjust burning prescriptions even though the fires are killing hundreds of ancient ponderosa and sugar pine trees. Dr. Edward C. Stone, from the University of California-Berkeley, and I warned the Park Service twelve years ago that these fires were killing unusually large numbers of large trees. We recommended that action be taken to reduce the mortality, but the warning was ignored. A study conducted by the Forest Service last summer proved that we were correct. The study showed that burning heavy litter that accumulated during the past century due to fire suppression is producing lethal temperatures deep within the soil that are cooking the tree roots. Numerous other examples could be cited, but the main point is that irreplaceable resources are deteriorating over millions of acres of land because the Park Service rejects scientific management. …

The deterioration of precious park and wilderness resources can be traced to an anti-scientific management philosophy in the Park Service, and to a lesser extent in the Forest Service, that is known as “letting nature take its course.” This philosophy embodies the view that national park and wilderness areas are quasi-religious sanctuaries where “Mother Nature” resides and rules. People may enter these sanctuaries to see the forces of nature at work but they must not interfere with those forces. Adherents to this philosophy naively assume, without a shred of scientific evidence, that “Mother Nature” (i.e., lightning fires) will restore an undefined state of “naturalness” to park and wilderness areas. …

The philosophy of “letting nature take its course” has turned the clock back thousands of years to a time when people placed their fate in the hands of mythical gods. You may think that this is silly, and it is, but it is also true. Decades of research have brought us to the point where scientific management is feasible, yet today the Park Service is relying instead on “Mother Nature” or God. Park and wilderness mangers no longer need a degree in science to manage resources, they need a degree in mythology. In the future, managing a park or wilderness will only require that rangers stand on mountaintops making incantations to the Greek god Zeus asking him to send thunderbolts to earth and fashion a new forest with fire. Who needs science when you believe that the gods are managing your forest?

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11 Sep 2009, 11:58pm
Politics and politicians
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Harris Sherman Nominated As Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment

USDA Press Office Release No. 0432.09 09/10/2023 [here]


WASHINGTON, September 10, 2023 - President Barack Obama today announced his intent to nominate Harris Sherman as Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sherman will serve with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“For decades, Harris Sherman has been dedicated to conserving and improving the environment in Colorado and beyond,” said Vilsack. “It would be a privilege to have a public servant like Harris join the USDA leadership team to help carry out President Obama’s vision for protecting the natural resources we need for a healthy and prosperous America.”

The Natural Resources and Environment mission of USDA includes the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which are the United States’ primary public and private lands agencies charged with conserving, maintaining and improving natural resources. President Obama and Secretary Vilsack have charged this mission area with the restoration, conservation, and management of America’s forests and private working lands in order to make them more resilient to climate change and ecologically sustainable for current and future generations.

Sherman is the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and a member of Governor Ritter’s Cabinet. As Director, he oversees Colorado’s energy, water, wildlife, parks, forestry, and state lands programs. He also serves as the Director of Compact Negotiations for the Colorado Interbasin Compact Commission, Chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and Co-chair of the Governor’s Forest Health Advisory Council.

Sherman has also served on a wide variety of public and private agencies and organizations. He has been Chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, Chair of the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, and Chair of the Denver Regional Air Quality Council. He has served as a Commissioner of Mines, as a Commissioner of the Denver Water Board, and as a Trustee of Colorado College. For several decades, Sherman has been active in land conservation efforts with the Nature Conservancy, Colorado Open Lands, and the Trust for Public Land.

Sherman received his B.A. degree from Colorado College and his law degree from Columbia University Law School.


11 Sep 2009, 12:58am
The 2009 Fire Season
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Indian Firefighting: The Little People Fire

The following fire report was compiled from various information sources and posted at W.I.S.E. Fire Tracking [here]. I thought it might interest SOS Forests readers, so I am posting it here, too.

I post daily about many active fires. This one was different. On this fire the landowners jumped on it aggressively and put it out forthwith. On many fires that I report, the landowner is the US Government and many of the fires are not fought at all or half-heartedly at best. The landowner on the Little People Fire is not the Feds. They are resident landowners, not the absentee kind. It makes a big difference.

Little People Fire

Location: Crow Reservation, 16 miles E of Bridger, Big Horn Co., MT
Specific Location: Pryor Creek above Pryor Gap, 45.313 latitude, -108.528 longitude

Date of Origin: August 31, 2023
Cause: Lightning

Situation as of 09/10/2023 6:00 pm
Personnel: not specifically reported
Size: 126 acres
Percent contained: 100%

Little People Photographs [here]

Incident Overview [here]

More than 3000 lightning strikes hit the Crow Reservation as a cold front passed through Monday, August 31. Lots of rain accompanied the storm, yet smoldering smokes appeared for several days afterward.

The Flatlip fire was reported at 12:30 Wednesday, September 2 in Lost Creek Canyon by homeowners south of Pryor. A squad from Crow and 16 smokejumpers contained that fire September 6. Responding to the Flatlip fire Wednesday Sept. 2, at 12:40 Pryor Engine Boss Darin Plain Bull saw a second smoke behind the Castle Rocks.

Recognizing that the second fire would have more burn potential and better access, he brought the Pryor squad and Engine 204 to the Little People fire, calling for air support. The firefighters had to ford Pryor Creek six times and climb almost 1000′ to the fire.

Within a half hour after the crew arrived, single engine and heavy air tankers from Billings supported by an aerial observer (”air attack”) were dropping retardant on the Little People fire, which then burned across retardant lines during the night two nights in a row.

Firefighters needed the fire to be dampened by water or retardant before they could dig line on the extremely steep, inaccessible canyon slopes at the fire. The fire area was too hazardous and inaccessible for work after dark.

Five helicopters and about 130 line firefighters were on the fire during its most intense fire behavior. Crews came from the Blackfeet, Crow, Ft. Peck, and Rocky Boy Reservations, and from the Bighorn National Forest. Helitack came from Yellowstone National Park and the Boise National Forest. Photos of crews and helitack are posted at “Photographs” above.

The fire slopped across containment lines for two nights due to rolling material. To rectify that, smokejumpers from the Flatlip fire spiked out on the fireline two nights to catch any fire growth early in the morning.

On September 6 crews maintained lines around the 126 acre fire for a full day without any further slopovers. Wetting rain of 0.13″ or so fell on September 7, the same day the fire was declared contained. Two crews demobed September 8. Two more crews worked through the day extinguishing hotspots, and putting water bars into fireline to prevent erosion. Most personnel demobed September 9, when the fire was turned over to Type 4 management from Crow BIA Forestry.

9 Sep 2009, 10:29pm
Forestry education Saving Forests
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Wakimoto Discourses On Anthropogenic Fire

Dr. Ronald H. Wakimoto is Professor of Forestry at The University of Montana, Missoula. He received his B.S. in Forestry and M.S. and Ph.D. in Wildland Resource Science from the University of California at Berkeley, studying under the legendary Harold Biswell.

Dr. Harold “Doc” Biswell was a pioneering advocate for the study of the ecological role of fire, for the use of prescribed fire in land management, and for fuels management. Dr. Biswell passed in 1992. Ron Wakimoto was one his last graduate students (I believe Dr. Biswell was already emeritus at that time). Ron’s Ph.D. dissertation (Wakimoto, R. H. 1978. Responses of southern California brushland vegetation to fuel modification. UC Berkeley, 278 p.) is well known and respected in forestry circles. Both men advocated prescribed burning and fuels management in chaparral and other vegetation types to mitigate and ameliorate the hazards of severe and catastrophic fire.

I was an undergrad at Berkeley in the early 70’s and had the occasion to meet and talk with both Ron and Harold. I have studied their research papers in the intervening years. My feeling is that a great many extreme and tragic fires could have been avoided if federal, state, and county officials and land management agencies had taken their advice. I still feel that way, in that future tragedies could be avoided if we listened to these great forest scientists and took better care of our landscapes.

Dr. Wakimoto has been at The University of Montana since 1982 teaching and conducting research in wildland fire management. He teaches academic courses in wildland fire management, fuel management and fire ecology. Dr. Wakimoto currently conducts research on the social acceptability of fuel management treatments, smoke quality and quantity from smoldering combustion, fire fighter safety, crown fire spread and the fire ecology of the Northern Mixed Prairie.

Yesterday Forest Service retirees meeting in Missoula were privileged to receive a discourse from Dr. Wakimoto on anthropogenic fire. I wasn’t there (sadly) but received this report over the ether:

Forest Service reunion in Missoula explores myths, realities of wildfires

By KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian, September 9, 2023 [here]

For most of his life, Ed Heilman has been thinking about wildfires and what to do about them.

The Missoula man retired from the U.S. Forest Service after 35 years as director of fire management in the Northern Region.

So Heilman listened with skepticism to what University of Montana professor Ron Wakimoto had to say Tuesday about Native Americans and their historic use of fire.

Then the Missoula man chuckled at himself.

“He changed my mind today,” he said of Wakimoto. “And that doesn’t come easy, by the way.”

Wakimoto is part of a heavyweight lineup of speakers and panelists at the 2009 Forest Service Reunion at the Hilton Garden Inn, which started Monday and runs through Friday morning.

His topic was billed “Fire in the Forest: Myths and Realities” and among the myths he dispelled was the notion voiced in 1959 by Raymond Clar of the California Division of Forestry.

Clar wrote that it was a “fantastic notion” that Indians systematically used fires to improve the forest.

Wakimoto said there has been “a tremendous amount of research” in the past 50 years to prove they did.

They set fires to clear trees to improve hunting prospects, to enhance the production of berries and medicinal plants, to improve grazing lands for their horses. They did it to clear lodgepole pine blowdown, to clear space for campsites and to remove cover that enemies could use to sneak up on them.

While white settlers viewed the land they claimed as wilderness, it actually bore extensive marks of management by fire over the centuries. As early as the 1750s, Wakimoto said, New York and other colonies were passing laws to outlaw Native Americans’ use of fire.

“Think about it. There was that much fire,” he said.

Heilman read the book “California Government and Forestry” in which Clar made his assertions soon after it was published, and he still has a copy.

“That was kind of the start of my foundation, you might say,” he said. “In all these years I believed it. I thought the Indians set plenty of fires, whether accidental or to get even with somebody. But ecology? Come on now.

“It turns out there was a deliberate pattern to it. And I don’t doubt Ron. I would take his word over Clar’s.”

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Why Spend Money On Fire Suppression?

Today yet another Government Accounting Office report on fire suppression costs was issued. It is Wildland Fire Management: Federal Agencies Have Taken Important Steps Forward, but Additional, Strategic Action Is Needed to Capitalize on Those Steps GAO-09-877 (49 pages; 1.33 MB) [here].

It the fiftieth or so such report from the GAO on that topic since 1999. Like the others, it is useless.

GAO-09-877 decries all the funds spent on firefighting. They are just too much, according to author Robin Navarro, Director, Natural Resources and Environment, GAO.

Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, federal agency officials,and others have expressed concern about mounting federal wildland fire expenditures. Federal appropriations to the Forest Service and the Interior agencies to prepare for and respond to wildland fires, including appropriations for reducing fuels, have more than doubled, from an average of $1.2 billion from fiscal years 1996 through 2000 to an average of $2.9 billion from fiscal years 2001 through 2007. Adjusting for inflation, the average annual appropriations to the agencies for these periods increased from $1.5 billion to $3.1 billion (in 2007 dollars).

The report then blathers on about this funding problem and offers less than the usual non-solutions. USFS Chief Tom Tidwell acknowledges the report in an appended letter, stating:

The Forest Service generally agrees with GAO’s findings and confirms the validity of this draft report, which contained no recommendations for further actions.

Now, that’s a non-responsive response if there ever was one, but who can blame him? Trading blather is what bureaucrats do.

Nowhere in this GAO report, or in any of the preceding 50, is a fundamental question asked: Why spend any money on fire suppression at all?

That question is a very worthy one, and pertains, and ought to be considered when contemplating this issue. After all, the feds are not the only governmental body to fund firefighting. Every state has a fire suppression budget, as do all the counties and cities in the USA. You can’t go anywhere in this country, or to most other countries on Earth, and not find a fire department.

There must be some reason for that. Every government, large and small, in democracies and dictatorships, funds fire suppression. It’s a universal function of government. Every government, benevolent or tyrannical, envisages some need for firefighting. Every government allocates funds for that purpose, and must make some sort of analysis as to how much spending is appropriate.

That’s the unaddressed question behind all the blather in the GAO report. How much funding for fire suppression is appropriate?

And that begs the fundamental question: Why spend anything at all to put out fires?

In economic terms, the question is better stated in technical language: What is the economic utility of fire suppression?

It’s a heck of a question, and one that ought to be asked to the GAO, and to every Congressperson, and to Chief Tom Tidwell and the USFS, and to every government official, large or small, who oversees and/or makes allocation decisions about money spent on firefighting.

There is an answer, a valid, rational, and logical one, and it is obvious if you think about it.

The economic utility of fire suppression funding is the reduction in potential damages caused by fires.

Fires damage stuff. Homes are valuable commodities, as are the possessions within homes, and fires can burn homes to cinders, destroying all that valuable stuff. It is cheaper and better to spent a few dollars on putting the fire out than on letting it burn and doing many times more dollars worth of destruction.

Fires can kill people, and people are also valuable, at least to themselves and sometimes to their families and friends. It is better to extinguish a fire before it harms human lives. Animals are valuable too, and societies large and small see utility in putting out the fire before the pets and livestock succumb.

Even tyrannical dictators value their stuff, the opulent palaces, garages full of limousines, etc. Your average tyrannical dictator had to go to some effort to murder his way to the top, and he is generally less than enthusiastic about having his ill-gotten gains combusted when he gets there. So even murderous thugs see a need for a competent, well-equipped fire department close by the palace grounds.

The thinking worldwide is to spend some amount on fire suppression so that a greater amount of damages are prevented.

One way to phrase this thinking, in technical economic language, is that the economic utility of fire suppression is to minimize the cost-plus-loss from fires.

That language is not difficult to understand. The cost is the fire suppression expense, and the losses are the damages that fires inflict. The total of those is cost-plus-loss, and the idea is to make the total as small as possible.

It is a balancing act. If the fire suppression outlays are too small, the damages mount up, and the total cost-plus-loss can be huge. If the fire suppression outlays are profligate, there may be few damages, but the total sum can still be large. The trick is to find the most efficient amount of suppression that achieves the least amount of damages so that the total cost-plus-loss is as small as possible.

That’s the REAL calculation that governments face and must solve. Unfortunately, the GAO is off on some sidetrack and does not even acknowledge fire damages, let alone express the need to minimize them. They never heard of cost-plus-loss. Their only desire is to reduce suppression expenses. But that’s not the goal of fire suppression funding. The goal is to minimize cost-plus-loss. The GAO doesn’t get it, has never got it, and probably never will get it, sad to say.

It is not clear whether Congress gets it, or the USFS, or anybody except maybe insurance companies, economists, accountants, homeowners, foresters, the peasantry, and assorted riffraff like that.

In order to educate and inform the otherwise ignorant hoi polloi and ruling elites on this very important concept, some folks put together the Wildland Fire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project and wrote a paper about cost-plus-loss [here].

We (I was one of the authors) pointed out that the losses (damages) from wildfires are anywhere from 20 to 50 times greater than the costs (fire suppression expenses). Therefore, when contemplating fire suppression funding, it would behoove the ruling elites to consider the losses, to tally or otherwise estimate them, in order to arrive at the efficient funding amount. If total cost-plus-loss is not considered, then the goal of fire suppression funding cannot be achieved, unless by accident, which is unlikely.

However, to date the GAO has not glommed onto the concept, and neither has the Forest Service or Congress. Our ruling elites continue to skip down the garden path in blissful ignorance about what it is they supposed to doing and why.

Hence the question posed in the title of this essay. You know the answer to that question now. Wouldn’t it be revealing and possibly helpful in some respect to ask your Congressperson the question?

Try it and find out if they know the answer. And if they don’t know, as is likely, please inform them. You have only yourself and your stuff and your family and your town, forests, watersheds, neighbors, landscapes, nation, and planet to save.

8 Sep 2009, 4:29pm
Forestry education
by admin
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World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492

John L. Sorenson, Carl L. Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. iUniverse. ISBN: 978-0-595-52441-9

A book review by Mike Dubrasich

There exists a pernicious myth that American Indians were savages (noble or not) living in roving bands of hunter-gatherers, at one with Nature due to their lack of civilization and technical sophistication.

That myth has been exploded by cutting-edge anthropology, archaeology, and historical landscape geography.

Prior to Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New World”, human beings had lived and thrived in the Americas for 12,000 years or more. They built great cities such as Teotihuacan, which by 700 C.E. had an estimated population of 200,000 and was larger than Paris and London combined four hundred years later!

Pre-Columbian Americans developed writing, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture. Cropping systems were in use as much as 9,000 years ago [here] and had spread across much of both North and South America by 5,800 years ago [here].

People built incredible earthworks including terraces, raised fields, canals and irrigation systems for agriculture [here]. People modified soils for food cropping across vast territories such as Amazonia [here].

And pre-Columbian people developed food crops such corn (maize), potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, pumpkins (all edible squashes), sweet potatoes, sunflowers, peppers, pineapples, watermelons, strawberries, and pecans. All edible beans except horse beans and soybeans were developed in the pre-Columbian Americas.

It is widely believed that these food crops, common around the world today, were not known outside the Americas until Columbus and other contemporary explorers brought them to Europe 500 years ago. But if so, how do you explain this?

This wall sculpture from the Hoysala Dynasty Halebid temple at Somnathpur, Karnataka state, India, dates between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Among the numerous representations of maize ears, the shape of the ear, kernels off set in relation to those in adjacent rows, the presence of part of the husk, and other features ensure that no object other than an ear of maize could be represented. The mudra (sacred gesture) made by the figure’s hand underlines the sacred significance of the context and thus of maize. (Photograph by C. Johannessen.)

In World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 authors John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen present strong evidence that pre-Columbian Americans engaged in overseas trade:

People moved into America very early across the Bering Strait. By the fifth millennia B.C.E. tropical sailors brought diseases to America and took plants and animals in both directions.

Long before Columbus, tropical sailors carefully selected crops from New World highlands and shorelines, wet and dry climates, and took them to the Old World where they were grown in appropriate environments. Medicinal and psychedelic plants were traded and maintained in Egypt and Peru during separate 1,400-year periods. This implies that maritime trade was continuous.

In this groundbreaking book, learn about:

* 84 plants that were taken from the Americas to the Old World.
* What plants and animals were brought to the Americas.
* Why world trade was essential for transfer of so many.
* Interconnectedness of civilizations had to result from world trade.
* Dating of 18 species by archaeology with radio carbon shows dispersal.
* And much more!

Plants, diseases, and animals from America were distributed throughout the world, across the oceans before 1492. It is time for scientists, teachers, and students to reconsider their beliefs about the early history of civilization with World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492.

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8 Sep 2009, 1:00pm
Federal forest policy Saving Forests
by admin

Is it Time to Give Our Federal Forests Back to the Indians?

James D. Petersen, Executive Director of The Evergreen Foundation [here] and one of the most knowledgeable, indefatigable, literate, and leading voices for responsible forest stewardship ever, gave a wonderful speech two years ago at Thirty-first Annual National Indian Timber Symposium.

His topic was a philosophical discussion of the decline in federal forest management, and whether it might be the best thing to simply give our national forests back to their original owners, Native Americans. As far fetched as that idea is, it makes sense in the following ways:

* Federal forest management has collapsed into megafire and devastation. Our forests, watersheds, wildlife habitat, rivers and streams, and rural communities have suffered enormously from abandonment of stewardship by ignorant political forces far from the national forest locales.

* Tribal forests, on the other hand, have experienced a renaissance of stewardship. Both traditional and modern techniques are used, and the forests are managed by the residents, who have the most to gain, or lose, by their actions.

* Putting federal forests back into local control would protect and enhance a variety of forest values that are currently in precipitous decline.

* Native American tribes are well-organized and staffed with professionals these days, and so they could step in immediately to correct the glaring deficiencies engendered by absentee, incompetent, centralized government bureaucracies.

There is little likelihood of such an ownership conversion in the near future, but it’s something to think about — if for no other reason than to spur the federal bureaucrats and politicians into a rude awakening.

The entire Petersen speech is [here]. Some excerpts follow:

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Indian Forestry vs. Federal Forestry

Newly posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Science [here] is Two Forests Under The Big Sky: Tribal V. Federal Management, PERC Policy Series No. 45, by Alison Berry, a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center [here].

Two Forests Under the Big Sky compares the management styles on adjacent forest ownerships in western Montana - the first being that of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the second being the Lolo National Forest.

Some reviewer comments:

We have long been enthusiastic supporters of tribal forestry and less than enthusiastic observers of what is wrong with current federal forest management policy. Two Forests Under the Big Sky strikes deep at the heart of everything that is wrong with the way our national forests are being managed today—and everything that is right about the way Indians manage their forests. I’ve said for years that it is time for America to give its federal forests back to the tribes from whom these once beautiful lands were taken more than a century ago. Alison Berry’s essay only adds to my belief. — Jim Peterson, Evergreen Foundation [here].

Why is it that neighboring forests of similar size and makeup produce different economic and environmental outputs? In this essay, Alison Berry again demonstrates PERC’s unique ability to analyze how different governance structures, and their inherent incentive systems, impact the ability of land managers to achieve their objectives. The comparison Berry provides between federal and tribal forest management is a clever way to demonstrate what works, what doesn’t, and why. — Doug Crandall, Director, Legislative Affairs, USDA Forest Service

The Lolo National Forest (LNF) and the forests of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are comparable in area, species composition, and ecological factors. The LNF is larger and has a larger timber sale program, but the CSKT actually earns a positive return from timber sales while the LNF loses money.

As one consequence, the CSKT has an effective conservation program and their forests provide “a range of products and amenities including not only timber, but grazing, recreational opportunities, wilderness areas, and habitat for fish and wildlife such as grizzly bears and Canada lynx.” The CSKT has managed for and increased the populations of peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, northern leopard frogs, and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

In contrast, the LNF is beset by widespread beetle infestations and megafires. The ecosystems there are in collapse, including populations of the aforementioned wildlife.

Ms. Berry posits some explanations for these differences:

Since the CSKT rely on timber revenues to support tribal operations, they have a vested interest in the continuing vitality of their natural resources. Tribal forest manager Jim Durglo comments, “Our forest is a vital part of everyday tribal life. Timber production, non-timber forest products, and grazing provide jobs and income for tribal members and enhance the economic life of surrounding communities” (Azure 2005). The tribes stand to benefit from responsible forest stewardship — or bear the burden of mismanagement.

In contrast, on the Lolo, there is little connection between performance and reward. Management decisions are often dictated by politics rather than local conditions. National forests receive funding from Congressional appropriations apparently regardless of timber revenues or ecological concerns. Revenues from forest operations are sent to the general treasury. The disconnect between budget inputs and revenues generated means there is scant incentive to operate efficiently, or to manage the forest for future productivity. Moreover, there is no direct constituency for cost-effective national forest management comparable to the tribal members on the reservation. …

She also notes that

Some problems stem from a rash of environmental litigation on the Lolo National Forest, which diverts time and resources from on-the-ground management (USDA Forest Service 2002b, 2002c). Between 1998 and 2005, nineteen cases were filed against the Lolo (USDA Forest Service 2007a). In 2007, more than 21 million board feet were held up in appeals and litigation (Backus 2007) — about the equivalent of an average year’s harvest for the forest since 2000 (USDA Forest Service 2008a).

In contrast, tribal forest management is rarely challenged in court, so managers are more able to address environmental concerns in a timely fashion (Skinner 2005–2006). As Jim Peterson, editor of Evergreen Magazine said, “The tribes do a lot of things I wish we were doing on our federal forest lands if we weren’t all knotted up in litigation” (quoted in Hagengruber 2004). Only one timber sale has been appealed on the Flathead Reservation.

In the 1980s, Friends of the Wild Swan brought suit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The case was dropped, however, when the court required Friends of the Wild Swan to post a bond to process the appeal. “If they lost the appeal, they would lose the bond” (Jim Durglo, quoted in Skinner 2005–2006).

The CSKT is managed by and for the resident owners. The LNF is managed by an absentee government, politicized confusion, and enviro lawsuits. The former has a vibrant, conservation-minded stewardship program and healthy ecosystems. The latter is in ecological disarray and prone to megafire, insect infestations, and disaster.

Can we afford to allow our public forests to be the play toys of lawyers? Are we content to sit back and watch our priceless heritage forests being destroyed by nincompoops? Or should we learn a lesson from the First Residents and tend our lands with care and respect?

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