19 Jun 2011, 10:24am
2011 Fire Season Federal forest policy
by admin

Pyne Commentary On the Wallow Fire

From The Wallow Fire: The monster that didn’t have to awaken

by Stephen J. Pyne, Op-Ed, Arizona Republic, Jun. 12, 2011 [here]

It’s never too early to second-guess, but as the Wallow Fire continues to rake through the White Mountains like a giant grizzly paw, it’s worth reviewing how such a burn could happen.

For more than a century, Americans have faced fire on their public wildlands. For the first 50 years, we tried to abolish it and failed. For the past 50 years, we have tried, with patchy success, to restore it.

What we have learned is that all strategies for wildland fire work brilliantly until they fail, and they can fail under conditions that wipe out all the good they had done.

Letting fires burn freely in the backcountry is cheap, safe and ecologically benign until, inevitably, one bolts free, rips through towns, smokes in valleys, and overruns protected places outside its designated domain.

Setting prescribed burns replaces nature’s fires with tamer surrogates until they fail to do the ecological work required or one slips its leash and runs amok.

Large-scale landscaping - clearing, thinning, building roads, converting - can change the behavior of fires but does not eliminate them. Big fires can still ramble, and the meddling can fundamentally mar the character of the land under protection.

Firefighting, or fire suppression, loses 2 to 3 percent of fires under extreme conditions. The resulting firefight is like a declaration of martial law, a means to put down a temporary insurrection; it is not a means to govern. Trying to exclude fire in naturally fire-prone places only stirs up an ecological insurgency.

Each approach fails on its own. What has a chance to work is a mixture of strategies, adjusted to particular places. Restoration takes time, patience and support from a sustaining society. Its prescriptions are political as much as ecological. Like a culture’s architecture or legal system, its fire regimes reflect the choices it makes and the values on which it bases them.

It is not that fire has been ignored. The flames have drawn partisans like a leaping bonfire. But they stand with their back to the fire, speaking out to some group, using those flames to animate their message. The fire matters because it affects something else that they value. They don’t see fire as a common cause, a universal catalyst for the biota, and something with its own logic and demands.

Intellectuals have been no less remiss. Arizona’s universities have disciplines devoted to earth, water and air, but the only fire department is the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds.

What is striking about the American style of fire is how technically robust it is and how politically dysfunctional and inept in practice so much of it has become. … [more]

Note: Stephen J. Pyne, Regents Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, is the author of numerous books, including Fire: A Brief History, Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires, and Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery.

19 Jun 2011, 4:08pm
by derek

Unfortunately, before the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) shut down the timber industry on the Apache-Sitgreives in 1995, the USFS routinely commercially thinned 21,000 acres/year while pre-commercial thinning 9,000 acres/yr. Let’s see,over the last 15 years that’s 315,000 acres that could have been commercially thinned alone.

The great part about restoring the SW forests is the “best available science” (Covington et. al.) calls for only 15-25 trees per acre. This ain’t no 40,000 board foot/acre Pacific Northwest old growth forest. Today, after 100 years of fire suppression, these forests have MORE not less big trees. The USFS EIS’s for the SW almost always quote the 1910 Woolsey inventory. In 1910, Only 13 TPA were larger than 13″. Hell,that’s practically an overstory removal harvest today. There’s much talk about a “16″ diamter cap” on cutting trees. And yet, today there’s twice as many TPA in that size as in 1910.

The paradox of the SW forests is if one was to use the best available science to restore it, one would have to log the heck out of it. Isn’t it illegal if the USFS doesn’t use the best available science? The CBD can’t handle the truth of the pre-settlement forests.

The CBD shut it down at the same time that “mechanical feller buncher and delimber technology”, which lowers the price to process smaller timber, was coming on line. One has to wonder what would have happened if there still was a functional timber industry left.

Of course, I’m sure there won’t be any hard hitting investigative reporting about it from the media establishment at the Associated Press. I guess the time for pointing fingers is over when you might have to point a finger at yourself. The standard media establishment party line is “one hundred years of fire suppression, overgrazing, and logging all the large trees” is what caused this. Nowhere, ever, is there any mention or speculation of blame for 15 years of radical enviro bungling.

19 Jun 2011, 7:24pm
by Bob Zybach

Here is what I have submitted in response to Stephen Pyne’s excellent essay to the blog of the Arizona Republic, and to an email discussion group comprised largely of retired USFS foresters, supervisors, and wildfire managers:

There have been significant claims during the Wallow Fire event that somewhere around 50,000 acres of fuel treatment projects — completed in anticipation of this wildfire — greatly reduced the costs and damages experienced by other areas.

If true, this is important news. What were the costs of these treatments? How did they affect the management and severity (”dead plants and animals”) of the fire within their areas of influence? How do local economics, management actions, and wildfire severity compare with other, similar areas of the fire that burned in otherwise similar (other than treated) conditions?

There was a significant lapse in systematic data gatherings (particularly oral histories and geo-referenced photographs) and salvage logging sales following Oregon’s Biscuit and B&B wildfire complexes — hopefully, those opportunities won’t be lost during this fire as well.

A real opportunity exists to learn a number of important lessons from this event that would have important land and forest management implications for all of the western US, and for such other countries and continents as Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, and Australia.

I think this should be more a concern of Congressional lawmakers. The current federal resource management laws are broken and are obvious failures, given their original objectives and intentions. 50,000 acres is only a fraction of this fire’s size, and those acres may have been expensive to create in the first place; and even still been heavily damaged and/or costly to protect during this fire.

The current condition of unmanaged and out of control federal forests is fueled largely by taxpayer dollars funding lawyers and nonprofit organizations; this has been made possible by the numerous transfers of operating policies to Washington DC from local (and highly experienced) forest supervisors and regional foresters:

It has been “protective” Wilderness, the Clean Air Act, ESA, EPA, and other noble sounding words and acronyms that have transferred power from local control to national regulation over the past 50 years — impoverishing rural industries and communities in the process, and setting the stage for these predicted and largely unnecessary wildfire events of the past 25 years.

This wildfire probably could not be taking place if we had simply continued to follow the common sense and practical Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960; adjusting our management approach as changing societal values and new scientific findings might suggest.

Fortunately, the lessons of active management vs. passive management are becoming ever-better documented, thanks in part to the continuing series of catastrophic-scale wildfire events, such as the Wallow Fire.

Note: A common sense management approach to the forests of the western US might be to first help fund a harvesting and manufacturing infrastructure capable of creating long-term jobs, profits, and energy with long-term assurances of timely access to necessary timber, biomass, and secondary forest products.

Then use and hire the best expertise available to begin marketing landscape-scale dead tree salvage and green tree thinning projects on a long-term basis.

Then implement. The immediate results would be to create tens of thousands of real long-term jobs with real wages; tens of millions of dollars to (instead of from) local, state, and federal coffers; safer (especially from wildfire or falling trees and snags), prettier, more productive forests; enhanced sightseeing and outdoor recreational opportunities; better protected wildlife and old-growth populations; and localized energy production and sales, among many other benefits.

These possibilities are impossible of course, given current laws and regulations. There is no Middle Ground when the people who think we are, “naturally,” responsible co-dependent stewards of the land and its resources, and are directly and effectively opposed by people who view us as pathogens on the landscape; whether as parasitic dependents or as outright despoilers of “nature.”

In an ideal world, I think the next step would be to begin seeing how many transcribed interviews and GPS-referenced photographs of this event we can accumulate during the next twelve months; meanwhile begin identifying all local businesses capable of converting dead trees and biomass into jobs, useful wood products, and energy — then begin profitable salvage and green tree thinning operations (even if profit is only possible at the beginning via favorable loans and short-term subsidies).

If those types of things can be accomplished, it will show that lessons have been learned since the beginning of these dangerous and costly events in the western US in 1987 and 1988.

19 Jun 2011, 9:06pm
by Larry H.

We cannot do what is needed to restore and protect our forests until we have exhausted all the inadequate techniques the eco’s want to try. To them, thinning means cutting trees that barely have a dbh. Here in California, they tried limiting diameters to 20″ dbh, even though less than 10% of all the trees between 20″ and 30″ dbh would be potentially cut. Of course, where trees larger than 20″ dbh are scarce, they won’t be cut.

Be sure to read the comments within Dr. Pyne’s piece. They clearly show that people cannot open their minds, and cannot separate politics from science. I’m also very aware that Arizona is a political target that some people feel should be punished in any way possible.

As with big fires of the past, initially, there is concern for doing “something” to save the forests. The uproar soon passes and the partisan politics sets in. Even today, “Healthy Forests” is perceived to be some Bush Administration scam to give loggers free reign to cut whatever they want. The “giveaway to the timber” never happened, partly because Democrats rewrote important parts of it, to get it passed. I hold no optimism that any gridlock can be relieved by this fire.

Reply: Wieners like Ron Wyden (who personally filibustered and then gutted the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in 2003) want to set diameter limits at 12″, and sometimes 8″. It’s a Freudian thing, attempting to compensate for personal inadequacies, and not in any normal way.



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