Voltaire once wrote that “men argue; nature acts.” We are seeing that action in catastrophic forest fires across the western United States, while land managers, politicians, lobbyists, foresters and environmentalists continue to argue.We watch the news about these unprecedented wildfires burning forests and destroying homes, but a central fact is rarely mentioned: These fires are not natural. They are caused by mismanagement of the forests. In fact, our generation has all but stopped the professional management of our national forests, and we are witnessing the disease, death, collapse, and burning of billions of trees covering millions of acres of previously healthy forest lands.
Some of these devastated landscapes will not recover their former beauty in our lifetimes, and some will never again provide the same habitat for wildlife, or the same high-quality water supply they once did.
For centuries, the forests of North America enjoyed a state of natural balance, which is easily upset when people and cities also inhabit the land. So our job as good stewards is to mimic the role of nature as closely as possible, to maintain the most “natural” conditions possible. We have failed miserably. In a nutshell, here is what has happened:
• Nature had always kept the growth of forests in check with periodic fires, sparked by lightning. Natural fires burn the brush and grasses, also destroying saplings and small trees so the forest does not grow too dense, but mostly leaving older and larger trees undamaged.
• After Americans began to settle the West, depending on the forests for the wood they needed, they understandably viewed forest fires as crises. Vast resources were spent putting out forest fires, and for more than 100 years, fire suppression was the primary goal of forest management.
• In spite of that activity, national forests still did not grow overly dense because the natural role of fire was replaced with a steady program of forest thinning. National forests were logged to provide lumber, to promote recreation, healthy watersheds, species protection, and to prevent fires.
• Then, in the late 20th century, logging became unpopular, and timber sales were all but banned. Logging in the national forests plummeted by 84 percent, from 12 billion board feet per year in the 1980s to about half that amount in the 1990s, to about 2 billion board feet since 2007. And we replaced that management tool with … nothing.
The result is a massive unnatural overgrowth, a tinderbox that, when ignited, obliterates the landscape. Politicians react with money, committees, planning, studies and meetings.
All plants either grow or die. Some activists seem to think if we stop all activity in our national forests, they will be there forever in the same condition. They could not be more wrong. Leaving the forests alone is a death sentence. Forests are not static snapshots; the trees keep growing. Our national forests produce eight times more new growth than managers remove every year. If the amount grown and the amount removed are not similar, no snapshot can be maintained; instead, the situation will worsen every year. That is exactly what is happening across the American West, where wildfires have ravaged 68 million acres of our prized forests in the last 10 years.
In response, we spend billions on fire suppression, fuel-load removal, and other actions required by the death and decay of our forests. It would be far more efficient to treat the forests (thin the overload and restore healthy trees) than to put out fires and deal with the dead landscapes left in their wake.
Because trees live, grow and die, forests cannot be preserved in their current condition forever. So we face a clear and simple choice that is never presented to the public, much less to elected officials: Forests must be thinned, or allowed to die, fall down or burn. Do we want logging, or do we want catastrophic forest fires? We must get our act together while there are still great forests to be preserved and protected.
(This piece was originally printed in the Denver Post on 9-9-2013)