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Evergreen: Save a Forest, Cut a Tree or Light a Small Fire - How Wildfire Shapes Forest Ecology
Penn State scientist explores the roll of active management, timber harvest and forest fires in shaping forest ecosystems. It seems we can learn a lot from the Native Americans.

By Chuck Ray
Date Posted: 12/1/2013

Wondering why we’re having all these huge forest fires out in the western United States in recent years? Has Smokey Bear retired?

                Actually, Smokey did his job too well. And in combination with the recent long, warm summers, fires, BIG fires, are the result. Matt Hurteau, Penn State scientist and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab, explains that we can expect more of the same in the future.

                Hurteau said, “When we crank the temperature up, snow packs melt even earlier in the year. This year in particular we had reduced snow pack compared to the 30 year average. In fact, in the Sierra Nevada region the snow pack this year in March was about 50% of the 30 year average. And then we end up with a longer, drier, warmer fire season, which is more conducive to creating the condition that allows these large wildfires to burn.”

                Hurteau added, “Prolonged drought is a pretty significant player in a lot of the wildfires that we see. Think of it in terms of priming a pump. Well, with prolonged drought, what you are doing is priming the system to make it more flammable.”

                Over the last 100 years, the federal government has followed a strong policy of fighting smaller forest fires to protect life and property. This has kept smaller fires from doing the job of cleaning out smaller material and debris. Hurteau commented, “What used to be open forests is pretty closed canopy forests. So there is a lot more smaller trees and when their branches reach the ground they essentially act as a ladder for fire to move from the surface of the forests up into the canopy of the larger trees. All it takes then is an ignition. And under those types of conditions, we are likely to see a higher probability of larger wildfires occurring.” 

                The American Indians may have known something that we didn’t know when they would set fires to clear land. In the book, 1491 – New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann tells an insightful story of how our perception of Native Americans and their use of the land is distorted by modern idealistic tendencies. Especially interesting to students of ecosystem science and management in North America is this section from his chapter, “Fire Place.”

                Mann recounts stories of Adriaen van der Donck, a lawyer who in 1641 transplanted himself to the Hudson River Valley and spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee tribe. Mann wrote, “Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to ‘the woods, plains, and meadows,’ to ‘thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.’ At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning.”

                Mann further wrote, “Set off by lightning, wildfires reset the ecological clock, dialing the array of plants and animals back a few successional stages. Fire benefits plants that need sunlight, while inhibiting those that love the cool gloaming of the forest floor; it encourages the animals that need those plants even as it discourages others; in turn, predator populations rise and fall. In this way fire regulates ecological character.”

                Forestry research indicates that the wisdom of the Natives performed far better in maintaining a balance in nature than our progressive preservationist land management policies. This excerpt from 1491 reminds us in even more poignant detail that what we might call “common sense”, that kind of wisdom derived from generations of living on and with the land, may seem harsh by today’s standards, but not as harsh as the gigantic conflagrations, forest-consuming pest populations, and shrinking species diversity brought about by our short-sighted attempts to “save” our forests and environment through bureaucratic regulation.

                The lesson that stewardship requires active involvement of man with the land, learned by our early pioneers and environmental leaders from the people, has been forgotten. It has been replaced with a pseudo religion of excluding man from productively interacting with the forest. To the great detriment of man, beast, fowl, and fish, and the land that supports them all.

                Which is why I say, let’s cut more timber while the cutting is good! Well-managed timber stands are far less likely to be consumed by fire than unharvested, fire-suppressed wilderness. Furthermore, living, working forests are more likely to meet societal needs than fire-ravaged wilderness. And the recurrent regeneration of the harvested forests will help reduce local climatic variation and dampen global climate change as the young saplings soak up all that bad carbon dioxide out there.

                So, let’s save a forest, cut a tree, use a tree, make wood products.         

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