Wildfire Management: the “Hands on, Hands off” Debate


It was a long, hot summer out west. The rains came early in New Mexico—whether they were the traditional monsoons is up for debate—but the rest of the west continued to burn. Then the rains came again in September, and kept coming, flooding the intermountain west, especially Colorado, where severely burned hillsides were unable to hold the water as it rose in 30 foot surges that destroyed homes, roads, bridges, pastures, parks—anything in its path.

Which makes another debate—why so much forest land has been and is burning— that much more critical if it helps us figure out how to prevent, or at least diminish, these kinds of consequences.

In a recent CouterPunch article “What’s Really Fueling the Western Fires?” George Wuerthner questions the conventional wisdom that a hundred years of fire suppression by the United States Forest Service is the cause of catastrophic fires in the west and if its suppression techniques were actually successful. He claims the cooler weather conditions between the 1930s and 1990s were more of a factor than fire fighters on the ground or in the air and that most fires will go out on their own without burning a significant amount of acreage.

He does make an exception in his argument for a specific forest type where shorter fire rotations create more fuels buildup: ponderosa pine. Which is, of course, plentiful here in New Mexico and which we’ve seen burn in the huge Cerro Grande, Las Conchas, and Tres Lagunas fires of the last decade.

Wuerthner, the editor of the book Wildfire: Years of Mismanagement and ecological projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, is obviously from the “hands off” school of forest management: let “nature” take its course and we’ll all be better off (in a telling page of his book called “World View” he posits the “Industrial/Anthropocentric” view against the “Ecological/Biocentric” view, with no overlap). He also claims false the “Myths” that underlie the concept of landscape and forest management: the argument mentioned above that fires are the result of too much fuel; forests can be logged mechanically to mimic fire; big fires can be stopped; fire “destroys” forests and wildlife; fire “sterilizes” the land; salvage logging is necessary to restore forests; Native Americans managed landscape with fire; grazing can prevent fires; and prescribed burning is an adequate substitute for wildfire.

Setting a backfire on the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila National Forest. Photo by Jakob Schiller/WIRED
Setting a backfire on the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila National Forest. Photo by Jakob Schiller/WIRED

Someone from the “hands on” school of management could easily defend components of what Wuerthner calls “Myths”: if we’ve learned anything over the years it’s that there are no black and whites and very few right and wrongs when it comes to what we can and should be doing to improve forest and watershed health. Eytan Krasilovsky from Forest Guild wrote a La Jicarita comment last year that expresses the “let’s at least give it a try” type of management philosophy: “If we can’t agree on a healthy forest, maybe we can talk about a resilient forest, watershed, or landscape. I imagine the conversation would start: (1) Are our forests, watersheds, and landscapes resilient to fire, pests, pathogens, and climate change? (2) Can/should we try to increase their resiliency? Then the conversation can move to how that might happen and what it might look like. I’d also like to add that there is a broad consensus among researchers and managers that ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer forest types were frequent-fire dominated systems and that management is needed to address how ‘out-of-wack’ the majority of these forests are from their former, more sustainable selves.”

Whether or not you buy into Wuerthner’s argument that climate change, not fuels build-up due to fire suppression, is the cause of the larger and more damaging conflagrations of recent decades, it raises legitimate concerns about the efficacy of fire fighting here in New Mexico and across the west. In my June article “Burning Landscapes: Nature and Management Continuously Redefined” I wrote that the USFS currently spends half its budget on fire suppression. These budget decisions are made in a top-down scenario and often lack a sound scientific basis or site-specific understanding. Not only that, but in the last decade fire fighting has become increasingly bureaucratized as nationally based rather than locally based fire crews are dispatched to fires around the west. And spending that amount of money on fire suppression means there will be even less money for the massive amount of fuel reduction necessary to significantly lower the possibility of large-scale fires, a point that Wuerthner also accedes.

Las Conchas fire. Photo by Kay Matthews
Las Conchas fire. Photo by Kay Matthews

So what should fire management look like? First, the insufficient dollars Congress does designate for forest thinning and prescribed burning should be used in the wildland/urban interface to protect communities most vulnerable to fire. But alongside that policy there have to be regulations that enforce fire prevention building codes, a disincentive to build in these vulnerable areas, and new zoning laws to restrict housing developments in areas like Black Forest, the community near Colorado Springs that lost over 600 houses this summer. I grew up in the Springs and remember the area well: relatively large, many-acred lots with room for horses surrounded by a pine forest. Over the years the area filled in with many more houses, just as the forest filled in with many more trees, and became a recipe for disaster.

More difficult but equally important targets for forest restoration are the watersheds that surround our communities. We’ve seen the damage wreaked by the Tres Lagunas Fire in the Pecos area and the Las Conchas Fire on Santa Clara Pueblo. Last year a group of state legislators sent a letter to the congressional delegation as well as to the governor, the BLM, the USFS, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service highlighting the risk of fire to critical watersheds, such as the headwaters of the San Juan-Chama project. House memorials and joint memorials were argued over, amended, and passed that called for the state agencies, along with tribal and federal agencies to develop and implement proactive best management practices to both prevent and minimize fire impacts on watersheds such as the San Juan-Chama and the Gallinas above Las Vegas. It remains to be seen if the monies can be leveraged into action plans, but it is incumbent upon the legislature to represent their local communities by identifying the need and making the demand.

While Wuerthner allows that thinning and prescribed burning are legitimate means to reduce forest fuels, he sees commercial logging only as a ruse for corporations and the government to act together to make money by cutting big trees. As I wrote last year regarding the Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project there are almost no commercial loggers left in New Mexico, there’s no market for small timber, and since the restoration project is being paid for under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program the Forest Service can hope for an “even trade”:  through stewardship contracts the agency will exchange goods for services. The bidding contractor can determine the value of the wood they can use and trade that against what they would have charged to thin the smaller trees they can’t use. Of the acres slated for thinning, about half have harvest potential. Other methods will include firewood sales, service contracts (thinning), and prescribed burning on very small diameter trees.

As for the really large, remote fires that become “out of control” fires let’s let that label mean something and not waste fire fighting resources—or endanger lives—by attempting to “fight” them. Let’s get back to the USFS fire suppression policy that allowed certain fires, primarily in wilderness areas, to burn under monitoring supervision. The Gila National Forest employed this policy after the 1970s: the Silver and the Whitewater Baldy fires, despite a changed policy that threw all kinds of resources at them, essentially burned themselves out and ultimately proved the “let burn” policy was beneficial to forest ecology. Again, these decisions need to be made from the bottom up, at the level where those with on-the-ground knowledge and local management can collaborate. And these agencies need to make sure people in the interface communities are aware of how decisions are being made: what criteria is being used, who is making the decisions, what goals are achievable.

I worked as a seasonal employee in USFS fire management for several years in my 20s, mostly as a fire lookout. I saw a lot of crazy things that resulted in unnecessary damage to the resource and potential damage to the fire fighters. I also saw fire fighting become an increasingly militarized action that left little room for more enlightened thinking about the role of fire in maintaining healthy forests and watersheds. Now, as landscapes and communities continue to dramatically change we have to figure out ways to adjust our thinking and actions to accommodate the new natures that result. La Jicarita co-editor David Corriea wrote in “Smokey Says . . . Only You Can Stop the Forest Service” that it’s time to build a real alternative to USFS management that supports local communities and forest ecologies in this time of climate change. There’s no better place to start than with the management of wildfire.

Santa Fe National Forest is hosting two field trips on October 11 and 12 to provide an overview of the Southwest Jemez Mountains Project. La Jicarita plans to participate and report back on the restoration methods intended to treat this heavily damaged landscape. For more information on the field trip contact Phyllis Ashmead at 505 438-5431 or pashmead@fs.fed.us.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s