October 12, 1999 (with edits on November 7, 2001)
A portion of the article below was published in Science Magazine as a letter to the editor (‘The Burning of Yellowstone—Another Perspective,’ Science, 6 Nov 99, p1051). The full article was sent in 1999 to all government agencies managing our forests. They paid no attention. Unfortunately, we can now replace Yellowstone with Los Alamos.
A major focus of the environmental movement and ecology studies is supposed to be the preservation of our natural resources. But many self-proclaimed ecologists in high academic and government positions actively promote a policy of “let forest fires burn” which they know can result in the total incineration of many of our forests and all living things therein. When lightning strikes do not ignite sufficient wildfires, the fire-worshipping mangers of our national forests and parks now set what they call “controlled burns” during high fire season to make up for Nature’s negligence. Many good scientists and experienced foresters who have seen the consequences consider these insane policies to be grossly irresponsible, if not often outright criminal, considering the explosive condition of our forests today which are totally incinerated once a fire rages through them.
Forest fires do promote forest renewal, but only when the fires do not destroy far more than can be renewed. There was a time when most of our forests were fire-tolerant. That is not the case today, as described below. The “let forest fires burn” dogma can at best be called a religion because there is not a shred of good science that says that a forest totally destroyed is better for the ecology long-term than a forest that continues to live.
The 1988 fire that destroyed almost 40 percent of the Yellowstone forest and its once rich ecology is a ghastly example of horrible judgment that the “let forest fires burn” promoters are still trying to rationalize (with tens of millions of dollars of scarce government research funds). The recent monstrous fires in Florida are another good example of what will eventually happen in all of our forested areas unless we mount a national campaign to clean up our forests and return them to fire safe conditions. The U.S. Interior Department has spent more money in the last ten years to rationalize what its National Park Service dogma of “let fires burn” did to Yellowstone in 1988 than would have been required to first construct protective fire breaks and only then conduct controlled burns that could have saved both the Yellowstone and Florida forests.
I am a scientist who grew up in our national forests. I have fought forest fires at dangerous times and help manage controlled burns at proper times for the last forty years. I was one of ten-thousand called upon, too late, to try to stop the burning of the Yellowstone forests in 1988. Defiant National Park Service bureaucrats, humming their religious “let it burn” mantra, ordered that hundreds of lightening fires be allowed to rage unchecked during the most dangerous fire season in decades. Experienced government firefighters and knowledgeable scientists alike pleaded with the park officials to stop these fires before they joined up and became an unstoppable fire storm. The park service officials wouldn’t listen. They insisted that there was some divine difference between a fire started by a man-made match and a fire ignited by a lightening strike.
Any thinking person can easily understand and respect the vast difference between the “natural fires” of a hundred years ago and the all-consuming forest fires of today. When our forests were in fire equilibrium, frequent forest-cleansing ground fires (usually caused by lightening) reduced the combustible fuel load on the forest floor. Native Americans often torched brushy areas that Nature did not clean up in time. These natural fires periodically burned the brush, debris, and excessive numbers of small trees. This was mother nature’s way of cleaning house—without burning down the house. Anyone who walks through an old-growth forest can see the burn marks on the lower trunks of many big trees as evidence that the natural fires of long ago seldom reached the lower limbs of big trees which would cause them to ignite and in turn create a fire storm that incinerates everything else in the forest. Unfortunately, a fire storm is what usually happens today in forest fires during summertime.
Very few natural fires can occur today because most of our forests are not in equilibrium. Man stopped most natural forest fires a hundred years ago. Incendiary conditions now prevail because of decades of accumulated brush, debris, and thickets of small trees on the forest floors. This unnatural fuel load creates intensely hot forest fires that ignite the big trees and destroy every living thing in the forest. Massive amounts of precious topsoil are then washed away from hillsides by rains before new root structure can save it. Failure to recognize this difference between the consequences of natural fires of a century ago and unchecked forest fires of today can be disastrous for our forests, as the 1988 Yellowstone fire demonstrated.
Nevertheless, officials in charge of our national parks and forests actually espouse the theory that there is something divine about lightening-caused fires as compared to man-caused fires. They approve stopping a runaway campfire, but won’t allow firefighters to extinguish lightening fires. This is what happened in Yellowstone in the summer of 1988. Can anyone even suggest with a straight face that the progress of a raging forest fire is dictated by whether man or nature provided the first spark? There is not a shred of evidence that mother nature preferentially directs its lightening bolts at forested areas that deserve to be burned—as the “let fires burn” religion seems to believe.
The cruel irony is that any camper who lets an uncontrolled campfire burn even a few square meters of national forest will be charged with a criminal act. But a government agency that deliberately incinerated 320,000 hectares of our most beautiful national park is then allowed to spend tens of millions of dollars of scarce research funds to cover up its acts of horrendous negligence based on unforgivable ignorance of the consequences of inappropriately applying their “let forest fires burn” dogma. Anyone who doubts this should take a look at the forest of blackened carcasses and scorched landscape that still typifies most of the burned areas in Yellowstone today and assess for themselves whether what was done in 1988 by park officials was an act of divine wisdom—or an act of such incredibly low-grade stupidity that it must be covered up at all cost by National Park Service officials.
Many experienced foresters and scientists believe that a long-term program of constructing fire breaks and conducting controlled burns during off-peak fire season (late fall or early spring) is the only way we can clean up and protect our national forests and avoid their eventual destruction by “unnaturally” intense forest fires during peak fire season.
Ironically, many national groups that call themselves environmentalists opposed a bill in congress that would thin the forest and build large fire breaks in national forests in northern California. This plan is called the Quincy Library Group plan. It was formulated by local environmentalists, experienced U.S. Forest Service officials, and lumber industry representatives meeting in Quincy, California, over several years. A bill to implement this plan was approved overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives by both parties. In press reports, then President Clinton praised the plan as an example of what he wanted when he asked for compromise, not confrontation over the issue of managing our national forests.
Nevertheless, national environmental groups such as the Sierra Club lobbied selected U.S. Senators such as Barbara Boxer from California to stop the bill in the Senate because these groups claim that approval of any activity by man in our national forests will lead automatically to expanded exploitation of the forests. But they, the self-styled environmentalists, are quite willing to watch these same forests go up in smoke! They know that all our forests, even the few remaining old growth forests that they claim they are protecting, eventually will be burned to blackened stumps if there is no way to stop unnatural forest fires or at least limit their extent during peak fire season.
To protect our national forests and parks until they can be returned to fire equilibrium, firefighters must have defensive fire breaks. Adequate fire breaks require only thinning excessive numbers of small trees and removing the brush, not removing the big trees, just as nature once did with natural forest fires. Then controlled burns can be safely attempted in isolated sections and lightening fires can be allowed to burn in off-peak times because they will be limited in area by the surrounding fire breaks. Eventually, large areas of the entire forest become fire breaks because they have been returned to fire equilibrium. This is the only sensible and sane “let forest fires burn” policy that congress should allow. This is the Quincy Library Group plan.
The Quincy Library Group plan was finally approved by in the Senate in the fall of 1998 and signed by then President Clinton. It is called the Feinstein-Herger bill (full name: The Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act). However, after signing the bill, there were soon indications that the Clinton White House would buckle [see fifth paragraph in previous link] under to the power-hungry, so-called environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, and resist implementation of the law, as it soon did [see letter from the House to Dan Glickman]. The Sierra Club headquarters has vehemently opposed the Quincy Library Group plan, even though local Sierra Club members helped formulate the plan. The Sierra Club officially insists that all human activity in our forests is bad. According to them, any logging, even to thin the forests and build firebreaks, will lead to the cutting of all the trees. They advocate that only “natural fires” can cleanse our forests and renew them.
The opposition groups and officials who call themselves “environmentalists” have not told the public or the press that most western lumber mills have retooled their machinery to process small trees and make good lumber out of the small trees that are needlessly burned and wasted by the governments’ insane “controlled burn only” projects. Allowing private companies to salvage this resource for our economy also provides the money to clean our forests and return them to healthy fire-tolerant condition for our future generations—instead of officially burning them to the ground as Nero fiddled over Rome.
Then Vice-President Al Gore was given charge over all environmental policy in the Clinton Administration. He consistently enforced the radical policies demanded by the so-called environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. The heads of the Dept. of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service are all adherents to the Sierra Club official policy of eliminating all man and machine operations in our national forests and closing all access roads in our forests. This will lead to the destruction of all of our major forests that are not in fire equilibrium, including the last stands of old-growth forest and wilderness areas that are the most explosive and inaccessible. Lightning alone will eventually set fires in all these forests. Firefighters and equipment must be able to reach any fire that breaks out during high fire season. Otherwise, massive crowning wildfires will quickly spread out of control and totally destroy the entire ecology as happened in Yellowstone.
The present government policies on forest management will guarantee that there will be many more Yellowstones in the next three to five years. The next ones will likely be highly populated areas such as the Tahoe Basin where the forest around the lake is clogged with tens of thousands of dead trees due to the recent seven-year drought. Hundreds if not thousands of homes and businesses will be destroyed here and in other dry forested areas in the west when lightning fires are allowed to burn—or stupid summertime “controlled burns” deliberately set by government agents get out of hand.
There is a precedent to this official stupidity. Congress in 1995 ordered that the massive number of dead trees in our western forests be removed and salvaged for good lumber before they rot and become nothing more than massive torches that will feed wildfires. The previous seven-year drought produced ten times more dead trees than normal in healthy forests. Salvaging these dead big trees decreases the cutting of green trees in other national forests to meet our nation’s requirements for lumber. However, the Sierra Club and other so-called environmental groups immediately filed protests and legal appeals that have stopped all removal of the dead trees for five years now. The trees are now standing rotten in our forests and of no value as lumber. No lumber company will buy them. The taxpayers must now pay to remove them. (Bill Clinton and Al Gore appeared at Lake Tahoe in 1999 to announce the spending of a hundred million dollars to “clean up the forests” and save the ecology of Lake Tahoe. They now propose to do exactly what they stopped at a time when the government would have been paid millions for the dead trees.)
After the Clinton signed the timber salvage bill, the White House environmental staff under Al Gore actually notified the regional U.S. Forest Service rangers to drag their feet and delay granting contracts to lumber companies to remove and salvage the hundreds of thousands of big dead trees in our western forests. Both the Clinton White House and the so-called environmental organizations that have taken over government policy know what they have done. They have acknowledged that their opposition to salvaging the dead trees has forced the cutting of hundreds of thousands of green trees on other forests to supply the lumber needed by this nation to build the homes for our next generation. The Sierra Club insists that this is better than “allowing greedy lumber companies back into our forests”. They and other so-called environmental groups insist that fire, natural or manmade, is the only force that can restore our forests. This is insane, a deliberate waste of our most precious, renewable natural public resources to satisfy the political paranoia of the ignorant and incompetent who claim to be the saviors of our environment.
The public will only rebel against this gross mismanagement of our forests after more of our national monuments and most beautiful forests are totally incinerated and destroyed by massive wildfires that could have been prevented with sensible thinning and firebreak construction like the Quincy Library Plan. Government officials are now promoting exactly the opposite. They are diverting most of the taxpayers’ money that was allocated for forest improvement and sensible management into insane “controlled burning” projects during high fire season and the deliberate removal of thousands of miles of roads built by the taxpayers to protect our forests. The official policy now is that roads bring in people who will destroy the forests and wildlands. Local forest rangers and national park managers are struggling to “get with the program” and demonstrate to their superiors in Washington how they are using fire to “cleanse and rescue” the forest ecology. They often throw caution to the winds in order to show their visiting superiors that they have dutifully applied God’s fire to the forest—even on the hottest day in summer.
Any real scientist should take great offense to the self-proclaimed “fire scientists” who insist that they are the only ones who have mastered the mysteries of fire and know when and how it should be applied. Typically, they can be identified as the first screaming scorched asses running from the out-of-control “controlled burn” that their childish computer models predicted would never happen (as happened in the Lassen National Forest this year). The tens of millions of dollars given to them by the Dept. of Interior, National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service to pay for air-conditioned offices and computer toys they don’t understand must be returned to experienced, professional foresters who actually work in the forest and know the consequences of their actions. Many academic “fire experts” still struggle to rationalize the senseless burning of Yellowstone to please their funding agencies. Any thinking person, scientist for sure, can easily understand what little deep science there is to this subject and the consequences of a wildfire in our tinderbox forests today. Letting forest fires burn, or setting fires during high fire season with the present incendiary conditions of our forests is as stupid and irresponsible as teaching boy scouts to build campfires next to the gas pumps at service stations.
Copyright © 1999 Dr. Bill Wattenburg
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