Smokey the Bear's Legacy on the West

by George Wuerthner

[Published in "Wildfire!: an endangered ecosystem process." Vol. 1,Cascadia Fire Ecology Education Project, 1994.]

No single human modification of the environment has had more pervasive and widespread negative consequences for the ecological integrity of North America than the suppression of fire. Fire suppression has destroyed the natural balance of the land more than overgrazing, logging, or the elimination of predators. One could easily build a case that an Environmental Impact Statement should be prepared prior to any fire suppression activities by government agencies since control of wildfires greatly alters the natural environment. Yet, most people are oblivious to the many long-term consequences of fire suppression policies.

Those who study fire ecology are painfully aware of the wounded landscape resulting from fire suppression. Wandering through Cascadia's eastside ponderosa pine forests and westside fir forests I see dying ecosystems. Old photos of these places show sunny, open and park-like cathedral stands of widely spaced large trees. Today these stands are choking on their own prodigy. With water, nutrients, and space divided among many more individuals, the overall health of the forest has declined. These forests are now more susceptible to disease and insects, and in some cases, to more intense burns than in the past.

Catastrophic fires are not abnormal, but rather, are ecologically important parts of the landscape. Indeed, while hundreds of small fires reduce fuels over many parts of the landscape, most of the acreage burned in forest fires occurs in a few very large fires. These might only visit a particular site once every couple of hundred years, when conditions of prolonged drought, wind, fuel loading, and ignition all unite to set the stage for significant fires. Large fires are not disasters, nor do they "damage" the land. Rather, they are an essential part of the ecological setting that no amount of suppression can ultimately prevent--nor should we want to.

Frequent fires have many ecological benefits for soils and plant fertility. Over much of the Pacific Northwest, wet winters are followed by predictable summer drought. Thus, the time of year when it's warmest and most conducive to bacterial and fungal decomposition, moisture is limited, and rapid decomposition of litter is precluded. There is usually only a short period of the year during the spring months when soils are both moist enough and warm enough to provide decomposing organisms the proper environment for composting litter. Without fires, dead material accumulates, locking up essential nutrients necessary for plant growth. Fires release these nutrients, and enhance the production of nitrogen-fixing plants that often revegetate recently burned areas. Fires are thus analogous to river floods which each year provide a new layer of life-giving soil for plant growth.

Fires also cleanse forests. Many tree pathogens are killed just by the smoke. In addition, insects and diseases are directly reduced by fires. Once a fire has burned through a forest, especially if it is a cool, slow burning fire, the younger trees are thinned out while leaving behind the more mature individuals. Some species like the Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, western larch, jeffery pine, and sequoia are specifically adapted to survive fires by having a thick bark and tall limbless trunks which protect them from small, quick burns. These survivors experience increased viability due to reduced competition for nutrients, light and water. Hence their ability to resist forest insects and disease is increased. The increased occurrence of pine beetle, spruce budworm, and other forest pathogens we see today are the direct result of fire suppression which has weakened the overall ability of trees to resist infestation.

The public pays three ways for this policy of fire suppression. First, we pay the high cost of fire fighting, which is frequently the highest budgetary expenditure of public land agencies. One big fire will often cost five to ten million dollars for suppression Think of how much better it would be to spend the millions of dollars it costs to suppress fires each summer on endangered species research or the acquisition of private lands which hold important wildlife habitat. Fire research has shown that, in additions to being expensive, fire fighting frequently has nothing to do with putting out the fire. Fires usually don't stop until the weather changes or the fire encounters another recent burn and runs out of fuel. In essence, we often throw money away at fires just so we have the appearance of doing something. For example, the Forest Service spent over $10 million attempting to suppress the Warner Creek Fire, yet it burned uncontrolled until a snow shower fell on the blaze.

Second, we pay for the below-cost sales which result when the agencies attempt to correct the ecological imbalances they have created. For example, after factoring in the $11 million spent on suppression and an Environmental Impact Statement (ostensibly to "save" the trees for wildlife habitat recovery) the Warner salvage sales will result in an unprecedented $9 million deficit timber sale on the Willamette National Forest!

Third, because many of these proposed logging sales are in presently roadless, wild areas, we lose these precious wilderness resources. We do not need to cut down Habitat Conservation Areas and Late-Succession Reserves, such as Warner Creek's native forest, to "protect" it from future wildfires. All we need to do is let natural fires burn.

Although many agencies are now experimenting with prescribed burns, their practices have several shortcomings. In the past, before fire suppression, the total acreage burned each summer in the western U.S. was in the millions of acres. Today, most prescribed burns are too small. Furthermore, most prescribed burns are set when the.forests are moist, usually in the spring. Under natural conditions fires burn in the drier months. Small mammals, birds, etc. have usually completed breeding by the time natural fire seasons begin. But human-induced prescribed burns occur at a time when wildlife is less able to cope with a fire, with an attendent cost in life not usually associated with wildfires. Smokey lied. Studies have shown that under natural fire conditions, few wildlife species or individuals are hurt. They simply fly, walk or burrow away from the flames.

The problem with our fire policy is that we are not emulating natural systems. An analogy would be cutting off a leg from a table and expecting it to still stand upright. In cutting out natural fires, we have cut off the leg of a table. We continue to expend energy in the form of fire fighting, below-cost timber sales, etc. to hold up this table or ecosystem which wants to fall over. As more litter accumulates, the heavier the load piled on the table becomes and the more energy we must expend to keep it from falling over.

The western U.S. is sitting on a powderkeg. One of these summers the West will burn down. Fuel loading is so high, a fire-storm of incredible proportions will overwhelm our suppression capabilities. We also face greater possibilities of loss of human life and property as people continue to build houses in forested areas. This is analagous to building on the flood plain of a river. Sooner or later you pay the consequences. Communities have not recognized this problem and thus have not faced it with zoning restrictions.

What needs to be done? To begin, we must realize that fires are a natural and a needed part of our environment. Instead of spending money to put out fires everywhere they occur, we need a massive public education program to promote the merits of fire. We should replace statements like "a forest fire DAMAGED 100 acres of land today" with statements like "a forest fire CREATED 100 acres of new wildlife habitat and fire break today." Fire fighters, instead of being viewed as heroes, should be called what they are: money grubbing mercenaries out to kill fires. Fires have as much right to exist as grizzlies and wolves. Just as predator control has upset natural balances, fire control has had the same consequences. We must come to the realization that fire suppression, except in specific locations needed to protect human habitation and life, is a direct affront to the ecological balance of this continent. Smokey the Bear policies have done more to destroy the wildlife habitat and forest health of the western U.S. than any other human intrusion.

Many foresters and politicians argue that the decline in the forest's ecological health should be dealt with by surgery--"salvage" logging they call it. But logging a burned area like Warner Creek would be a grievous ecological affront. Fires are, like disease and insects, natural processes in forest ecosystems. We should not think of a forest as "recovering" from a fire, and hence, we do not need to fix such landscapes. Forests do not need to recover from a burn--they can only recover from abnormal or unusual events like timber harvests. Do not confuse forestry--which is an economic activity--with forest ecology. Never forget that foresters are trained to manipulate forests, not understand them.

I hesitate to prescribe any management options other than allowing Nature to reach whatever equilibrium or disequilibrium it chooses. On the whole, the best policy we could follow is to let Nature take its course. Protect our dwellings and human life when necessary, but let the bulk of the forests live and die from insects, disease, and even catastrophic fire. We can never emulate natural forests, and it is pure arrogance to assume that we know enough about how a forest works to presume that we can "manage" it at all.