Saving our forests

Ignore the new conventional wisdom: Smokey Bear was right after all

Photo by Tom Angel

It is rather amazing that the collective wisdom of our time agrees with the notion that Smokey Bear was wrong and is somehow responsible for today’s catastrophic forest fires. The Philadelphia Inquirer headlines, for example, “The Cleansing Power of Fire in Forests.” A Sacramento Bee editorial says “Fight Fire with Fire” and carries the subheading “Don’t douse all the sparks.” The tendency is to let down our guard regarding disastrous fires.

That certainly is what happened this year with two major fires in Arizona. In both instances, Smokey Bear’s message, if followed, would have saved a great deal of forest, some people’s homes and many millions of dollars.

A forest community is a unique place, one composed not only of trees but also of an infinite variety of plant and animal species and mineral components. A mature forest takes many human generations to become established. It requires at least 100 years to build even one inch of topsoil. A mature or climax forest has a canopy that shades out the brush and grasses, along with most of the smaller evergreens, so that the forest floor is fairly clean. The shaded coolness enables the agents of decomposition to break down the litter on the ground to form the duff, which further decomposes to form humus, or forest soil. This process, though slow, keeps a mature forest from becoming vulnerable to fire.

When a large forest fire gets underway, it creates its own weather, causing swirling winds to take the fire rapidly in many directions. While most large animals can escape the flames, countless small animals on the ground die from the intense heat and smoke. After the fire burns through, the organic carpet on the forest floor is gone, leaving only mineral soil and ash. Although some of the elements remain in the ash, the organic material that nourishes the forest and cushions the rain and snowfall is gone. This allows the runoff to take the exposed mineral soil down to the streams, causing siltation that denies oxygen to the water organisms and fish spawn. Much of the animal and plant life in the streams is lost.

The U.S. Forest Service, before the 1980s, followed a general policy of selectively harvesting timber according to the sustained-yield principle. On the Lassen National Forest, for example, its foresters calculated the annual growth increment. Some mature trees were cut for lumber, but the surrounding trees were left to sustain the forest and contribute to the future harvest. In this manner the forest itself was left intact, for both its esthetic and utilitarian value, which includes recreation, watershed and limited timber production.

Over-cutting in the 1980s, however, now requires that the timber harvest be drastically reduced.

The quick suppression of fires is vital to forest preservation. Fire lookouts cover the territory visually, scanning every 15 minutes, and the operators are able to locate beginning smoke. Helitack crews are called to drop in and put out fires while they’re still small, with aircraft waiting to drop retardant if needed. In this manner, under most conditions fires can be quickly brought under control.

When high winds prevail, or when firefighter staffing is depleted, large fires will happen despite the best of precautions. When these occur, the fires should be fought as aggressively as possible and restricted to the smallest boundaries that are practicable.

At one time in the earth’s history, evergreen forest prevailed around the globe in the north temperate zone. In Northern California the interior Coast Range mountains, now mostly brush lands, was covered with Douglas fir forests. Even today in remote areas of the Coast Range Douglas fir seedlings sprout occasionally but are quickly nipped off by herbivores. My wife recalled that, when she was a little girl traveling the Grapevine over the Tehachapis, she saw mountains that were covered with evergreen forest. At present the same area supports nothing but brush lands that burn periodically.

On the Colorado Plateau of the Southwestern United States, an unbelievably barren land now inhabited by the Navajo, the indigenous Anasazi people long ago built large towns in Chaco Canyon. Anthropologists believe that the inhabitants were forced to leave the area when they exhausted their forests, either by fire or overuse.

A participant in one of my nature walks at Eagle Lake in the 1970s told me that the Black Forest in his native Germany was becoming stunted because of lack of organic material on the forest floor. The “bio-massing” projects currently being undertaken, in which the entire understory is removed to make forests more fire safe, will surely have the same effect on our own lands, denuding the soil of nutrients and eventually stunting the growth of the forest. The loss of the understory also spells doom for prey-dependent species such as the goshawk and spotted owl.

Nature’s way is to cover the ground rapidly after a fire burns through, and the succession proceeds from grasses to brush species and, ultimately, trees of various kinds. In our part of the country, evergreen forest eventually predominates, but it takes a long time. During the many years of prevailing brush lands, the land is especially vulnerable to fire, since manzanita and other heat-germinating species are very volatile.

So the situation that arises is that fire, rather than exerting “cleansing power” as stated in the Philadelphia Inquirer, begets more fire, and the brush lands burn over and over again. In areas where old-growth forests still live, people have protected them and enjoyed their shelter for many generations.

One aspect of forest restoration that is seemingly forgotten is the replanting of trees on public lands. The Civilian Conservation Camps during the 1930s and ‘40s replanted seedling trees on thousands of acres in the West. In 1947 a team of forestry students from Lassen College replanted pine seedlings in an old burn in Harvey Valley north of Susanville, and today, more than 50 years later, that area is covered by a fine stand of young pine forest. Years ago school children planted trees in the Penny Pines project on the west shore of Lake Almanor, trees that are now beginning to look like the fine forest they eventually will become. Although reforestation can’t restore the multi-species forest that nature provides over many generations, it gives us a beginning.

While studying at the University of Montana in the late 1940s, I visited Glacier Park on a field trip, and the whole southern part was brush land from a major fire many years before. The Yellowstone conflagration that was allowed to burn far too long before control efforts were begun will take much more than my lifetime to restore. The Eagle Lake Fire of 1977 still leaves the land largely bare of timber over its 7,000 acres. The Gallatin Peak fire of 1952 on the east side of Eagle Lake leaves a mountain standing tall and stark and mostly treeless.

We’re proceeding on an illogical course of action to destroy our forests in a vain effort to save them. Fire destroys a forest as surely as clear-cutting does. The only chance to retain our forests is to fight all fires aggressively, and particularly in the beginning stage, the only time we have a good possibility of containing a fire. After that, the fire dictates according to conditions, and suppression efforts become difficult and dangerous.

We must learn to treasure every remaining acre of forested land and assume the mantle of stewardship handed to us. Smokey Bear was right all along: Use extreme care with fire in our forests, and obey all the rules. We can still enjoy the blessings of our magnificent Western lands.

Robert Woods graduated from the University of Montana in 1950 with a degree in wildlife biology. After five years in his chosen field, he began a teaching career that spanned 30 years, mostly in Modoc, Lassen and Siskiyou counties. He and his family spent three years among the Navajos in Arizona, teaching Navajo children for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. During and following his teaching career, Mr. Woods worked at Eagle Lake for 10 seasons as naturalist-interpreter for the U.S. Forest Service and 11 more for the Lake Almanor Ranger District. He now resides in Forest Ranch.