Friday, May 09, 2008

Fire Ecology

Review of The WildFire Reader: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. Edited by George Wuerthner.

"...for the latter half of the twentieth century, every decade has been followed by a decade of increased expenditures on fire suppression activities, yet each decade has also been followed by one of increased losses in property and lives." Like the militarized "war on drugs", the equally militarized "war on fire" is doomed to failure, as pointless as shooting into a mirror. And how much more metaphorical can you get: that we are fighting the raging, fiery passion of irrational nature? The more we push, the more nature pushes back. Every "victory" in our mismanaged and ill conceived war on wildfire insures that the next fire will be even bigger and burn even hotter.

But the losses are not only in property and human lives, but in natural environments and diversity. Many authors wax lyrical about the ecosystems that existed before our warping of their fire ecology. Here is an example from my native Southwest:

"In prehistoric times, the Southwest's valleys were filled with perennial grasslands, blending to sparse stands of desert scrub (e.g. pinyon and juniper) in the higher valleys and deciduous desert scrub (e.g. catclaw acacia) in the more southern valleys. Pinyon and juniper woodlands merged to ponderosa pine forest at middle elevations (7,000 to 9,000 feet) and thence into mixed conifer highlands, depending on the latitude of the mountains. Ponderosa pine forest were open parklands of mostly older (100 to 600 year old) trees, with thick grama and bunch grasses at their bases. Those grasses prohibited most pine seeds from taking root, and they carried frequent, widespread low intensity fires that would kill most of the rest of the seedlings. Streams flowed from mountains in relative abundance to the valleys below to join larger rivers like the Gila, Rio Puerco, Rio Grande, Pecos, San Pedro, and San Juan. Those streams and rivers were sheltered by willow and cottonwood riparian forests, where beaver created wetlands critical to subsurface hydrology, and wolves and grizzly bears lurked among the flood nurtured trees.

Today, the Southwest is a land of relatively barren, deeply eroded valleys and overly thick uplands forests. The wold and grizzly bear are gone, the beaver is all but gone, exotic vegetation competes with native vegetation in key environments, and fire has a radically different place in the landscape. Deep human misperceptions about nature have forced dramatic change on the regional ecology."

from Fire in the Southwest: A Historical Context by Tom Ribe in The WildFire Reader: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

Tom Ribe's description highlights not only how much we have lost biologically from the natural fire adapted ecosystems, but how much we have lost aesthetically. The former forests were beautiful, accurately described as "parklands", while the current forests are referred to as "doghair" thickets. Not exactly inviting. This is a great opportunity for strategic conservation: when natural state and fire safe are also most pleasing to the eye, we have the opportunity to synchronize values among otherwise ideologically disparate voters. For example, the Nature Conservancy's firesafing through thinning for fuelwood program in NE Arizona could and should be rapidly expanded to "treat" most of the critical forest lands in America, perhaps thirty of a hundred million acres. Of course, grazing needs to be reformed as well, and if it could be tied into this matrix of [to usurp the Administration's maligning of the phrase] "healthy forest initiatives".

My only concern about thinning in the Southwest, is that I believe the ecosystems here are often carbon limited, especially in the topsoil, but also in terms of total biomass. There just isn't enough structural diversity to go around. I.e. there is not enough ground cover; downed trees to provide habitat, erosion control, and nutrient sink/sources. This, along with the vastly increased erosion of destabilized soils, is the reason "salvage logging" is one of the worst ideas. If the forest has already burned it should be left to recover, and the regrowth can be thinned at an appropriate time. Ideally, I believe thinning should leave biomass in the ecosystem.

For Gary Snyder's contribution to the volume, see

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