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Primitive forest mythology increases wildfire danger

The environmental movement-of which I count myself a proud member-can sometimes fall prey to what I call “Flat Earth Syndrome.” This is when large numbers of people believe something that is actually wrong-but is, to them, so self-evident that other possibilities don’t even enter their minds. And when someone suggests the truth, they react the way people first reacted to Columbus-as if he were a fool.

Here’s what I mean. It seems self-evident to believe that before Europeans ever arrived in the forests of what is now western North America, forests were “untouched,” “pristine” habitats where forest fires didn’t ravage vast tracts, trees were allowed to grow without making way for roads and houses and trails and gas stations, and wild animals were able to live out their lifespans without ever setting foot on private property.

Yes-and the Earth did look perfectly flat.



But in reality, “primitive forests” were not untouched by man-Native American tribes used wildfire as a management tool, burning forests to control game, clear brush, and thin stands of trees. Forest fires sparked by lightning – and the soil erosion and general ecological devastation that follows – were fairly common, too, common enough to create a far more diverse landscape than that pictured by “primitive forest” mythology, and common enough to keep forest stands at a certain optimum level of thickness.

As veteran forester George Gruell has shown by photographic evidence in his 2001 book “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests,” even 150 years ago forests still untouched by Europeans were far less dense than what we picture when we try to conjure up the picture of a “primitive forest.” Burning over such a surface, Mother Nature’s fires, while doing serious damage, were nothing like the super-hot, fast moving wildfires we see today.




Why? Because they didn’t have the concentrated superabundance of fuel man has created through fire fighting and fire prevention. Today, when Mother Nature tries to thin out tree stands, we rush to the scene to keep her from burning homes and other property, and more forest. While this response is necessary, it also has created the situation we see today, where an unprecedented kind of fire, fed by abnormally high concentrations of forest fuels, burns extra hot, moves far more quickly, and ravages far wider swaths of forest than ever before.

Our response? Instead of finding out why fires are becoming an increasingly intractable problem, many environmentalists-not all-jumped on the “primitive forest” bandwagon. If fires are increasing, after all, we need to conserve our forests. That means leaving them alone – in a way nature never left them alone – which means declaring larger and larger areas off limits not just to logging, but even to prudent, proven fire-prevention measures such as thinning and brush clearing.

Consequently, the problem is becoming worse. These fires move so quickly that creatures such as the American marten – a kind of mink already considered rare -aren’t able to make their usual getaway, especially when fire hits during the animal’s birthing cycle, as did the Cannon fire, brought under control on June 28. According to the California Department of Fish & Game, this 10,000-acre fire in Mono County may have disrupted 20 marten families when their offspring are most vulnerable.

We are now faced with the irony that many forest creatures are being destroyed by our childlike faith in a myth we believe in because we want to protect these very same creatures. Much of what biologists know about low-intensity fires – that many forest animals and birds can simply flee – simply doesn’t hold true for the kinds of catastrophic infernos we are seeing today as the result of “no-cut” policies and total fire suppression.

In addition to destroying and threatening homes, high-intensity wildfires:

— cook burrowing animals (squirrels, wood rats, snakes) in their dens;

— destroy young fledgling birds (owls, robins) that cannot fly away, and can sweep mature birds up in their drafts;

— heat streams to murderous temperatures, killing mature and fingerling fish (salmon, steelhead, trout) as well as all amphibians and reptiles (frogs, salamanders); and

— destroy acres of habitat for foraging mammals (mountain lions, bears, foxes) forcing new territorial competition that reduces reproductive fecundity in ensuing years.

It’s easy to be in favor of protecting the environment – it’s a lot harder to become educated in the policies and methods that actually preserve our forests and not be taken in by seemingly self-evident theories.

Right now, “primitive forest” mythology is dictating forest policy. And the wildfire phenomenon that has terrorized Californians for the past several years won’t go away until enough people question this myth.

Donn Zea is president of the California Forest Products Commission (www.calforests.org).


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