Lessons of the Rim Fire

The Rim Fire is finally contained and now we await winter snows to fully extinguish it.  Hopefully, this third largest ever California fire will provide lessons to those in seats of power concerning forest management policies. (a photo essay is available here)

The Rim Fire offers some unique opportunities for study as it burned across three types of forest management areas. First is the National Forest, designed for multiple use which generally translates to grazing and logging.  Then into National Forest Wilderness which is managed in a hands-off manner an attempt to keep areas untrammelled by humankind’s heavy touch. And, thirdly, into Yosemite National Park, managed to keep the area in pristine condition for future generations. The management philosophy of these three types manifests three sharply different methods of forest management. These different management methods show wildly different outcomes to the fire.

The National Forests are managed by the Department of Agriculture and trees are seen as just another commodity crop. Just like farm crops these areas are heavily managed and often mono-culture in nature. Natural fires are suppressed as quickly as possible lest they do economic damage to the logging companies. These areas were the most damaged by the fire and have been compared to the landscape of the moon.  The fire burned hot and caused almost complete devastation. The worry now becomes that the precarious soils will be washed away with the Spring thaw, preventing this area from ever recovering.

The National Forest managed Wilderness areas were the next hardest hit. There is just too much timber standing in these second growth areas.  The number of standing trees and the amount of timber they comprise is without natural precedent.  Eighty years of fire suppression combined with dry weather has left these areas in a hazardous state. Once the fire entered these areas there was no stopping it, the best anyone could do was to stay out of its way.

However, the nature of the fire changed once it crossed into the National Park. Managed by the Department of Interior, fires are treated much differently within the National Parks. Natural fires are allowed to burn and prescribed burns are utilized to keep the forest closer to its natural state.  Without the 100 year history of unnatural fire suppression, the fire swept through quickly and did not obtain the heat associated with too much standing timber. This area will rebound quickly and without the heavy damage to the soil that occurred outside the Park. Fifteen years from now, this area will be lusher and healthier that it was before the fire.

In nature, forests burn. Lightning strikes cause fires periodically and they sweep quickly through the forests burning the underbrush and returning nutrients to the soil. For untold millennia this has been the natural state and the forests and their denizens have evolved to take the best advantage of it. It is only relatively recently that humankind, through gross hubris, thought that we could control the natural state. Within this fire’s aftermath there are lessons for all who consider forests to be an important legacy to maintain.

For those who see only logs when looking upon a forest, the lesson is that clear cuts and monoculture of trees of the same age are not sustainable and in the event of a fire can all be taken away.  Not for a single generation, but for untold generations to come.

For those who believe that we can simply walk away from forest management and let nature regain control, we learn that it is too late for that. We have damaged the forests too heavily for that to work. Some would argue that nature will correct the problems that we have caused and this may be true, but it will happen in nature’s time, not ours. Unless one is willing to wait a thousand years or more for the balance to be restored, we must take a heavier hand in managing even areas we consider wilderness. And of course, as it does so many other things, the ecologists working for the Park service do a remarkable job in balancing mankind’s heavy touch on these natural areas.

I would argue as a result of these lessons that all federally held wilderness areas should be given over to the Interior Department. This would allow selective logging and burning without the taint of being in the logging companies’ pocket. Given the opportunity, a selective touch of chainsaw and prescribed burns can make these areas more natural, more wild, more resilient to both pest and fire, and healthier in the long term.

The Department of Agriculture with its focus on short term extraction of timber and not forest health, reminds me of Claudian, the 3rd Century Latin poet, writing of King Midas:

So Midas…swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold; but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane and in his loathing for gold, cursed his prayer.