By Kirstin Gruver
Although forest practices have changed significantly in recent years, many argue that historical forest practices, combined with climate changes, have led to the current
reality of unmanageable wildfires and unhealthy forests. The
cultural underpinnings of modern fire suppression tactics and
the public’s perception of wildfire are discussed in depth in “A
New Angle on Wildfire” at page 24. This article will focus on
the effects of these countervailing approaches on the health of
the forests themselves.
FIRE SUPPRESSION AS FOREST MANAGEMEN T
In the early 1900s, forest fires were a regular and normal
occurrence. Small wildfires occurred “every five or 10 years,
mostly—small fires that consumed grass and shrubs and small
seedlings, but left the big Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir just
fine.” 1 Fire created the conditions that allowed trees that require
extreme heat to reproduce to be able to do so. The burning
of shrubs and small bushes kept the understory clear, thus
reducing the amount of fodder and tinder for a later fire to burn.
As a result, there were only a few dozen trees per acre. 2
But forest management changed after 1910, which saw
some of the largest wildfires in U.S. history. As a result, the U.S.
Forest Service instituted a policy of complete fire suppression. 3
Despite knowing that many trees, such as the lodgepole
pine, require extreme heat to reproduce, the Forest Service
and its rangers actively worked to suppress wildfires. 4 Total
fire suppression was intended to prevent future fires, and
suppressing a fire as quickly as possible was the goal. 5
Fire suppression has, however, led to overcrowded forests.
With a significant share of the Forest Service’s expenditures
going toward wildfire suppression alone—about half of the total
expenditures in fiscal year 2016 and more than one-fifth in fiscal
year 2017—there is little funding left for forest management
or restoration. 6 Forests are no longer appropriately thinned;
instead they are choked with spindly trees, shrubs, and bushes.
All of this translates to one thing: fuel for wildfires. 7 According
to Craig Allen, a fire manager with the Forest Service in New
Mexico, forests today average about 900 trees per acre. 8 By
comparison, historical forests averaged about 40 trees per acre. 9
The effects of fire suppression and its associated forest
management practices have also decreased forest vitality.
Overstocked forests, coupled with increasing droughts, have
increased competition among trees for moisture, which means
that trees are less resistant to wildfires, insects, and disease. 10
As a result, tree mortality rates associated with insects and
disease have increased significantly. 11
Beginning around the 1970s, the Forest Service implemented
a “let-burn” policy. 12 Specifically, the Forest Service allows
prescribed fires to burn in certain places. These controlled
burns are intended to improve overall forest health and
mitigate the spread of wildfires by eliminating low shrubs and
grasses, which act as tinder for spreading fires. Prescribed
burns are also used to limit the ferocity of wildfires in an
attempt to mitigate complete destruction of the forest
“The choice is not whether or not these forests burn,” U.S.
Forest Service Fire Manager William Armstrong told NPR.
“The choice is how they burn. What kind of intensity are we
going to see those burn at?” 13
Not everyone, however, embraces the “let-burn” policy.
Over the past decade, many people have built homes or
vacation cabins on or near forest land. Around 20 million
people now live within a few miles of a national forest. 14
Residents in these areas are concerned that prescribed burns
will get out of control and lead to larger fires. 15 Additionally,
residents complain about the smoke. The countervailing
argument is that if forests can be managed in a way that
increases space between trees, thereby reducing fuel, then risk
to structures near forestland is lessened.
The current reality is that many fires become so large that
they cannot be stopped. They jump from tree crown to tree
crown, obliterating everything in their path, scarring the land,
Growing Healthier Forests