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As a forester, it is always disturbing to hear people talk about letting wildland fires burn with the possible loss of life and property. Many seem to think that burning down a forest is preferable to logging it. This point of view shows a serious lack of understanding about the dynamics of how forest ecosystems function.
Disturbance is normal in forests. The NPS has finally figured this out. Using the example of Yosemite, for years Park Service scientists seemed baffled by the forest colonization of the meadows in Yosemite Valley. They have believed for decades that the way to preserve the Park was to put a fence around it and protect. Research of historical land use patterns show that sheep were grazed in the Valley, the local Native tribes set fires every fall, and that there were at least two sawmills operating on the edge of the Park in the late 1800s and early 1900s and later. This is the mechanism that maintained the meadows.
Many people that care about Nature and outdoor recreational pursuits have very strong emotional feelings about land use policies and forest management. They may have strong feelings, but do not necessarily go to the trouble to educate themselves about these issues. This is an ongoing battle between federal management agencies and the lay public.
Forests are impacted primarily by fire and logging. Other disturbances like grazing, landslides, and other natural disasters tend to be minor in comparison. Because of the potential loss of life and property and timber, from uncontrolled wildland fires, we as a Nation began forest firefighting in earnest around the time of the Conservation Movement in 1900. At that time, forest suppression was by hand crews supported by strings of pack animals. Smoke jumpers, helitack crews, and hotshot crews came later.
As long as timber harvesting continued somewhere near sustainable levels, this system worked pretty well. By the 1960s and 1970s many different types of state and federal legislation were in place to protect forests from over-harvesting. We had to learn some difficult lessons before that time. Concurrent with ever increasingly more efficient fire suppression, the US Forest Service in 1991, made a landmark decision to decrease cutting on National Forest lands below the annual allowable (AAC). This is the amount of wood that can be removed on each Forest District without affecting sustainability.
In the last two and half decades the combination of reduced logging and fire suppression has created critical levels of built up brush, overstocked stands of timber, and dangerous fire conditions. A warming climate and drought have made the situation even worse. So have outbreaks of insects and pathogens.
From the perspective of forest management (or lack of it), the obvious solution going forward is timber harvesting, timber stand improvement, thinning and fuel reduction programs. The chainsaw is society's best friend. All of these activities can be prioritized near where people live first. Much of the wood removal will not include commercially valuable wood products and in will cost money. By our lack of action in the last 25 years large, more catastrophic fires have been the main way that fuels have been reduced. Our last two fires locally were stopped when the fire front over ran areas that were recently burned. This has been our de facto management policy, wild fire.
The USFS operates with large losses every year, when they should be turning a modest profit. Their budgets are increasingly taken up by fire suppression costs. They have a little left for fire rehab, and little for timber sale administration. These trends can be changed.
Pogo was right "We have seen the enemy, and it is us."