Raging Fires Devastate Forests, Destroy Homes, and Wipe Out Wildlife
By: Norma Bennett Woolf Date: 01/12/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |
After a relatively calm 2001 fire season, Vulcan has returned with a roar this year, blackening more than six million acres in states from Maine to California. By the end of August, fires had destroyed thousands of homes, killed 20 firefighters and countless animals, caused massive evacuations, and wreaked havoc on wildlife habitat – and the season still had about a month to go.
The year is shaping up as one of the worst in history, with three times the number of acres burned in 2001 and more than all of 2000, a year in which fires caused panic in many western states and exhausted firefighting capabilities.
Many lawmakers and conservationists blame the destruction on failed forest policies that reduced logging and allowed wilderness roads to deteriorate, thus allowing buildup of deadwood to feed conflagrations and prevent easy access to fire areas. They said that roadless initiatives preferred by environmentalists, Congress, and the Clinton Administration; lawsuits against the use of controlled logging to thin forest fuel loads; and the constant pressure to protect rare, threatened, and endangered species have all contributed to the current crisis that has been further exacerbated by drought.
“The problem today isn’t too few trees, for instance; it’s too many,” said Sean Paige1, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “That’s because 90 years of systematic federal suppression of small and moderate-sized fires that benefit forest health – following the fire-phobic dictates of Smokey the Bear – have turned many public forests into overgrown tangles that are ripe for wildfires and hasten the spread of disease and infestation. To most people, a dark and densely wooded forest may be aesthetically pleasing – but biologically, it may be choking itself to death.”
Healthy forest initiative
On August 22, President Bush went to Oregon to announce his plan to allow some logging to thin dead trees that provide fuel for raging wildfires. Standing among blackened trees of the still-smoldering Squires Peak fire in the southwestern part of the state, Bush said, “This is the second fire site I’ve been to this summer and it’s the same story. Had we properly managed our forests, the devastation caused would not have been nearly as severe and it’s a crying shame. ... What the critics need to do is come stand where I stand.”
“These fires have burned with extraordinary intensity, making them difficult to control and causing tremendous environmental damage,” the President’s policy announcement said. “Hundreds of millions of trees have been destroyed by this summer’s fires, as well as hundreds of thousands of acres of endangered species habitat, and thousands of homes and structures. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from communities all across the West. Land managers must act now to more quickly address the deterioration of forest and rangeland health that causes these severe fires.”
The President’s plan calls for more active rangeland and forest management and require federal agencies to:
- Work with Congress on legislation to expand the authority of agencies to enter into long-term stewardship contracts with states, localities, the private sector and nonprofits and expedite fuels reduction projects in high priority areas consistent with legislation already passed by the Congress in July.
- Work with Congress to enact legislation that ensures that the courts give appropriate weight to the long-term benefits of fuels treatment versus other short-term risks and removes a legislative rider that has imposed extraordinary procedural requirements for Forest Service appeals.
- Work with Congress to enact legislation that will strengthen Interior and Agriculture’s efforts to fulfill the original promise of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which was designed to protect wildlife habitat and recreational areas, while employing more than 100,000 people through sustainable timber harvesting in a small portion of the forests.
Environmentalists cried foul and offered their own plan to clear areas around homes and communities. The Sierra Club2 blamed fire suppression policies and logging for the fuel load that feeds these massive infernos. However, state and federal officials report that lawsuits from environmental groups have dramatically affected their ability to prevent forest fires when plans call for logging. For example, environmentalists sued the US Forest Service to prevent implementation of a plan to thin trees and remove debris from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona3. The suit halted fire prevention activities in the forest, and about 90 percent of the management area that should have been thinned has now burned.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD)4 fudged a bit on his opposition to logging in July when he slipped language into a spending bill that would exempt his home state of South Dakota from key environmental laws. At the time, Daschle noted that the fire danger in the Black Hills is high and the legislation would “get the forests thinned and properly protected.”
Dashle’s about turn came after he opposed a similar measure proposed for inclusion in the 2002 farm bill by Republican Congressman John Thune, the opponent of South Dakota’s junior Tim Johnson in the coming election.
With thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of words written about the fires and about forest management, information about wildlife loss and the potential for serious damage to rare, threatened, and endangered species is almost nonexistent. Several reports do mention habitat loss but they fail to provide details.
When an oil tanker goes aground, a logging plan threatens owl habitat, cattle grazing impacts streams where salmon spawn, or homeowners complain about deer and beaver that destroy private property, animal rights groups and environmental organizations are on the spot to protest, demand new laws and regulations, and file lawsuits, but their silence is deafening when raging fires kill untold numbers of animals and destroy more than six million acres of habitat.
Some plants and animals have evolved to deal with periodic fires. Fire removes brush and small trees from grazing areas for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, moose, and other species and allows grasses and palatable forage plants to colonize the burned areas. Aboriginal Americans set fires to prevent forest creep and open areas for farming and grazing horses. However, fire suppression and other policies have allowed an unprecedented build-up of fuel that stokes prolonged, hot fires that consume everything in their path and sterilizes the soil, leaving it hostile to new growth.
Although most large animals and many small ones can outrun a limited fire5, the huge fires of the past few years have generated heat and smoke over tens of thousands of contiguous acres, undoubtedly leaving animals with few escape routes and destroying, not enhancing their habitats. Yet, as of press time, the websites of the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and other environmental organizations included information about the benefits of fire to wildlife and said nothing about the consequences of unnatural catastrophic burns.
About The Author
All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |