by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As Appearing in the Daily Sentinel
My friend Bill Imbergamo runs a highly effective national association for what’s left of America’s forest products industry. Last week he called attention to a new glossy two-page paper from the U.S. Forest Service, claiming credit for a forest management project that helped control a fire on Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest.
The agency says its thinning project created a “fuel break” that helped direct June’s “Badger Creek Fire” away from a community, and save several houses. The story is familiar — forest thinning changes the behavior of fires. As the agency’s slick publication explains, “Because of the reduction in dry, thick vegetation near the homes, firefighters … were able to safely approach the buildings and strategically place resources near the majority of the structures the day the fire began.” These catastrophic fires have destroyed over 100 million acres of national forests in the last 20 years, and often behave as this one did: “The fire moved away from one community, took off as a crown fire, and then reached the next fuels treatment area … and combined with effects of the retardant that had been applied, fire behavior quickly moderated.” In other words, the fire destroyed nearly everything in its wake until it reached the area that had been properly managed, and then slowed dramatically.
Nature maintained these forests for centuries. Periodic lightning fires burned the shrubs, brush, and smaller trees, so the forest didn’t grow too dense. Those natural fires left most of the older and larger trees alone, as we know from tree ring analyses of centuries of fires. When Americans began to depend on the forests for wood and other resources, they understandably viewed forest fires as crises. For over a century, the dominant culture of national forest management was fire suppression.