Mike Benefield: Human impacts on forest can’t be ignored
In his guest column in the Summit Daily Jan. 10, George Wuerthner asked, “Are beetles and wildfire fears misplaced?” To George I answer an unequivocal, “No – beetles and wildfire fears are not misplaced.”
Mr. Wuerthner’s editorial seemed to be designed to justify a pre-determined world view that somehow wildfires are just inevitable and we shouldn’t fuss with mother nature. This would have been a handy world view back when we humans were new to the neighborhood. But now that we have “mucked around with the works” to the extent that we have, there is no turning back to some mythological time when the world’s ecosystems simply adapted to our relatively small human impacts. Indeed the future of the world’s ecosystems is now firmly in our proactive hands.
Mr. Wuerthner’s views in this regard are the same seeds of denial that allow millions of people in places like Southern California to build and rebuild time and again after wildfires burn their homes to the ground. Or to deny that their lives are made precarious by the fact that they live on top of a multitude of earthquake faults.
Mr. Wuerthner is correct when he states that at the heart of this issue are flawed assumptions about wildfires, what constitutes a healthy forest, and the options available to humans in face of natural processes that are inconvenient and get in the way of our designs.
Flawed assumptions like “Fine fuels – not large snags – are the prime ingredient for sustained fire.” Beetle killed forests have both.
“Lodgepole pine, the primary species attacked by beetles in the Rockies, tend to be found at more moist, higher elevations which simply do not dry out enough to burn well in most years.”
With global climate change, mountain glaciers around the world are melting – what does this imply about high elevation climate and the incidence of wildfires at those elevations? The lodgepole pine in much of the Rockies should have burned back in 1988. The time has come and the cycle is now overdue.
“If the climate/weather isn’t conducive for fire spread, it doesn’t much matter how much dead wood you have piled up, you won’t get a large fire.”
We are now seeing wildfires that are exhibiting extreme fire behavior under relatively benign weather conditions. These are fuels-driven wildfire events. From space one can see that the west side of the Coast Ranges of the Pacific Northwest are marked by wind driven fire scars that extend from the crest to the ocean, over thousands of acres of “rain forest” that burned to the ground.
Mr. Wuerthner states that, “Beetles are not destroying our forests. Rather, they are creating new ecological opportunities, increasing biodiversity, and improving ecosystem health and perhaps even reducing fire risk.”
To Mr. Wuerthner I say that in nature all is renewed over time. The cycle is as old as the ecosystems that were created by it. Beetles-Fire-Flood. Beetles-Fire-Flood.
The degree of impact to our lives is dependent upon our ability to proactively interact with it.
Mike Benefield is a professional wildland fire/fuels manager with 33 years of experience with the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. He lives in Moab, Utah.
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