How to manage a flammable forest, third-grade style
Loppers in hand, I was halfway down the pine-studded slope when the magnitude of what I was about to do hit me.
Watched by a group of 16 third-graders on the trail above, I came to a stop next to the condemned, four-foot-tall ponderosa pine. Surreptitiously, I plucked a hair from my head and dropped it – a gesture of give and take.
I brushed the tree’s long, green needles with my hand and then positioned the blades around the base of the slender trunk. Squeezing, I cut the little pine down.
Climbing back to the trail, I saw the weight of the decision on every small face. Collectively, we had taken a life, hoping to give life. And so it goes in the world of cutting trees to save a forest.
We Westerners currently face severe drought and a horrendous wildfire season. It’s a situation partly of our own making. First, about 100 years ago we clear-cut forests for mine shaft timbers and houses. Shortly after that, we decided fires were a bad thing for future lumber, so we suppressed flames decade after decade. I read recently that Smokey Bear’s slogans are so well-known that posters often simply read: “Only You?” leaving readers to fill in the blank.
Fire is a natural part of many forest and prairie ecosystems. It is a critical part of the ponderosa pine forests of the West. Historically, ponderosa pine forests included huge trees, widely spaced in meadow-like settings. Pondies like to have sun on all their branches and need room to be healthy. When fire – perhaps sparked by lightning – did roll through about every five to 30 years, it would kill many of the little trees but only scorch the big ones. This kept the forest open and healthy.
However, arriving settlers first chopped down the pondies, then let them grow back in same-size, very dense stands. When fire takes hold in these unhealthy forests, it kills everything in its path, leaving no trees to regenerate. And if fire doesn’t take out these unnatural stands, mountain pine beetle will — since crowded trees allow the bugs to spread faster than they would in a more natural forest.
On top of all this, it’s now fashionable to build homes in the mountains, often amid these struggling ponderosa pines. So while public agencies finally have recognized the historic value of natural fires, prescribed burns are a challenge in areas invaded by homes. Land managers often choose to thin out trees to imitate the effects of fire.
But, I’m willing to bet none of them has ever taken a decision as seriously as my group of third-graders this spring. They had just spent more than an hour hiking along Colorado trails, learning about the dynamics of a healthy ponderosa pine forest on county-owned “open space” lands. A day before, knowing I would be leading children this way for the county-sponsored program, I and a co-worker had scouted the trail and pinpointed the little pine.
Now, the moment came when I brought them to a spot on the trail near the tree. It stood just a few feet from a much larger pondie some 20 feet tall.
“Based on what we’ve talked about, you guys get to vote whether to cut down that tree or not,” I said. “This is a serious responsibility. If you vote to cut down the tree, it kills the tree, but maybe it helps the forest.
“If you vote to leave the tree, the tree lives and that’s fine too. It’s your decision.”
When it was done, 16 hands went up in the air to cut the tree; no one voted against. I did not vote. Although I knew they would be choosing to lop or not to lop, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of carrying out their wishes.
After we had returned to the parking lot, I thanked all of them for considering the decision so thoughtfully. I did not pass judgment either way.
Minutes later, as the cars were about to leave, I heard my name. I walked over to a Harry Potter-esque young man sitting in one of the vehicles.
“Did we do the right thing?” he asked from the back seat, peering at me through his wire-framed glasses.
I wanted to pull that kid from the car and give him a hug. Instead, I smiled and reminded him of what I’d told the group – that we make the best decisions we can based on the best information available. That sometimes we don’t know if what we do is right – we can only hope so.
I know he wanted a more definitive answer. But after all, we used to think it was the right thing to prevent forest fires.
Patricia Walsh is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org). She lives on Colorado’s Front Range.
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