These fires are not ‘natural.’
Let me be more precise. When these fires burn through areas with relatively high ecological health, areas that exhibit many of the characteristics of the ancient savannas that once covered the globe, then the fire will not be too bad. If the ecological health is very good, those fires will be beneficial. These fires were an extreme human tragedy. And in the real world, where virtually all of these ecosystems are extremely degraded, these fires will be yet another human caused ecological devastation.
For example, a one hundred year old living tree is a precious thing, for so much biodiversity. There is no way to get another one without investing 99 years. When forest service policy destroys all the living trees over a hundred years, for hundreds of thousands of acres, whether it is with chainsaws or with lawyers, the net result is the same. Our water and our air are such precious things. When we fill all the streams with silt and the pm 2.5 is at 300 plus, it doesn’t matter if we did that by letting everyone burn their trash in their backyards or quietly allowing a tinderbox to develop in everyone’s backyard.
Here in our backyard, on the ranch we watched as the carbon from hundreds of thousands of acres, sequestered over a hundred years, blew through our air purifier in the course of a week. After going hundreds of miles out to sea, the wind shifted and blew it all back over us a second time. There was a little fire a few miles down the road, but no big deal. This time. However, I have realized that no place is safe from these fires, not for sure. Fire is a top priority now. With Hanna and the kids all cooped up hiding from air quality as bad as any Chinese city, everybody was pushing each other to the breaking point. Hanna was shopping for ranches in Scotland. Noah (age 2) took up recreational indiscriminate hammering, and Abel just complained all day that he wanted to look for amphibians. Fortunately as the smoke has cleared we have gotten back to his four o’clock ritual of combing the ditches. We have come up with some real trophies.
Anyway, back to the thesis.
Over the last thirty years public land management has ‘protected’ these lands with the idea that by protecting them we have restored them. I would suggest that we have actually abandoned them. We inherited degraded, vulnerable ecosystems, and we walked away from our responsibility towards them. I would need a lot of science to back this up, but I think it would be reasonable to assume that the ‘no chainsaws, no livestock’ policy of the last thirty years will end up being as destructive as the extractive policies of the previous thirty. And no one got anything out of it.
You cross from abandonment into restoration when you start to care for land. Which is not to be confused with caring about land. To ‘care about’ land you must solemnly swear that you care about it and donate at least five dollars to some lawyers before you go back to what you were doing. To care for land you have to work. You have to give up things. Your time, vast amounts of it. Your money. Most of all, you have to give up your ideas when they are not quite right. You have to be able to change. Had someone been caring for our public land, we would have seriously changed course on our no-chainsaw-no-livestock policies a long time ago. 18 months after they were first implemented if my experience is any indication.
I have cared for my land. And I have been wrong, god have I been wrong. I’ve made the grass get too tall. I have let the grass get too short. I have cut too many trees, I’ve not cut enough trees. But I’m here and I’m watching. And I need to make it work. So I had to adjust as I realized my ideas were not quite right. Sometimes they were really, really not quite right. This process has not had to happen on our public lands.
What do we do about it? Let’s privilege ideas that come from actual managers with a proven track record of on the ground results, as measured in biodiversity and ecological production. Going forward, the Forest Service and the BLM needs to not be so terrified of public relations that they create bad management. And, as people who care about biodiversity, let’s not throw reflexive legal challenges at every public land activity that requires chainsaws or livestock. In fact, it would be nice to see an environmental NGO challenge the forest service for revoking a grazing permit or failing to complete a thinning sale. The science would support such a challenge.
Will that work? Well with a thirty year trend to buck, this blog topic will probably be a yearly ritual for many years to come.