The paradox here is that we are dealing with a two part question. Keeping people safe and keeping forests healthy are not the same thing. Arson is the main cause of forest fires in some of the country, but lightening holds sway in the West. Given that forest fires are going to occur, we need to understand how to limit their effect, not because it is good for the forest, but because it is good for the population in and near the forest. Some ecosystems thrive on the occasional forest fire, but not all. It is erroneous to assume that forest will take care of themselves, because mankind is a fact of nature. Human beings exist, and as a result, natural systems are disrupted. Changes in climate, temperature, rainfall, soil composition and the quality of air and water, are going to occur as a result of the actions of humanity.
Forest thinning is one of the least disruptive tools that we have to limit the damage to individuals and communities in the event of a fire. It also promotes old growth forests in places where they could not exist without help. This may not be a good thing, but I’m given to understand that old growth forests are better for the ecology as a whole. The US Forest Service has identified a backlog of more than one million acres of America’s national forests that need to be replanted. A need to replant forests means that something must be done to limit the damage of wildfires nationwide, if not worldwide. The number and effect of fires has risen alarmingly in the last few years, with 2006 being the first of the worst, so to speak. It has been said, with much justification, that forest thinning does little or nothing to prevent forest fires in times of severe conditions. While this is true, it is still not a reason to limit forest thinning. Any forest fire that is reduced in any location is of aid to the general ecology. We face a situation where the influence of mankind, fueled by the media’s tendency to display pristine natural scenes as idyllic, has begun to make every forest area more susceptible to fire. Those who steadfastly maintain that forest have been taking care of themselves for millennia are blindly ignoring the fact that human beings weren’t messing up the environment during those millennia.
We, as human beings, have damaged the ecosystem of the planet. This damage results from our constant changing of the landscape and the watercourses, not to mention our vast removal of forest, planting of millions of acres in food crops and construction of unfriendly edifices in so many places. Heat pollution, greenhouse gases, toxic waste, and even the normal byproducts of human habitation are all changing the world. The time has come to decide what type of world we want, and to begin working with all speed toward creating it. Forests are just the tip of the iceberg, granted, but that tip is rapidly disappearing and it is vital that we maintain it. With the burn area increasing by as much as a million acres in a single year, we have little time to undo the damage done. When I was a child I learned that the fires near my Uncle’s place needed to happen, but he was adamant about controlling those fires. He would point out that a small fire, deliberately caused to remove a section of dead-fall or a blockage in the river, could prevent a larger fire in the future. These lessons were brought home as I grew older and saw the effect of a fire in a section of river that had not been ‘thinned’. It scoured the riverbank, destroyed farmland and necessitated the involvement of every firefighter in the area to control. The fires my Uncle used to clear the riverbank were easily controlled by the family and never allowed to spread. The lesson here is that what we do today determines what will happen tomorrow.
I do not advocate forest thinning as the best possible answer, it is simply one of the few tools we possess and we need to find the most efficient way of using it. Undoing the damage to the global ecology would be better, but that might take awhile, and we need to do something now. My mother would’ve said, “Do something, even if it’s wrong,” but I won’t go that far. We need to find a ‘right’ way to decrease the annual burn of forests, and to protect property and lives in the process. If forest thinning helps, even in the tiniest way, we should use it. The ideal solution would be to find a way to make thinning a forest economically advantageous, so that the timber industry would want to do it. Then we could just pick and choose the areas that would be thinned and watch carefully to see that it was done properly. That isn’t the best solution, but it would help and we need help at the moment. I suspect that it would be easier to control the activities of a lumber company than to fight forest fires.