The nightly view from our deck at home.
Another fire started Tuesday; this one 55 miles to the east. Wild fires are burning to the west, east and south of my home. Overhead the skies are brown, the air thick with the heavy acrid stench of something burning...ashen remnants of trees and homes cover the places where I live and work. On the radio Tuesday I heard the fire burning in the Blue Mountains, known as the School fire, is now the largest fire in the lower 48 states with over 41,000 acres burned. So far this year 5.2 million acres have been destroyed nation wide due to wildfires.
Tuesday Sam and I traveled to Spokane for his six month check-up with the heart doctor and a stress test (he passed and all is well :D ). Throughout the drive home I gazed through the window at the southern horizon completely blanketed by an ugly brown haze. And I thought to myself, There never used to be so many wildfires during the summer. It got me thinking about summers past. In all my years on this planet, I don't recall ever hearing, or reading, or seeing so many wild fires. Remember Smokey Bear? Sure, many of us grew up with Smokey's message ringing in our ears. Only YOU can prevent forest fires. And if my memory serves me right, his message worked. But something changed, because during the past decade forest fires have become an annual summer event. This summer, like summers past, wildfires are raging across Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. Lives are threatened, public resources are strained and people's homes and valuable timber are going up in smoke. Peoples lives are changing.
Is it because of El Nino? No, it's not necessarily related to the weather. In June we had so much rain that the summer corn crops are late this year. Something changed. What was it? Politics. I usually avoid politics. I'm more social oriented than politically oriented. Guess that may change, as well. I've been reading about forest management these past few days, and environmental issues as well. Through it all I've kept an open mind, reading both sides of these issues. But the same two points keep coming up: managed forests do not burn; and the efforts of radical environmentalists interfere with sound forestry policies and common sense practices.
These environmentalists claim human interference destroys forests. Lightening strikes destroy forests. Careless humans destroy forests. Wild fires burn for several reasons, but the most unsettling cause of the increasing number of fires is the use of obstructionist tactics by certain environmental groups. They complain to courts and lawmakers about the negative impact human interference has on our forests; yet by their own action they are interferring as well. Consider this:
*In the early 1990's they fought the thinning of a stand of trees in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona because it was home to a nest of endangered goshawks. In 1996, an uncontrollable wildfire sent the trees and the nest up in flames.
*Since 1994, more than 925,000 acres of forest have burned in Washington, devastating an area about the size of Olympic National Park.
*In 2002, when the 137,000-acre Hayman fire in Colorado reached the properly-managed Manitou Experimental Forest, it burned only dry grass and low ground cover, leaving the large, thick-barked ponderosa pines unharmed. That same year a large wildfire broke out near Flagstaff, Arizona. It raced towards a neighborhood of homes and schools, but was slowed and fully contained when it reached the surrounding managed forest. In July 2002, an intense fire consumed entire trees in seconds in a fuel-clogged forest near Medford, Oregon. But when the fire reached an area that had been thinned by the Bureau of Land Management, the fire slowed and was quickly brought under control by fire fighters. (Source: Washington Policy Center-see below for website).
I'm not blaming all environmentalists. I consider myself an environmentalist...not a perfect one mind you, but I recycle everything (which drives my family crazy), if I come across litter I pick it up and dispose of it in the garbage, I use both sides of paper in my printer...that's what I do. I understand concerns about clearcuts in forests and the impact of logging activities on the ecosystem. My husband and I own land in the mountains, timbered land within an "old" forest. The trees reach upwards of 80-100 feet. Each spring after the snow melts there is much workto be done; dead trees and wind fall must be cleared, unhealthly trees need to be removed,and a few years back we planted seedlings (Idaho White Pine). We have a forest to manage...albeit a very small forest, but a forest nonetheless. We also own a Christmas tree farm here in town. It's small too, but the point is we have a vested interest in tree health and forest management because we are financially responsible for timbered land. But then, that is true of all taxpayers, isn't it? We are all financially responsible for timbered land. And when these lands burn we pay heavily for it...often in costs that can't be quantified.
I've been told when writing, stick to what you know. This is what I know. During my travels in my state, whether camping or at the cabin, I always find myself in the forest. I am surrounded by trees and forests. I have seen with my own eyes the clearcuts of logging operations, and the charred remnants of wild fires. On four wheeler rides on the land around our cabin, where logging operations are a part of daily life, I see first hand the effects of a managed forest. I get to enjoy the effects of this managed forest. I benefit from the effects of this managed forest. One word describes it: healthy. There are no diseased trees, no acres of blackened charred reminders of some past fire. I've seen the steps taken to protect watersheds and to prevent soil erosion, the healthier stands of trees which result from thinning and reduce the threat of wild fires. Best of all, I see the sustainability of the forest...it's a habitat for wild life. Deer, elk, eagles, cougar, bear, coyotes, skunks racoons, owls, squirrels and chipmunks, just to name a few. And you know, it has never been the logging practices that upset me or caused me distress. The only time I've felt distressed about what I saw is when we passed through an area in a national forest that had burned as a result of wild fire. The sight physically affected me.
Through the news Tuesday I learned an area in Washington called Peola is burning. Peola is where my great grandparents homesteaded when they migrated West from Indiana. I never knew them as they died either before or right after my birth but I have visited the homestead. I remember the lushness and the vibrant green of the tall trees, how clean the air smelled, and felt. As I wandered through the forest, my thoughts turned to them; had they walked this path before? Did they see the same trees standing tall before me during their time here? If I went back to that area now, what would I see? Black, charred trees and billowing smoke.
This weekend Sam and I are heading east, to the mountains, and the river we both love. There is another wildfire burning about 20 miles east of where we plan to camp and we probably won't be allowed to have a campfire, but that's okay. As we travel up that road, I'll be looking at all those trees standing tall and I will enjoy the time I spend among them. For now anyways. Along the way I'll see the dead and diseased trees, with their sickly red-orange dead foilage, standing next to the healthy green trees. Soon the disease will spread, adding more fuel to the forest floor. Those trees live in a national forest but laws and court rulings prevent the people responsible for those trees from following best practices for forest management. All things being equal, based on what I've read and what I know, if radical environmentalists continue to have their way, those trees may not be there much longer. Thunderstorms are quite common in Idaho. And lately, so are firestorms.
I wonder what Smokey Bear is doing now...
~~A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity. Aldo Leopold (1949) "The Land Ethic" A Sand County Almanac~~
~~"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more...." John Burroughs~~