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An Idaho forest burns almost naturally

 

Early in May, I watched one of my most cherished forests burn. The flames and smoke were great to see. Fire is often seen as death and destruction for a forest, but here was a forest living with fire as an ecological process.

Exactly 10 years ago, this old-growth ponderosa pine forest of the Deadwood River roadless area in the Boise National Forest was slated to be logged. Politics and economics in those days pushed conservationists and the U.S. Forest Service into a collision course. The agency said it had to log the forest to save it from fire; conservationists wanted to let nature run its course — to let fire return as the agent of change.

Today, ashes from a controlled burn ring the statuesque old pines. Fire had become the preferred management tool, not logging, and the trees stand tall in full forested glory.

The May fire above Deadwood River was just one of three prescribed fires I'd seen in a week on the Boise forest of southwest Idaho. All of the burns took place in dry ponderosa pines where, under natural conditions, frequent low-intensity fires burn brush, needles and smaller trees. At the same time, these kinds of fires leave the big, fire-resilient trees untouched. All of the prescribed fires did a pretty good job of mimicking that natural pattern.

Two things stand out for me from this experience. The first is that fire can and should be part of the forest ecosystem today. The second is that the Forest Service has begun working with fire in ways only imagined just 10 years ago.

When I walked through the Deadwood River burn 10 days after it was set, some logs still smoldered, and a few flare-ups carried small runs of flame. Some pockets burned hot, leaving white powdery ash. A few of the pine giants had burned at the base, and they may become snags beneficial to wildlife or windfalls that add nutrients to soils.

Inside the 3,000-acre burn zone, I saw a mule deer, four elk, fresh wolf scat, a pileated woodpecker and, on a warm Sunday, two mountain bikers and two hikers. In the fire aftermath, the forest continues for all creatures.

"Night and day" is how 31-year Forest Service veteran David Olson, of the Boise forest, described the changes he's seen in his agency's approach to fire. "All we ever talked about when I started was fire suppression; we never talked about fuels management."

Speed in putting out wildfire was the old measure of success. These days, success includes protection of homes, setting fires that imitate nature's ways and allowing natural, lightning-caused fire to burn for beneficial effects. People are preparing for and living with fire — not just fighting it.

Firefighting, the valiant effort to control the fearful force of nature, makes headlines. Meanwhile, the bigger story plays out quietly with creeping ground flames cleaning up the forest.

Deadwood River is the best example of old-growth ponderosa pine forest near Boise. As one of the Forest Service fire managers, Gabe Dumm, explains, "The reason fire is so important here is because these sites are too dry for accumulated needles and other small material to decompose. Fire keeps the forest litter trimmed back."

The Boise forest uses prescribed fire in spring and fall to reduce fuels and restore ecosystems on about 10,000 acres every year. In southwest Idaho, three national forests, the Idaho Department of Lands and the Bureau of Land Management plan to burn 38,861 acres this year.

On my office wall is a photograph of three 3-foot-thick ponderosa pines striped with blue paint, marking them to be cut under the 1996 Deadwood logging plan. At one point, the Forest Service marked 75,908 trees, ranging from 8-inches to 62-inches in diameter, to be cut across 18,700 acres. It took a sometimes-rancorous public debate over five years to stop that timber sale.

Now on the wall is a 2006 photograph — today's picture — where fire scorched almost all the blue paint off two stately ponderosa pines. It's good that the Deadwood River forest still lives — with fire.

John McCarthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Boise, where he is the Idaho forest campaign manager for The Wilderness Society.