A future of big fires and tiny bugs

  • Frank Carroll


My dad was a Forest Service ranger, one of the battle-hardened generation just stepping back into real life from World War II. Rangers like him moved to tiny little towns like Luna, N.M., and Custer, S.D., to work 24-hour days, and their wives were often their chief assistants and sometimes even served as firefighters.

The children of rangers were just like Army brats, though wherever we moved, we had the privilege of living in the national forests. We knew the forests the way city kids know the city. We also knew everybody in the area. I remember how angry my dad got when my godfather, a rancher, sold several 400-year-old pines to a logger.  I also remember how mad my godfather got when my dad rounded up 20 of a neighbor's cows because they were trespassing on public land. He charged the owner $5 per head to get them back.

And I was there the night some cowboys showed up late, carrying a rope with a noose on the end of it after a grazing dispute. My dad met them at the door with an M1 .30 caliber carbine with a 30-round clip. Some 30 years later, those same cowboys asked him to write the official Forest Service history of their little valley.

A lot has changed during my time with the agency, and half the rangers are now women. Rangers get paid for working 8 a.m.-5 p.m., though they usually work longer hours, and the kids can no longer ride along.  There aren't any more horses to speak of, and the secretary who used to come in on Friday afternoons to file a few reports has been replaced by a big staff with computers.

But we still argue about how to save wild places and how to manage the land for the benefit of the many. America's public lands are the only wild lands most of us will ever own, so we tend to fight about them, just like a family argues about the best way to handle its most valuable assets.

Perhaps the single most profound change has been our realization that we are ultimately powerless to control the vast landscapes around us. The 1930s Dust Bowl helped to sear that message into our memories. We've had to learn what the forests around us have known for 10,000 years, that forests are continually being reshaped by people, wildlife, fire and mountain pine beetles.

The forest I woke up to almost 60 years ago no longer exists.  The Black Hills I visited 45 years ago are equally alien.  Gone are most of the open pine forests that dominated the land. We cut them down because we needed them to build our homes or fight our wars or drive our industries. Now, dense, spindly forests cover the Black Hills and the area around Flagstaff, Ariz., and these new forests are neither desirable nor sustainable.

The trouble with human beings is that we live such short lives. Some trees in the Black Hills are over 700 years old -- about 35 human generations. They were already 200 years old when Columbus showed up; they were here before the Crow Indians moved into the Powder River country.

As the centuries passed, these trees experienced constant change, including cycles of wildfire and bark beetles, but they were not destroyed. The forests were resilient. But then, for 100 years, none of the great country my dad and I rode through was allowed to burn -- until 2000, when the Rodeo-Chediski and Los Alamos fires raged, and then the more recent Wallow and Las Conchas fires.  A million acres of ponderosa pine forest burned.

As I think about the years I spent firefighting and working in forest management, I recall the phrases rolling from the mouths of public information officers, talking every decade about "the biggest ... the worst ... the most devastating fires ... like nothing veterans of 30 years have ever seen."

We say it about the bark beetles and we say it about the large fires.  I have even heard myself say the same thing year after year, describing each disaster as bigger than the last, each one paling in comparison to the one that comes next. Yet none of this is new, and ... the earth abides.

The day we decided that landscapes were just like Disneyland and we could simply declare them suitable for one particular purpose, and then force them to remain unchanged, like Disneyland, forevermore, was the day we lost sight of our littleness in the scheme of things.

What's next for the Forest Service is hard to tell, though what's next for those of us living in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming is more certain: It's fire and bugs.  The toll taken by bark beetles is already high: 11,094 square miles in the Western United States have been severely attacked.

My dad died before the Blue River country on the Arizona-New Mexico border burned last summer.  I'm sorry he's gone, but I will always treasure the memories of that grand old time we had, back in the days when the forest ranger was usually the tallest guy in the room -- just like the big old trees around him.

Frank Carroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of
High Country News (hcn.org). He recently retired after working for the Forest Service for 31 years, and lives in Custer, South Dakota.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Linda Hamilton
Linda Hamilton Subscriber
Apr 18, 2012 02:11 PM
What a wonderful essay...indeed true and honest.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Apr 18, 2012 05:11 PM
Great article. I hardly recognize the Mogollon rim anymore. There is no doubt that aggressive fire suppression has had large, unforseen blowback. Fuel accumulation combined with shortsighted timber and range management practices, which seem to change with every gust of the political winds, have wreaked havoc on a landscape that we culturally really do not understand at all, because we did not 'grow up' as a culture on it. We grew up on the forests and steppes of eurasia, on the lakes of Austria and Switzerland. Our cultural DNA, I believe, is utterly oblivious to the landscape realities of where we are, its cycle of life. Hence we see an absurd urban-wildland interface, a kind of suburban mini-ranch-topia that compels evan more fire suppression.
Susan Gentleman
Susan Gentleman Subscriber
Apr 21, 2012 11:37 AM
I agree, an excellent and realistic commentary. We see similar failure to recognize our littleness in our attempts to keep beaches always the same for human recreation (and I think beaches change even faster than the forests, drastically within portions of human life spans), but for all that we, as a species, never seem to learn.
Mike Welch
Mike Welch Subscriber
Apr 24, 2012 08:16 PM
Awesome story. I too wonder what the future holds for the good ol' USFS. An agency that at one time was well respected by both the public (remember Lassie) and colleagues back in Washington. Based on its interpreted success and popularity with the public, the agency for many years was sort of left to do its own thing. This has not been the case for at least the last 30 odd years. The result is a mixed bag of some bad and some good. The bad: Professional politicians have hijacked the agency and forced it to join the games that the rest of D.C. likes to play. The result? A bureaucratic nightmare that is hell bent on political correctness and reaching artificial and irrelevant paper goals in order to benefit the few "rangers", i.e. politicians, and their personal careers. The good: There is all that, and then there is the simple fact that it’s the 21rst Century...pretty far removed from them "good ol' days" (as experienced by some) of the 1940s, 50s, and even 60s. We have since had a number of societal revolutions which have pushed us beyond the days of gender/sex and stereotypical roles and discrimination---something that the USFS was no doubt guilty of---and to this day is still trying to figure out. As a result, it seems that some of the land management agencies are in a sort of purgatory between the old guard and the new guard, consequently poor management decisions (some due to ignorance and others due to stubbornness) have occurred. But, I believe there is hope, and I believe that land management agencies will soon learn to incorporate both the social and scientific revolutions we have undergone over the last 40 years. And in doing so we will have land management agencies that are better than ever, with policies that reflect the objectivity of sound science, and staffed with well-educated highly trained and highly skilled rangers of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and so on.