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Reckoning with History: Wildfire suppression is a decades-old conundrum

Wilderness managers are still trying to balance the risks and necessity of fire.

 

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

Special Agent J.T. Jardine fights a Wallowa National Forest fire in 1908.
W.J. Lubken/ U.S. Forest Service
It is summer, so the West is burning — and we know well enough why it’s aflame. A century of suppressing fires on public lands has made many forests more vulnerable to fires, whether caused by natural events or human activities; that risk is now exacerbated by climate change. But the question of how, or whether, to fight those flames is complicated, especially in wilderness and national parks. In the past, as now, the complicated relationship between fire and wilderness has forced land managers to grapple with these knotted policy dilemmas.

Our thinking about fire and wild places goes back more than a century and is rooted in personal experiences as well as research. In 1906, Elers Koch became supervisor of the Lolo National Forest, which runs along the spine of the Rocky Mountains where Montana fuses with Idaho. Koch, who graduated from the Yale School of Forestry, became an early convert to Gifford Pinchot’s vision for the national forests, largely earning his bona fides out in the field. Then, in August 1910the Big Blowup engulfed 3 million acres of national forest along the Montana-Idaho border, testing the young Forest Service’s administrative capacity as well as its mission. Koch helped organize the firefighting response, as he would also do in subsequent fire seasons, including conflagrations in 1919, 1929 and 1934.

The last of those, the 1934 Selway Fire, burned through 180,000 acres of historically significant land in the Lochsa and Selway river drainages, at the heart of a wild tangle of mountains that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled through more than a century before. By the 1930s, the Forest Service devoted significant time and energy to fire control, making it practically the agency’s raison d’êtreas historian Stephen J. Pyne has described in his numerous works. (Full disclosure: As a graduate studentI studied with Pyne.) The Civilian Conservation Corps provided the labor to build trails and roads, hang telephone wires and staff lookouts. But Koch worried that this extensive and growing fire-control apparatus constituted a “ghastly mistake.” In the face of big fires, “man’s efforts have been puny in the face of Nature’s forces,” Koch concluded in The Passing of the Lolo Trail, a 1935 article in the widely read Journal of Forestry. Fighting fires in Lochsa and Selway country was a “practical impossibility,” and three decades of Forest Service efforts amounted to “no appreciable difference” in the burned acreage. In fact, Koch suspected that had the agency let earlier fires burn, the later fires might have been smaller and less severe. Koch proposed an admittedly “radical” plan: Rather than continuing to waste effort and taxpayer money, we should simply allow such country to burn.

The Forest Service dismissed this landscape as having low commercial value. Koch, however, appreciated its watershed values and its high recreational potential. The Passing of the Lolo Trail mourned the invasion of the wild country by roads and other harbingers of modernity. The trail used by the Nez Perce and other Native peoples, explorers and trappers was gone, “and in its place there is only the print of the automobile tire in the dust.” Rather than building roads, trails and landing strips for fire control, the Forest Service ought to have kept the land as it was for “isolation, scenery, fish and game.”

The idea sat far outside a Forest Service orthodoxy devoted to fire suppression. The same year the article appeared, the agency formally announced a policy declaring that every fire would be extinguished by 10 a.m. the following day, or the day after that, ad infinitum. Although Koch was on the margins of Forest Service philosophy, he positioned himself squarely with the emerging views of wilderness enthusiasts. Other Forest Service employees, current and past, such as Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold, organized The Wilderness Society in 1935, primarily because, like Koch, they had grown alarmed at the creeping presence of roads. Leopold felt compelled to critique New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps because its “work relief projects magnified threats to wilderness as he defined it,” according to the historian Paul S. Sutter.

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A generation later, wilderness and fire converged again to challenge agency culture, this time with the National Park Service. As research on fires and habitat accumulated, first in the South and then in California, land managers began to recognize fire’s utility and even necessity in certain landscapes. Harold Biswell, an ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, investigated the ecological role fire played in California trees, especially ponderosa pine and giant sequoia. Among those he influenced was wildlife ecologist A. Starker Leopold, Aldo’s son, who worked across the street from Biswell at Berkeley and with whom he shared graduate students and taught seminars.

Soon, the younger Leopold chaired a committee that aimed to advise the Park Service’s wildlife management program. His 1963 report, Wildlife Management in the National Parks, widely referred to as the “Leopold Report,” recommended that the National Park Service maintain or restore the landscapes under its control to a “reasonable illusion of primitive America,” a phrase that today seems tinged with ethnocentrism and a certain scientific naiveté. Leopold argued that habitat was key, and that manipulating flora through fire might support favored fauna. “Of the various methods of manipulating vegetation,” he wrote, “the controlled use of fire is the most ‘natural’ and much the cheapest and easiest to apply” to move the parks closer to their so-called original ecology. By contrast, Leopold characterized fire suppression as “unnatural protection.”

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/49.21/wildfire-ancestral-pueblo-logging-practices-could-save-new-mexico-pinelands]

Despite having a culture of fire suppression nearly as strong as the Forest Service’s, the Park Service proved more malleable, in part because of the timing of the Leopold Report, which appeared just 18 months before the Wilderness Act became law. So, in 1965, the Park Service deliberately set fire to a small area of Yellowstone National Park. It was a watershed moment. It was also a bit of a disaster; several attempts made in bad conditions, including rain, yielded few acres burned and more frustrations than results. Still, the experiment showed that fire could be a tool as well as a scourge. The late historian Hal Rothman summarized the shift this experiment inaugurated for the agency: Fire control became fire management. Biswell’s California base helped the national parks there (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite) experiment with prescribed burning with preliminary results that were positive, though not without controversy or challenges. Just three years after the initial experiment in Yellowstone — a blistering pace for a government bureaucracy — the Park Service incorporated natural fire into its administrative policies, changing a century’s worth of suppression practices. It was prepared to let some fires burn and, if necessary, to start others.

During these moments and others, people rethought wilderness and fire, although that convergence was not always overt. The founders of The Wilderness Society in the 1930s spent far more time on issues like outdoor recreation and automobiles than fire, and the framers of the Wilderness Act considered questions about mining and logging in far more detail; in fact, the word “fire” appears exactly once in the law. But over time, fire and wilderness have become increasingly entwined. Decisions about one affect the other, while climate change raises the risks and tightens the knot of decision-making. As policymakers and land managers grapple with changing conditions on the land, revisiting these earlier periods may help them reckon with questions of the value and power of fire, both applied and withheld.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor, and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington.