'Los Alamos is burning'

 

Los Alamos is burning. My wife stands in front of the TV in our home in Lewiston, Idaho, watching CNN with her hands to her face, tears in her eyes. She is whispering softly, a litany of actions from deep in her memory. "They have to pack their things. They have to take the family pictures. They have to get the pets and let the horses out of the corrals."

Twenty-three years ago, she was 18 years old, driving Park Service horses out of Bandelier National Monument, pushing them toward the river and safety. She couldn't find her family. Her father was chief ranger at Bandelier. The La Mesa fire was coming, aiming for her home and, in the distance, Los Alamos, the City of Atomic Fire. Firefighters stopped that fire at the fire line called the Glendale Boulevard after a big wide street in California, in the days when it was still possible to stop such fires.

I started fighting fire for the Park Service in 1972 at Saguaro National Monument near Tucson, Ariz. I fought fire at Bandelier National Monument in 1976 and for a few weeks in 1977, just before La Mesa fire broke. I went to Olympic National Park to fight fire there, but not before I understood that Los Alamos would not be safe until people, or nature, did something to change what has happened to Western forests.

City officials in Los Alamos knew the La Mesa fire had come too close. They asked my dad, a famous Forest Service fire officer in those days, to help them lay out fuel breaks to protect the city from the fire next time. My dad referred them to the New Mexico state forester who gladly helped them. Trees were thinned. Fuel breaks were built - 22 long years ago. But nothing was done to change the exploding populations of trees on neighboring forests on Park Service and Forest Service lands near the city.

Today, it's Los Alamos. Tomorrow we'll read about Spokane, Wash., and Flagstaff, Ariz., and Carson City, Nev., and Idaho City, Idaho. The list is long. Western forests have changed in the past 100 years. In places where 60 to 70 pine trees once grew in open stands, where fire burned at will, unfettered and mostly unremarkable, there are now up to 3,000 trees per acre, a dog-hair thicket so dense firefighters cannot walk through it.

In their ardor for preserving the splendor of Western forests and wild things, well-intentioned people in groups like the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society and the Friends of the You-Name-the-Forest claim that keeping America's foresters out of American forests will preserve them for all time in a pristine condition. They believe that people are the problem and keeping people out will protect the forests they love so much.

But they are wrong. The lesson of Los Alamos is that only people can change the fate of Western forests. It is time to put down the sword and forge a peace, time to forget our distrust of each other and the burning anger from the past, time to conjure a new West where forests and people live and grow in each other's light. It's time to put out the fires in our hearts and in our towns and do the work that must be done to restore our forests to living, breathing, growing places once again. As I kick through the ashes of Los Alamos today, I know there is no alternative.

We know what comes next. The government will punish the land managers, call a moratorium on prescribed fire, dress in horsehair shirts and thorns, and bemoan cruel fate that raised winds and confused messages and lit the match that burned the city. But we must not let them do so.

When the Park Service turned to its management kit to do something about the worsening forest problem, the only tools available were flamethrowers and lightning bolts. That's not good enough. When the Forest Service releases its roadless land management plan, the only practical tools the agency will have are prescribed fire and wildfire. Again, that's not good enough.

We must work the land back to health, and we must use every tool we have to do so, including logging. I love my forests and I will not harm them. I expect the same from you.

Frank Carroll has worked for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service and now works for the Potlatch Corp. in Lewiston, Idaho. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Frank Carroll

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.