We must cleanse forests

  Your informative article on fire in forests (HCN, 5/26/03: A losing battle) downplayed one perspective that is crucial for future environmental planning. As a result of fire suppression over the past century, standing fuel loads in many Western forests are unprecedented.

Preindustrial inhabitants lacked the technology to fight lightning fires successfully, and recent research by ethnohistorians and historical ecologists has shown that pre-Columbian peoples used wildfire assiduously to drive game, foster preferred forage for favored game, keep forest floors clear for easy travel on foot, and reduce fire hazard to their dwelling places. Their habitual behavior allowed forests to develop from the outset as comparatively open woodlands, where frequent groundfires of low intensity keep tree density low, and the lack of understory and midstory vegetation prevented most fires from crowning out into the tall timber.

Simply turning fire into doghair forests, or letting them burn if ignited naturally, cannot remedy the situation. Under current conditions, all too many ground fires leap quickly into the forest crown and consume mature trees over wide areas. Fire can only serve as a beneficial forest cleanser if some means is first found to thin out the rank growth of brush and crowded young trees that prevail over so much ground today.

The current strategy of many environmental groups to approve forest thinning only near settlements where risk to property is high seems wrongheaded. To restore forest health only to stands of trees already impacted by intense development, while writing off more distant forested lands with a potential bright future, seems to me an abdication of responsibility for effective management. We bred what we face with our own policies, and only we (not unrestrained nature) can reverse the deleterious effects of past practices.

William R. Dickinson
Tucson, Arizona
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