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Know the West

Stephen Pyne


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story: Raising a ranch from the dead

"As I read the record, there were grasses everywhere in the Southwest linking all its different environments. Even ponderosa pine was more of a savanna than a forest. The grass provided the interstitial medium, and that's what carried the fire - a lot of fire.

"Natural fire in the Southwest is a two-cycle engine operating between wet and dry cycles, with lightning providing the spark. The climate has to be wet enough for grass to grow, and then dry enough to burn. In the Southwest, you have winter rains to grow the grass and then a long dry period from March to June to dry it out. The monsoon is in July and August, and we get lots of thunderstorms to ignite the fires.

"Why is it not that way anymore? It's not simply the suppression of fire. It was the whole shock of grazing. Cattle creamed off the grasses. They spread the woody plants. They upset the water table. The system could have rebounded if there had been enough grass left to carry fire. But eliminating fire eliminated the rejuvenation process.

"The loss of fire was already under way by the time the public lands were set aside. The agencies didn't start it; they just confirmed it. The real tragedy is that we quit setting controlled fires. It's OK to put out unwanted fires. But we never put wanted fires back in.

"I don't see how you can restore the Southwestern landscape without putting fire back. But the place is such a mess, it will either smolder or you will have a conflagration.

"The trouble is, we wasted a lot of valuable time. One of the things I've seen in other parts of the world is that fire suppression is very effective for a time. You get dramatic reductions in how much land burns. But you have to use that period to change the land to something else. You have to convert it out of a wildland. You have to farm it, or you have to bring fire back into the system. Otherwise, it becomes progressively unstable and expensive to maintain. You see it not just in the Southwest, but in Canada, in Russia, in Scandinavia, in Australia. First you get tremendous results, then you get the backlash.

"I'm a "pyromantic" and I would like to see a lot more fire, but I see legal, social, environmental problems. In the West, people once grew up burning stubble, irrigation ditches, windfall, spring-cleaning debris. But the West is rapidly being recolonized by exurbanites for whom these are alien rituals. We are reclaiming a rural landscape, but not with a rural economy. Not so long ago, I could burn my lawn here in Phoenix. Now I have to rent a power rake to dethatch the lawn. But just try lighting up. You'll end up in jail.

"You have to remember that burning isn't a panacea on rangelands. You have to do a lot of other things. You have to keep grazing animals off fresh burned areas. Burns have very fresh and succulent feed and they'll get trashed. And you can't just burn little bits. You have to burn large areas, or scatter burns around, so the animals have to move. Controlled burning only works if you also have controlled grazing.

"You have to be careful about calling fire a tool, because then it has to compete with other tools, and it may not be able to compete. If you just want to get rid of fuel, you can chip it up and haul it out of the woods. You can rake it up. You may have to fertilize the land since you're taking nutrients off. But that may be cheaper because you don't get the side effects of burning: smoke - people hate smoke - and fires escaping where you don't want them to.

"Fire may be left only on wildlands and parks, where it's a process, because you want a total ecological effect. I think fire will retreat to those landscapes, like the grizzly bear. But within those landscapes, I think there's a compelling argument for people to burn. But it's people who have to burn. You can't just turn it over to lightning and say, "let burn." We're back to values; back to people making the decisions.

"What kind of decisions? For that, I come back to the humanities: to history, to literature, to philosophy. All those things that seem to be soft-headed. But look at the Forest Service. They're hammered on wilderness. So they respond as hard-headed engineers, and it hasn't worked. Their real problem is that they've become disconnected from the culture. That's why they keep getting hammered. I've read all the science. But I'm driven back to the humanities for the answers."