When Hispanic and Anglo visitors first saw the forests of the American Southwest, they described open, grassy landscapes dotted with enormous yellow-bellied ponderosa pines. The newcomers were baffled by the forest's ability to survive constant fires in such a dry climate.
After nearly a century of professional forest management, what had once seemed like paradise is now a distant memory. The great ponderosa pines have been replaced by dense thickets of stunted trees, susceptible to disease and exploding infernos of fire.
By the 1990s, even the Forest Service was acknowledging that its own policies had helped produce these tragic and unintended consequences. Yet for nearly a century Gifford Pinchot's Forest Service had been committed to a process of careful, scientifically informed management designed to maximize the yield of the forest in ecologically sustainable ways that would improve the forest's productivity and health. How could today's forests be the result?
The answer must be unraveled from a complex maze of ecological, historical and political facts, and the assumptions that have supported them. For example, the Forest Service reflected, and still reflects, our American view of nature. For at least the first half of the 20th century we were still largely a nation of farmers. The Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture, sought to manage, perfect and simplify the forests, to transform what one forester in 1915 called "the general riot of natural forest" into a regulated, productive, sustained-yield resource (Langston, pg. 5). It saw resource extraction not as destruction, but as a mutually advantageous long-term partnership with nature. Every timber stand should be orderly, fertile, productive, and full of game. Regulated timber production was good; wildfire was bad.
In the early years of the logging industry, timber companies thought that fire suppression and livestock grazing would encourage ponderosa regeneration, yet none was occuring. Ponderosa regenerates only when conditions are right, and finally in 1919 the combination of very favorable moisture, a very viable seed crop, overgrazing of the grass, and lack of fire resulted in a tremendous year for seedling establishment. Without fire to thin the carpet of new saplings, the dense thickets that we see today began to emerge.
Prescribed burns have been touted as a necessary, indeed vital, component of forest restoration and wildfire management. The public now agrees, and is even showing a willingness to tolerate smoke-filled air for a day or so in return for what they perceive as healthier forests and decreased danger of wildfire. Yet recent research shows that fires burning in the thick duff can burn unnnaturally hot, killing surface roots and in some cases even sterilizing the soil.
Are we really so certain today that we will not be burned by the unintended consequences of our management decisions?
Daugherty, P.J. and Snider, Gary B. 2003. Ecological and market economics. Pages 58-69 in Friederici, Peter, ed. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests: A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press. The economic decisions that played a role in bringing the forests to their current degraded condition.
Ffolliott, P. F. and Gottfried, G. J. 1991. Natural tree regeneration after clearcutting in Arizona's ponderosa pine forests: two long-term case studies. Research Note RM-507. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.
Harrington, M.G. and S.S. Sackett. 1992. Past and present fire influences on Southwestern ponderosa old growth: old growth forests in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions, Proceedings of a workshop. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-GTR-213.
Heidmann, L. J. 1985. Ponderosa pine regeneration in the Southwest. In Proceedings of the Society of American Foresters National Convention 1985. p. 228-232. Society of American Foresters, Washington, DC.
Hirt, Paul. 1994. A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War II. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Huggard, Christopher J. and A. R. Gómez, eds. 2001. Forests under Fire: A Century of Ecosystem Mismanagement in the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Langston, Nancy. 1995. Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West. University of Washington Press.
USDA Forest Service. 2002. The Process Predicament: How Statutory, Regulatory, and Administrative Factors Affect National Forest Management. Online at http://www.fs.fed.us/projects/documents/Process-Predicament.pdf
Vaughn, Jacqueline. 2003. Show Me the Data! Wildfires, Healthy Forests and Forest Service Administrative Appeals. Ecological Restoration Instititute Paper in Restoration Policy. Click here for PDF file.
Last edited June 25, 2003