In this centennial year of the National Park System, it’s been encouraging to see management of the western components of this remarkable
ecological patrimony shifting ever so slowly toward incorporating knowledge of natural cycles of fire in maintaining forest health. For forests in California’s Sierra Nevada, particularly, a dangerous and
ecologically disruptive “fire deficit” has been built through generations of land policies fixated on fire suppression.
In early June, I was fortunate to see an all-too-rare prescribed burn while spending several days in Kings Canyon National Park, mainly at a fascinating workshop hosted by the University of Illinois law and philosophy
program focused on the evolving meanings of both “wilderness” and “wildness” on a planet increasingly shaped by humans.
At a hike-in “camp” around 8,000 feet up, we read everything from Emerson (“Nature,”
1836) to Aldo Leopold (“Wilderness as a Form of Land Use,” 1925) to Jack Turner, a philosopher turned mountaineer and essayist
whose self-described “rant” from his 1996 book, “The Abstract Wild,” felt (no kidding) like a fierce, but grounded, mix of
Hunter S. Thompson and Peter Matthiessen.
Click here to get a taste of what I mean.
But we also got to explore, spending some time in the Redwood Canyon section of the park, where several trails wind through the world’s
largest grove of giant sequoias. We met up with a Park Service fire crew readying the area for a prescribed burn over the following week. Click here to track how the operation was carried out.
It took 13 years to carry out this one 760-acre planned fire. The state’s stringent air quality rules add vast regulatory obligations to
planned a managed fire but don’t apply if the same area ends up burning on its own — as would be inevitable. Read on for more on that issue.
This remains the case even though recent research in the Sierra Nevada shows that prescribed fires can make the resulting landscape
more resilient in the face of drought. (Here’s the study, in Fire Ecology.) Given California’s potent recent drought and what likely
lies ahead as global warming proceeds, this adds to the logic of reexamining old norms.
A Newsdeeply story last month by Jane Braxton Little gives
a great overview of lessons for California fire policy revealed by a study of 400 years in the history of human interference with wildfire cycles in the Sierra Nevada. Here’s a telling excerpt:
The earliest period in their study [“Socioecological transitions trigger fire regime shifts and modulate fire–climate interactions in the Sierra Nevada, USA, 1600–2015 CE,” PNAS]
was a time when Native Americans used sophisticated burning techniques to improve hunting and prepare ground for agriculture. The result was a patchy network of burned areas that reduced the ground fuels, hindering
the spread of fire….
The fire index nearly doubled with the transition to the Spanish-Mexican period (1769–1847). Once Spanish missionaries arrived, Native American populations declined precipitously. Half the native population
in California estimated in 1769 had disappeared by 1845, the study states. Disease and death brought an end to the mosaic of burned and unburned areas Native Americans had created.
During the mission era fuels built up, exacerbated by the Spanish government’s ban on the use of fire. Fires grew larger and more frequent.
Basically, California’s rules and leaders are perpetuating the same pattern, even as human-driven climate change tips the balance toward more fire-prone conditions.
For one vision of a rational path forward balancing air and fire policies, read “The Future of Fire Policy,” a 2015 Legal Planet post
by Eric Biber, a law professor at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School. Here’s a keystone passage:
The problem is that right now, the way our air quality and forest management rules are written, forest managers have to comply with complex air quality rules in order to do prescribed burns or managed wildfires
– because they are human-caused events that produce air pollution. Those rules can dramatically narrow the windows of time when prescribed fires can occur – sometimes to just one or two weeks a
year. Those narrow windows make it very difficult for us to do prescribed burning on the scale needed to reduce long-term fuel loads.
On the other hand, so long as the land management agency is trying to suppress a wildfire, the pollution impacts from those wildfires can be excluded from the measurements of ambient air quality that are used to
determine whether places such as the Central Valley are in compliance with the Clean Air Act
Overall, then, our regulatory system creates incentives for land managers to avoid prescribed burns and to suppress all fires as quickly as possible, rather than allowing some wildfires to continue to burn in a
managed way to reduce fuel loads. But preventing fire in the Western United States is a fool’s errand that in the long run will produce worse fires.
There’s more in my July post: “Burning Issues Confront California as Fires Sprout from L.A. to Monterey.”
Once settled in at my new journalistic home, ProPublica, I plan on digging in further
on this and other instances in which the main factors exacerbating environmental threats are policies and practices that can be changed promptly, even as the grand challenge of limiting global warming is pursued.
This slide show gives you the feel for what it’s like to walk among towering trees, some more than a millennium old.
Postscript | Dot Earth’s 2,800-plus posts live on, but I’ve moved to ProPublica. Read the back story behind this blog at Times Insider,
my reflection on 30 years of climate reporting and continue the conversation with me on Twitter or Facebook.