Let’s manage instead of repeat – November 2020
The last two or three months have allowed Wyomingites the opportunity to breath smoke from forest fires throughout the west. Indeed, just west of Laramie there is a forest fire which is over 170,000 acres as of the writing of this column. South of us in Colorado, there are also some large forest fires, and everyone has heard about the conflagrations in California and Oregon.
But it didn’t have to happen. At least not to the extent that it did. Readers will once again notice this is a topic of my past columns. Common sense dictates that when you have a large amount of vegetation which has died, there will be a pretty good chance there will be a fire. Common sense also dictates that when you allow that vegetation to continue to build either through lack of management, or as is the case with many of our forests, lawsuits, at some point nature will burn things up.
An article in the Washington Times in September 2018 documents how catastrophic fires in Arizona fizzle out when they hit the White Mountain Apache forests. What was this “magic” the tribe used to cause this to happen you ask? They learned from earlier catastrophic fires that hit the reservation in 2002 and 2011. They analyzed those areas that didn’t burn and found they could minimize these fires by performing fuel treatments. After implementing fuel treatments, the forests on the reservation were better able to resist these catastrophic fires.
This isn’t a new idea. Dr. Peter Kolb from Montana State testified before Congress in 2009 and pointed out in Europe where they have been managing their forests for over 2,000 years, they’ve maintained forest productivity and have greatly limited catastrophic disturbances.
In 2004, as I recall, there was a major blow down of timber just to the south of us in Colorado. After that blow down forest managers urged the Forest Service to immediately implement salvage timber sales to get in and remove the damaged trees which would help prevent an infestation of pine bark beetle. Lawsuits immediately were filed which prevented these sales and sure enough we got to witness pine bark beetle infestations gradually work their way north out of Colorado and into Wyoming. The forests in Wyoming turned from green to red to gray as nature took its course and then after trees were dead, we had to await the inevitable fires.
Wyoming began experiencing fires in this area but with money and effort the fires were extinguished. However, another factor was playing into the mix west of Laramie. There were two wilderness designations which would have not allowed for any fuel reduction management because of those designations. Once the fires started on the western edge of the forest and the winds carried the flames into the wilderness areas, there was little fire fighters could safely do to limit the impact.
Indeed, because of lack of management, forest managers acknowledged that absent a fire the dead trees would continue to fall over in a “pick-up sticks” pattern which would reduce the ability of anyone or anything to move through those areas.
Why haven’t we seen more examples of what occurred with the White Mountain Apaches? The same reason that we’ve seen over the last 30-40 years. Environmental groups have gone to court to stop fuel treatment programs. Only about a month before the fires started west of Laramie there were editorials against the Forest Service’s efforts to approve a process for small (less than 5,000 acres) fuel treatment programs on the Medicine Bow National Forest. Unless people realize these groups have contributed to these conflagrations and laws are changed to prevent that, when the forests grow back our grandchildren may get to experience the same outcomes. Let’s just hope we allow better management before the process is repeated.
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President