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The Story Behind the Wildfires
While the mainstream media has grudgingly begun to talk about the connection between global warming and destructive wildfires, there is an important connection not being made. Today’s wildfires, now often called megafires, are much worse than those of the past due to human mismanagement of the forests. This mismanagement is based on how humans relate to fire and how we relate to the communities that depend on the forests.
The US Forest Service (USFS), the agency tasked with managing approximately 100 million acres of public forest throughout the West, believed from its inception in 1905 until the 1980s, that fire was the enemy of American forests and must be suppressed. Gifford Pinchot, the USFS’s first chief forester, often proclaimed that fire was the “dragon of destruction.” To drive this message home, the Forest Service issued various posters depicting fire shaped as the devil. The policy of fire suppression effectively removed the ancient role that fire plays in forests. For millennia, Southwestern forests experienced a natural cycle of small, low-intensity fires ignited by lightning every three to 15 years, which removed piles of dead wood and young trees, resulting in a forest with a mosaic of open meadows. As a result of our fire suppression policy, our forests went from having about 25 trees per acre to today’s dense thickets of about 1,000 trees per acre. As reported in a recent National Public Radio broadcast from the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, these dense forest thickets create megafires so hot, they literally cook the soil, wiping out the soil’s microorganisms and completely changing the basic nature of the forest.
While 100 years of fire suppression is largely responsible for current forest conditions, another contributing factor has been our policies to remove the Indigenous and Hispanic community stewardship of the forest. Communities were restricted from harvesting firewood and other traditional uses that could have helped reduce the dense forest thickets we see today. This policy of reducing traditional uses of the forests effectively made the population dependent on a labor market that did not respect their labor, their culture, or the forests they depended on. The forest and forest communities were subjected to contracts with large timber companies, more concerned with extracting profits than with forest and community sustainability.
Instituting a Jobs Program
Having learned from its mistakes, the USFS now sees fire as an important and natural ingredient for a healthy forest, and prescribed burning as a cost-effective treatment to restore forest health. To reduce the threat of megafires, we need to use a combination of both prescribed burns and mechanical thinning. This, of course, is a major task, considering that since the 1990s we have only done mechanical thinning and prescribed burns on only 3 percent of all public forested land throughout the West. There is no way that we can treat the remaining 97 percent unless we have a massive jobs program to restore our forests. In a time of budget cutbacks, you might think this would cost the taxpayer too much to implement. However, considering that we already spend about $1.5 billion a year to fight wildfires (not including what we spend on the recovery), then surely we need to spend some money to prevent them.
A jobs program that helps reduce the threat of megafires can simultaneously bring back the health of the forest, along with long-term economic security for communities. To thin and conduct prescribed burns in an environmentally conscious way requires professional training on a whole range of skills, such as forest and fire ecology and learning about our rich land-use history. Employees would be trained on how to bring back the biodiversity of the forest and make the forest community more resilient to climate change. This initiative could also provide resources to develop small entrepreneurial companies and co-ops, which could creatively market the wood extracted from these thinning projects. For example, wood products could be used to restore soil health, make firewood, or pellets for home wood stoves, or be used in alternative-energy technologies such as co-generating heat and electricity. More importantly though, this jobs program could help empower local communities to develop their own sense of community.
This is not a new idea. In 1992 a community-based timber company in northern New Mexico called La Compania, argued that timber management should be done in an ecologically sustainable way, allow for local traditional uses of the forests such as gathering food and medicine, and support local school infrastructure and curriculum.
The megafires that have been scorching the earth and our homes are a wake-up call for us to rethink how we manage fire, and how healthy forests are directly tied to the health of the local community. If these fires are the new normal, then we need to develop the new forestry jobs of the 21st century—jobs that can pay a living wage while at the same time take better care of the land and community. Too often we get tricked into thinking that we only have a choice between putting food on our plates or keeping our environment healthy. But as the story behind the wildfires shows us, these two issues are one and the same.
Maceo Carrillo Martinet, Ph.D., is a New Mexico-based ecologist/educator working on ecological restoration and community-based environmental education. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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