A Response to “New Mexicans Need Fire-Adapted Communities” (March 2017 GFT)
We, the members of the forest conservation organization Once A Forest, are horrified that Green Fire Times printed a pro-development, anti-environmental, non-historical piece of propaganda by Eytan Krasilovsky as the cover story for its March 2017 issue. The idea that the plants and animals that compose our forests suffer from a deficiency of fire is an outrageous lie, propagated by the U.S. Forest Service in the service of commercial interests that are rapidly destroying our planet. The idea that there are too many trees in the forest, and that we should remove 90 percent of them to protect “fire-adapted communities,” is a lie that is the single greatest threat to biodiversity and the single biggest contributor to climate change, both in the United States and in other countries. The idea that dense forests are a fire hazard prone to disease and insects is the exact opposite of the truth.
Trees are not “sticks” or “dog hair” or “fuels,” as government forest managers are now calling them. They are living beings and they are half water. Water is not a fire hazard, as everyone knows who has ever put green, fresh-cut wood in a fireplace. But if you take a cool, dark, moist, calm, fire-resistant forest, remove 90 percent of the trees, open up the canopy, let the sun and the wind in, and clear out all the underbrush, you get a hot, dry, windy skeleton of a forest that is a hazard to homes and communities. You get a world with fewer trees, fewer birds, fewer wild animals and less oxygen in the air.
Forests are under massive assault, worldwide, by an insatiable hunger for wood products, by oil, gas, geothermal, real estate and other interests salivating over the vast resources represented by public lands, by government agencies that do their bidding and by environmental groups that, in their thirst for funding, have forgotten their missions, abandoned common sense and lost their respect for nature’s wisdom.
“Light-burning,” wrote Aldo Leopold in 1920, “means the deliberate firing of forests at frequent intervals in order to burn up and prevent the accumulation of litter and thus prevent the occurrence of serious conflagrations.” This propaganda, Leopold told us, had no basis in reality and was disseminated by timber and mining interests in order to reap short-term profits from public lands at the expense of long-term productivity. The Forest Service was created, in part, in order to put an end to this destructive practice, which had resulted in the shrinking of our forests and the replacement of vast portions by brush and grass. The policy of fire suppression criticized by Mr. Krasilovsky was put in place as a necessary reaction to the devastating fires of 1910 that were a culmination of decades of slashing and burning by an out-of-control timber industry.
Leopold was instrumental in putting into place national policies of good stewardship. He reminded us of the obvious: Fire, however light, destroys the seedlings needed to replenish the old stand; destroys humus in the soil necessary for tree growth; inflicts scars on trees, which increases resin and intensifies future fires, and leaves them prone to disease and insects. He reminded us that forests are not just trees, they are communities, and that every fire, no matter how light, destroys all eggs and helpless young, and it burns the forest floor, destroying the forage that furnishes the winter feed for animals. Even fish in streams, wrote Leopold, are killed by alkaline ashes washed into the water. It is essential, he said, to vigorously enforce a policy of “absolutely preventing forest fires insofar as humanly possible.”
Leopold died in 1948. Common sense prevailed for 20 more years. But in 1968 the National Park Service resumed light-burning under a new name: “prescribed fire.” A decade later the Forest Service followed suit. Today, the Forest Service deliberately burns whole landscapes at once, on a scale Leopold could never have imagined. Six hundred thousand acres of northern New Mexico are slated to be deliberately burned, every 10 years, starting now. In Arizona four entire National Forests, encompassing two million acres, are slated to be deliberately burned, every 10 years, starting last year. Nothing will survive.
Forest ecology has nothing to do with the mindless counting of trees. Forty trees that are three feet in diameter contain the same amount of carbon as 400 trees one foot in diameter, and as 4,000 trees four inches in diameter. That dense second-growth needs to be there. It is the lungs of our planet. It is habitat for birds and wildlife. It is beauty and magic, and it is in dire need of protection.
—Jan Boyer, Arthur Firstenberg, Susan Gunst, Phoebe Hummel, Emmy Koponin and Cate Moses. For more information visit www.OnceAForest.org