Like a lot of small towns in the West, my town of Ashland is nestled in a lovely valley surrounded by conifer forests. The forests grow on public lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and last year, as in many recent years, there were fires on those lands. The town of Ashland was not threatened, but our valley filled with thick, eye-burning smoke for weeks at a time.
It was miserable. Outdoor theater and music events were canceled, drastically affecting the summer tourist season, which is critical for our economy. Folks who would usually be out hiking, camping, fishing, birding and rafting stayed indoors. Parents kept their kids inside. Everyone got cranky. We’ve never had a summer with smoke as bad as this.
Understandably, people don’t want to go through this again next summer — or ever. And so the search is on for solutions. Some are taking this opportunity to advocate for drastic changes in public-lands forest management. The primary vehicle for this effort is the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” H.R. 2936, often called the Westerman bill for its primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. In the name of making forests “resilient” to fire, it would promote logging by sharply curtailing existing environmental laws.
Among other provisions, it would restrict citizen involvement in public-lands management by limiting legal challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws; greatly expand “categorical exclusions” in areas of up to 10,000 acres where logging and post-fire salvage could occur without any environmental assessment; and eliminate the “survey and manage” program that provides data essential for informed forest management. This truly radical bill has passed the House and awaits consideration by the Senate.
Let’s be generous for a moment. Let’s say that the Westerman bill is not a cynical attempt to exploit anxiety about fire to achieve otherwise unattainable amounts of logging, long sought by the timber industry. Let’s assume that it’s a genuine attempt to solve the problem of fire — which, of course, implies: (1) that fire is a problem; and (2) that it can be solved.
Most Western conifer forests, except those along the rain-drenched Pacific Coast, are adapted to frequent fires. That is true of my region of southern Oregon, where studies of tree rings have shown that fires historically returned to a piece of ground every 15-20 years or so. Most of those fires were relatively low intensity, and many were likely set deliberately by Native Americans, who made sophisticated use of fire as a land-management tool. These fires cleared out dense thickets and fallen limbs and maintained a relatively open forest structure in many areas.
Decades of fire suppression, coupled with logging that has replaced complex mixed-age forests with uniform-aged stands and tree plantations, has certainly made things worse, increasing the likelihood of severe, stand-replacing fires.
But that is increasingly overshadowed by another factor affecting wildland fire frequency and severity: climate change. There is not a single mention of the role of climate change in the Westerman bill, so it looks like I was too generous to set aside that whole cynical exploitation thing.
Much research now supports the correlation between climate change and fire seasons that start earlier and end later, with more days of extreme “fire weather.” Such fire weather led to the devastating fires of 2017, in Northern California. Those fires burned at least 245,000 acres, destroyed almost 9,000 buildings, and cost over $3 billion. They were almost entirely on private land, not on national forests. The severity of those fires had nothing to do with a lack of logging.
We are kidding ourselves if we think we can find a “solution” to wildlands fire and the smoke that comes with it. Such thinking denies fire its place as a natural and inevitable part of this environment where we have chosen to live. Our forests need fire, and there is no way we can exclude it. Instead of trying to log our way out of fire danger, we need to adapt ourselves to the reality of living in this fire-adapted landscape. We can, and should, practice “fireproof” landscaping around our homes, and carry out larger fuels-reduction projects in high-risk areas like the wildland-urban interface at the edge of our towns.
But we can’t “solve” fire here in Oregon any more than Florida can “solve” hurricanes. Both are natural phenomena — and both are bound to get worse with unchecked climate change. Our best hope of a future with ecologically appropriate forest fires and tolerable levels of smoke is to take immediate action to limit climate change. What do you say, Congress: Want to focus on a real problem for a change?
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer and forensic biologist in Oregon.