Some years ago, when I was involved in starting up The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Initiative, I visited the site of the Hayman Fire in the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. In early June, 2002, this fire exploded across 138,000 acres of pine and fir in the mountains southwest of Denver. It was virtually uncontrollable and, among other things, burned through the priceless old growth stands that protected part of Denver’s water supply.
The Hayman Fire was a frightening illustration of the hazard to people and the environment that had been created by years of fire suppression. The policy of extinguishing every small fire has altered the natural fire regime of the mountain west — causing dangerous concentrations of fuels.
Following the Hayman blaze and other catastrophic fires, the Nature Conservancy supported the position of the country’s most prominent fire ecologists — that the best way to prevent or moderate such fires is to thin overgrown stands so that they better resembled their natural configurations. There was, however, substantial opposition to our proposals because some groups felt thinning would open the door to the unrestrained harvest of trees on National Forests.
With dozens more huge fires since then, however, folks are coming around to a more ecologically driven national fire policy. I hope that this month Congress will make that policy reality by passing two pieces of critical fire legislation.
Within the Omnibus Lands Bill (S 22) is the Forest Landscape Restoration Act (FLRA) which would authorize 10 large scale “forest stewardship projects” through which the U.S. Forest Service will contract with corporations, non-profit organizations and Indian tribes to thin overgrown timber stands. The results would be carefully monitored to gauge ecological success and subsequent fire behavior.
And $650,000,000 in the economic stimulus bill is proposed to be used for forest restoration – particularly in places where communities are exposed to danger from uncontrollable fires. This would jump-start restoration of forests to a more natural condition by putting thousands of unemployed rural residents to work in the woods.
If passed, these bills will change fire and forest policy in ways that will benefit forests, wildlife, Earth’s atmosphere, water quality, and the safety and economic well-being of rural communities — yet another example of how healthy natural systems provide ecosystem services of immense value.
The final inclusion of forest restoration and the restoration of wetlands, waterways, parks and wildlife refuges in the economic stimulus legislation is a test. Has our society finally recognized the real, tangible and measurable value of natural systems to our long-term well being, particularly in an era of climate change?
Or is the environment still perceived as a side issue, a luxury, that comes after other priorities?
We’ll find out in the next few days.
(Image: Charred tree remains at site of Storm King Mountain fire that took the life of 14 firefighters on July 6, 1994, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Credit: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)