Voltaire once wrote that "men argue; nature acts." We are seeing that action in catastrophic forest fires across the western United States - while land managers, politicians, lobbyists, foresters and environmentalists continue to argue.
We watch the almost-daily news about these unprecedented wildfires burning the forests and destroying homes, but a central fact is rarely mentioned: These fires are not natural. They are caused by mismanagement of the forests. In fact, our generation has all but stopped the professional management of our national forests, and we are witnessing the disease, death, rotting, collapse and burning of billions of trees covering millions of acres of previously healthy forest lands. Some of these devastated landscapes will not recover their former beauty in our lifetimes, and some will never again provide the same habitat for wildlife or the same quality water supply they once did.
For centuries, the forests of North America enjoyed a state of natural balance, which is easily upset when people and cities also inhabit the land. So our job as good stewards is to mimic the role of nature as closely as possible, to maintain the most "natural" conditions possible. We have failed miserably. In a nutshell, here is what has happened:
- Nature had always kept the growth of forests in check with periodic fires, sparked by lightning. Natural fires burn the brush and grasses, also destroying saplings and small trees so the forest does not grow too dense, but mostly leaving older, larger trees undamaged.
- After Americans began to settle the West, depending on the forests for the wood they needed, they understandably viewed forest fires as a crisis. Vast resources were spent putting out forest fires, and for over a hundred years, fire suppression was the primary goal of forest management.
- Despite that activity, national forests still did not grow overly dense because the natural role of fire was replaced with a steady program of forest thinning. National forests were logged to provide lumber, to promote recreation, healthy watersheds, species protection and to prevent fires.
- Then in the late 20th century, logging became unpopular, and timber sales were all but banned. Logging in the national forests plummeted by an incredible 84 percent. And we replaced that management tool with - nothing.
The result is a massive unnatural overgrowth - a tinderbox that, when ignited, obliterates the landscape. Politicians react with money, committees, planning, studies and meetings. And while American political leaders argue about forest management, nature is running the only other course possible.
All plants either grow or die. Some activists seem to think if we stop all activity in our national forests, they will be there forever in the same condition, as if we can preserve a snapshot for all time. They could not be more wrong. Leaving the forests alone - neglecting them - is a death sentence. Forests are not static snapshots; the trees keep growing. Our national forests produce eight times more new growth than managers remove every year. If the amount grown and the amount removed are not similar, no snapshot can be maintained; instead, the situation will worsen every year. That is exactly what is happening across vast landscapes of the American West, where wildfires have ravaged 68 million acres of our prized forests in the past 10 years.
In response, we spend billions on fire suppression, fuel load removal and other actions required by the death and decay of our forests. It would be far more efficient to treat the forests (thin the overload and restore healthy trees) than to put out fires and deal with the dead landscapes left in their wake.
So we face a clear and simple choice that is never presented to the public, much less to elected officials. Forests must be thinned, or allowed to die, fall down or burn. Do we want logging, or do we want catastrophic forest fires?
An ancient philosopher once wrote that forests precede civilizations, and deserts follow. That does not have to be true today. We know how to manage forests to sustain their yield and their beauty forever. We are failing miserably, and we must get our act together while there are still great forests to be preserved and protected.
Greg Walcher, a former Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, is the author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.