It’s become something like a home truth to believe that in this season of big fires, “managed burning” of our forests will prevent something worse: the conflagrations that in California and elsewhere have devoured thousands of acres. We’ve been spared, miraculously, in New Mexico so far this summer, but the past two months we have been blanketed in smoke from our neighbors. Now we are likely to hear more promotion of “managed burning” from the government and the Forest Service.
I had the pleasure and privilege a few days ago of walking in my neighboring forest with a friend who has spent decades studying the issues around fire and forests. We were strolling along a deep canyon with a view in the veiled distance of a mountain, along a narrow, seldom-traveled trail. All around us were the signs of the last “controlled burn” two years ago in felled and scorched tree trunks, sometimes left smoldering after the crew moves through.
My guide explained to me that according to the long view—the very long view, covering millions of years—fire has occurred naturally at intervals in the forests, taking out dead and dying trees and burning off underbrush. This is what happens if we leave our forests alone.
Now, though, the frequency and intensity of fires has made it seem that we, or the Forest Service, must “do something.” But it seems unlikely that anything we do will decrease the effects of global warming. As heat increases, year after year, trees dry out and become welcoming habitats for the bark beetle, which feasts on the tree’s cambion, the inner layer revealed when the bark dries and scales off. These dying or dead trees are inevitably fire-prone and it seems there is little we can do about it until cool weather and rains—we pray!—eventually come.
But burning to prevent burning produces unwelcome results. It is about to begin in the 120 acres I saw as soon as our firefighters return from battling the blazes in California—that seems a bit ironic! Since this stretch of forest is home to sixty varieties of birds, including the Hairy Woodpecker, which makes its nest here, and the Golden Eagle, burning down the trees they need in order to breed and live is enormously destructive.
Equally dismaying, a well-intentioned decision to spare big old-growth Ponderosa leads to the slow death of the tree. When the woods around the chosen tree are cut down, the Ponderosa, which thrives on shade, is exposed to brutal sun. The result, as shown in the photograph, is death by drying and bark beetle.
Even after all the studies and all the good-hearted attempts to help the forest, we remain ignorant of what trees need in order to thrive. Oddly enough, even in the face of wildfires, we may do them a favor by leaving them alone.I grew up hearing Joyce Kilmore’s often mocked poem, “I think I shall never see/A thing so lovely as a tree.”
Simple as it is, this heartfelt little poem, first published in 1914 four years before Kilmore was killed in France during the First World War, needs to be remembered today.
Its final lines are “Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.”
[For more on our forest management policies, please see Chad Hanson’s piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Lessons from the La Tuna Fire.”]