By Gail O'Neill, Society of American Foresters, Chair, Committee on Communications
From the first Native AmericansPaleo-Indians who used fire in hunting mastodons and woolly mammoths, to present-day foresters who employ a variety of management regimes, human manipulation of our 737 million acres of forests dates back some 12,000 years. In fact, it was largely by their use of fire that Native Americans became the first managers of America's forests. Today, axes, chain saws, and heavy machinery are our management tools; back then, Native American's used fire to alter the landscape and the ecology of many tree and plant communities.
Around 8,000 BC, Native Americans began using fire to clear land so they could plant food crops, encourage the growth of berries, and expose a variety of delicious nuts. They lit circles of fire sometimes 5 miles in diameter to open the forest for travel and to force game into open areas where hunters waited patiently. Fire was also used to open the landscape, affording protection from marauding enemies.
With only stone implements at hand, fire was the only tool that could significantly alter the landscape to their advantage. By deliberately changing the environment to fit their needs, Native Americans were shaping the landscape and ecology of forest communities that we see today. For example, frequent burnings changed densely shaded forests to sun-dappled groves of large, thick-barked trees with carpets of colorful grasses beneath. The development of savannas and prairies, intermingled with the closed canopy of less frequently burned forests, provided a brilliant shifting mosaic of rich wildlife habitats across America.
Professional foresters continue to use fire to shape the landscape. In the Southeast, for example, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is found in yellow pine forests. But birds refuse to nest in stands with dense understory that can hide predators. Consequently, professional foresters use "prescribed fire" to control the growth of this unwanted vegetation. In the West, land managers routinely use prescribed fire to remove brush and trees that would increase the likelihood of destructive wildfires and pose threats to overall forest health.
Professional foresters use prescribed fire only when the results will serve the landowner's objectives. Factors that control when and where prescribed fire is used include the types of trees growing in the forest, species of plants desired, humidity, wind speed, temperature, and time of year.
Although prescribed fire is now widely used as a forest management tool, this has not always been the case. For decades, the US Forest Service carried out strict wildfire suppression and prevention policies, aided by the well-known fire prevention spokesman, Smokey Bear. Although wildfire suppression is a logical and reasonable goal that is beneficial in most areas, the lack of fire has placed many trees and plant communities in danger of disappearing from the landscape and created dangerous fuel levels in many regions. For example, some species of lodgepole pine, a western conifer, are regarded as "fire maintained." Although the seeds can open during intense summer heat, fire helps break the resinous bond between the cone scales so that the seeds are disseminated more readily. In the absence of fire, the distribution of certain species of lodgepole pine and its associated plant and wildlife communities has been unnaturally limited or replaced by Douglas fir, a tree that thrives in the absence of fire.
As early as 1930, professional foresters were evaluating the effects of eliminating fire from the landscape after several thousand years of frequent burning. Foresters warned that burning in fire-dependent communities was key to the survival and proliferation of many plant and wildlife species. After many decades of debate and research, foresters are now employing controlled fires or prescribed burnings. The US Forest Service is on the cutting edge of fire research.
In contrast to Forest Service policy, the fire policy of the National Park Service in the West has been to "let (fires) burn." In other words, if a wildfire occurred in a designated area, the Park Service let nature take its course. But using fire has its challenges. The implementation of the "let burn" approach was seriously challenged after the 1988 fire in Yellowstone National Park where flames burned some 995,000 acres. As a result, the Park Service changed its century-old policy.
In many instances, homes and heavily traveled roads are built adjacent to forested areas where fire management is used regularly. Smoke management is a major challenge faced by forestry professionals to ensure the safety of the public. These challenges will likely intensify as urban development encroaches on our wildlands.
Today, wildfires are controlled (unless they are in a designated "burn" area) and prescribed fire is carefully used to establish or maintain "natural" forest communities. With the recent devastation in Los Alamos, New Mexico, fire policies will be more closely scrutinized by both agencies.
Throughout the 12,000 years that "man" has been part of the landscape of America, he has used fire to effectively modify the environment. It is a forest management tool that can be beneficial when used under specific conditions by trained forestry professionals. But with the fire season just getting under way and several wildfires already consuming property and forests, the use of fire and whether to "control" fires will continue to be a "burning issue."
Reprinted by permission from the Society of American Foresters and the MRP Committee
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