Lifetimes With Fire A writer learns about living in the woods
by Gary Snyder
(page 2 of 3)
Basic hand tools for forest dwellers: a Pulaski, with one side for digging firebreaks and another for chopping wood, and backpack pumps for dousing flames.
I had an education that combined labor in the woods and on the farm, Forest Service seasonal work, and a college major in Native North American ethnology with a good dose of art, philosophy, and world history. My readings on Native California cultures, and then doing backcountry trail-crew work for Yosemite National Park, helped me realize that fire was not an enemy but should be a partner. The huge Sierra Nevada, from the timberline high country down to the oak and grass foothills, is all one big fire-adapted ecosystem, and a century of fire suppression--mostly the government's idea--has somewhat messed things up. I wrote the following poem in 1971:
What the Indians
used to do, was,
to burn out the brush every year.
in the woods, up the gorges,
keeping the oak and the pine stands
tall and clear
and kitkitdizze under them,
never enough fuel there
that a fire could crown.
(a fine bush in its right)
crowds up under the new trees
mixed up with logging slash
and a fire can wipe out all.
Fire is an old story.
I would like,
with a sense of helpful order,
with respect for laws
to help my land
with a burn, a hot clean
(manzanita seeds will only open
after a fire passes over
or once passed through a bear)
it would be more
when it belonged to the Indians
--from Turtle Island, 1974
From July to September 2002, the Biscuit fire in southwest Oregon swept over half a million acres, largely in the drainage of the lower Rogue River. It got national coverage. Next came the always-contentious plans for "salvage logging." The media fell into line with the Forest Service's spin, and much of the public has been sweet-talked into thinking that cutting merchantable trees contributes to forest health.
Arguments about logging and recovery after a fire have been divisive, and Washington, D.C., brass has put pressure on Forest Service line officers to cut more timber. Salvage logging means going in quickly and trying to save the damaged trees for their timber value. But in the process, there's a mysterious way that many green trees seem to be slipped in too.
Media stories on wildfires are usually off the mark. They rarely tell us whether the fire is in brush, grass, or forest, and if in forest, what type. TV reporters might say, "Ten thousand acres were destroyed," when the truth is that fire intensity is highly variable, and islands of green, patches of barely scorched trees, and totally scorched stands create what foresters might well call a healthy mosaic. A good percentage of the Biscuit fire was probably a good thing.
As for the intensely burned areas, the outstanding forest ecologist Jerry Franklin says we shouldn't use a fire as a cover for further logging. A forestry professor at the University of Washington who once worked for the Forest Service, Franklin objected in 2004 to the agency's Biscuit fire-recovery plan. "Salvage logging of large snags and down boles does not contribute to recovery of late-successional forest habitat," he wrote in comments on its draft environmental impact statement. "In fact, the only activity more antithetical to the recovery process would be removal of surviving green trees from burned sites. Large snags and logs of decay-resistant species, such as Douglas fir and cedars, are critical as early- and late-successional wildlife habitat as well as for sustaining key ecological processes associated with nutrient, hydrologic, and energy cycles. Effectively none of the large snags and logs of decay-resistant species can be judged as being in excess of those needed for natural recovery to late-successional forest conditions."
Forest recovery takes time, not chainsaws. "Fifty years for natural reestablishment of forest cover is not a particularly long period," Franklin wrote. "Many 19th- and 20th-century burns are still not fully reforested.
"In fact," Franklin continued, "naturally disturbed habitat that is undergoing slow natural reforestation--without salvage or planting--is the rarest of the forest habitat conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Yet such large, slowly reforesting disturbed areas are important hot spots of regional biodiversity."
This is bold and visionary science and contains the hope that both the Forest Service and the industry might learn to slow down and go more at the magisterial pace of the life of a forest. The bottom line for all talk of forest sustainability is an undiminished quality of soil and maintenance of the entire diverse array of wildlife species in full interaction. In earlier times, no matter the bug kills, fires, or blowdowns, the ecosystems slowly and peacefully adapted and recovered. After all, until recently the entire Human Project too was a lot more leisurely and measured.
Here in the Sierra, we live with the threat of fire six months of the year--miles of forest stretching in every direction from our clearing. Over the past 35 years, we've taken out the biggest manzanitas for several hundred yards and thinned out a bit of the pine, oak, and madrone canopy. But any fire with enough wind behind it to crown could still overwhelm our little place--four outbuildings, a small barn converted to a seriously useful library and gear room, and a 1,700-square-foot handmade house--and hundreds of square miles beyond.
I can see, and most of my neighbors can see, that our hand-clearing work is too slow and that prescribed burns are also too slow and chancy. The wildfires are getting hotter and the roads and houses closer. Not long ago, the California Department of Forestry designed a large firebreak. It was a big step to let an excavator with the "brontosaurus" thrasher head go down our ridge through the oak and pine woods, crunching all the old-growth manzanita (leaving the pine and the oak) and spitting out wood shards everywhere, leaving big tracks in the duff. This firebreak would help slow down a wildfire--not just for my place but for all the forests to the north of me, on both private and public land.
Looking back on it and recalling travels in the Chobe Forest of Botswana in the early '90s, I can see it's not unlike the way the mopane groves look after a herd of elephants has browsed through, breaking limbs and thrashing the trees to get the leaves. Mother Nature allows for a bit of rough sex it seems.