By Zack Steel
What is the most memorable class you’ve ever taken? It was likely taught by a brilliant and inspirational teacher expounding upon a fascinating subject full of nuance and complexity. But did that class also make you feel awe, exhaustion, and a little fear? Did it soak you to the bone?
I thought we’d try something new for this post and instead of giving you my opinion or sharing some knowledge of a subject, I will solicit the help of the reader. Last week the editorial board of Nature’s Confluence (i.e., The Schwartz lab meeting) was discussing what at first might seem like an obvious question: What is the principal driver of conservation land preservation? Put another way, why are some lands (or waters) purchased or otherwise partially or completely removed from economic use? We are specifically thinking of modern acquisitions (let’s say the last couple of decades) with the ultimate goal being biodiversity conservation. So what do you think?
California forests give us clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, lumber and recreation. But they are threatened by a maelstrom of environmental drivers of change, which have intensified across four years of drought. Consider just one indicator of forest health: In its most recent survey (May), the US Forest service said more than 12 million trees in California were dead. A scientist using new technology to measure drought stress said this week to the number may soar to 120 million — one-fifth of the state's forests.
We need a new vision for managing our wildlands with policies based on science and acting in the interest of the greatest public good. Horrific recent events should inspire reform of not only wildfire management, but also of our overall forest-health stewardship and governance.
The incentives -- and opportunities -- for real progress have never been greater. Federal agencies (which manage 19 million acres, or 57 percent, of California forests) have a new National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Plan. The U.S. Forest Service is writing nearly 150 new fire plans. The top officials of the departments of Interior and Agriculture and of the White House Office of Management and Budget recently asked Congress to adequately fund the soaring costs of wildfire suppression (an estimated half of the USFS budget in 2015), so that they can stop borrowing from agency budgets for fire prevention, forest research and recreation.
Wildfires in the West, especially what are being termed “mega-fires” can be terrifying and destructive events. Terms such as “environmental disaster” and “moonscape” are often heard in media reports discussing the effects of such conflagrations, further feeding such fears of fire in the West. These terms are symptomatic of a collective emotional response to wildfires. An emotional response we are encouraged to feel as small children. Perhaps the most memorable example of this indoctrination is the lovable Smoky the Bear who has been scaring children straight about wildfires since the 1940s. These stories along with dramatic images of charred trees and blackened soil reinforce the notion that burned forests are completely destroyed, essentially converted to desolate wastelands for decades to come. But what do these landscapes actually look like if we continue watching long after the smoke clears? The Rim Fire, a mega-fire started by a hunter in August of 2013, dramatically burned through the Toulumne River watershed into Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire burned through an area approximately twice that of Lake Tahoe and is, to date, the largest wildfire in Sierra Nevada history and the third largest ever recorded in California. The fire encompasses huge swathes of land with near-total mortality of pre-fire vegetation and has undoubtedly left a huge mark on the landscape. Certainly these fires can be tragic to the people who depend on these forests for their livelihoods, but is this truly an environmental disaster?
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