As the West contends with a big wildfire season, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urged his staff to take aggressive action to prevent wildfires. His memo calls on managers to “think differently” about reducing the accumulation of dense vegetation. He wants vegetation cleared if it encroaches on roads or buildings, and dead trees removed if they can spread fire to valuable property or beyond the boundaries of parks, refuges or other Interior Department lands.
Forest fire experts say Zinke gets some things right in his memo but caution that its goal – to stop and prevent forest fires – is unattainable and not even desirable. They say Zinke’s memo and accompanying press release perpetuate the public’s misperception about fire by suggesting that by thinning forests, forest managers can avoid or snuff out forest fires.
“We’ve been failing at that for 120 years,” says Andrew Larson, associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana. “Zinke is a smart guy; he picks battles he can win. It surprises me he’s making a promise I don’t think he can deliver on.”
Wildfires have burned more than 8 million acres this year, far exceeding the annual average over the past 10 years. In Montana, Zinke’s home state, drought-fueled wildfires scorched nearly 1.3 million acres, about four times the average over the past decade. Fire severely damaged a historic dormitory in Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet.
Zinke’s memo states: “It is well settled that the steady accumulation of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires.”
That’s accurate, Larson says, but what’s missing is the reason that forests are choked with vegetation. “The problem with fuels is that we’ve suppressed fire,” Larson says. “It’s a problem we’ve created for ourselves.” Zinke’s memo advocates limiting fire in the future, which will continue this problem.
More aggressive thinning in low-elevation forests near communities could limit the damage to homes and other structures, Larson says. It also could minimize the severity of future fires in those areas, so that more trees survive those fires.
But the thinning can’t prevent fires in those areas. And the vast majority of the acreage burned in Montana this year is in higher elevations and wilderness areas, where thinning wouldn’t be practical or appropriate, experts say.
There are more omissions from Zinke’s memo. For example, the memo doesn’t mention the best tool forest managers have to minimize fuels and restore forests: prescribed burns. And the biggest factors fueling Western wildfires – weather and climate – were entirely absent: “The scientific community knows with such great certainty the overriding importance of weather and climate as the primary drivers of Western forest fire regimes,” says Larson. “Fuels are important too. But if we’re only focused on fuels we’re missing the big driver.”
Also absent from Zinke’s message is the major role climate change plays in Western forest fires. In a groundbreaking study published last October, scientists estimated that nearly half of the acreage burned in Western forests over the past three decades could be attributed to human-caused climate change. Under climate change, summers in the West are projected to become increasingly warmer and drier, increasing the frequency of severe wildfire years. Philip Higuera, an associate professor of fire ecology also at the University of Montana, says: “If our policies don’t acknowledge the role that climate plays in driving these large wildfires seasons like we’re seeing this year, the policies we develop are going to be misguided.”
The professors also take issue with Zinke’s characterization of fire in the West as “catastrophic.” Many Western species have life cycles that are dependent on fire. For example, at higher elevations, the cones from lodgepole pines don’t open without fire, meaning the trees can’t propagate themselves.
There’s no question that fires can be catastrophic when they’re close to communities and destroy homes or buildings. “But when they’re not doing that, they’re doing a really important service and playing an important function in ecosystems,” Higuera says. “If we value landscapes that include national processes, we have to learn how to live and work with having fire in the landscape.”
One important role that fire plays might resonate with Zinke, a hunter who is determined to make public lands more hospitable for sportsmen. Hunters often complain when smoke and flames keep them from their favorite hunting areas. But Larson takes the longer view. His favorite elk-hunting spot in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness is within the area burned by the Rice Ridge Fire, and Larson won’t be able to hunt there this fall. But in coming years, as the forest regenerates, elk will be lured to that very place because tasty forbs that elk love will flourish in the bright sunlight. “After a few years, fires give us great big game habitat,” he says.
Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.