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Fire gods and federal policy.

Thomas Bonnicksen is a professor heading up the Department of Recreation and Parks at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

They stand on mountaintops making incantations to . . .Zeus, asking him to send thunderbolts and fashion a new forest with fire. " Sound like something from Greek mythology? That's what the author of this article proclaims, as he uses the image to describe how Park Service rangers manage our National Parks, the most recent example being Yellowstone National Park last summer. Bonnicksen argues for replacing the "fire gods" with management grounded in science.

The viewpoints I put forth in this article are based on a letter to the Interagency Fire Management Policy Review Team and on testimony I gave before a joint committee of Congress last January on the Yellowstone wildfires. The issue is how to restore naturalness to Park and Wilderness areas while preventing such wildfires from occurring again.

I admit to being critical of the Park Service fire-management program from the beginning. While a ranger-naturalist at Kings Canyon National Park where the program began, I wrote a white paper that pointed out the flaws in the fire-management program. The entire ranger-naturalist staff agreed with my conclusions and signed the paper. This was the first documented internal Park Service critique of the fire-management program. The points we made so many years ago are still true, only now the problem has grown worse.

I have been researching, publishing, and speaking on fire management and restoration ecology in National Park and Wilderness areas for 20 years. Most of my research has addressed the management of giant sequoia-mixed conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I also investigated the effects of the Yellowstone wildfires for members of Congress. After giving much thought to this issue over so many years, I am convinced that the real problem is a lack of clear management objectives.

The wildfires that swept through Yellowstone and surrounding Wilderness areas during the summer of 1988 were not a natural event. Unlike the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which could not be controlled, the number, size, and destructiveness of the Yellowstone wildfires could have been substantially reduced. The changes that took place in the vegetation mosaic and fuels in Yellowstone during nearly a century of fire suppression were preventable and reversible.

The Park Service was aware of the risks of letting lightning fires burn, especially during a drought. Howard T. Nichols, a Park Service Environmental Specialist sent to help in the command center during the Yellowstone wildfires, stated in an internal memo that members of the Yellowstone staff knew "that 1988 was a very dry year," yet they "were determined to maintain the Park's natural fire regime." Thus the Yellowstone wildfires were caused by a combination of unclear objectives, decades of neglect, and incredibly poor judgment.

Dr. James K. Brown, a Forest Service scientist, recently stated that, assuming a prescribed burning program was initiated in 1972, "threats to villages may have been prevented or greatly reduced." Dr. Brown also termed as feasible "a program of manager-ignited prescribed burning in subalpine forests such as lodgepole pine."

Brown had stated earlier, "To manage for a natural role of fire, planned ignitions, in my view, are necessary to deal with fuels and topography that have high potential for fire to escape established boundaries." Thus, if only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars used to fight the Yellowstone wildfires had been spent on scientific management that utilized prescribed burning, it is likely that the wildfires would not have burned 1.4 million acres, especially if vigorous suppression efforts had been undertaken by the Park Service when each of the conflagrations began.

The Yellowstone wildfires were a symptom of a far more serious problem-the profound deterioration in vegetation and wildlife in National Parks and Wildernesses due to a lack of scientific management. The widespread damage caused by the Yellowstone wildfires, especially the destruction of the historic vegetation mosaic and its replacement with a monoculture of lodgepole pine, is a conspicuous example of the deterioration.

Fire is not the only area where scientific management is needed. For instance, the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone has declined as the Park Service has forced the bears to fend for themselves in an unnatural environment. Beaver, antelope, and bighorn sheep populations there have also been drastically reduced due to competition from an overpopulation of elk. Elk are gradually eradicating aspen stands, some of which have occupied the same site for over 10,000 years. The Park Service refuses to control the elk because that would violate its hands-off philosophy. The large number of elk that starved to death in Yellowstone this first winter after the fires will only temporarily reduce the population, and the damage will worsen as the elk population rebounds.

In Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Crater Lake National Parks, no effort is being made by the Park Service to adjust burning prescriptions that help reduce ground fuels, even though the fires are killing hundreds of ancient ponderosa and sugar pine trees. Dr. Edward C. Stone, from the University of California-berkeley, and I warned the Park Service 12 years ago that these fires were killing unusually high numbers of large trees. We recommended that action be taken to reduce the mortality, but the warning was ignored. A study conducted by the Forest Service last summer proved that we were correct. It showed that burning heavy litter accumulated during the past century due to fire suppression produces lethal temperatures deep within the soil that cook the tree roots.

The deterioration of precious Park and Wilderness resources can be traced to an anti-scientific-management philosophy in the Park Service, and to a lesser extent in the Forest Service. This philosophy, known as "letting nature take its course," embodies the view that National Park and Wilderness areas are quasi-religious sanctuaries where Mother Nature resides and rules. People may enter these sanctuaries to see the forces of nature at work, but they must not interfere with those forces. Adherents to this philosophy naively assume, without a shred of scientific evidence, that Mother Nature (i.e., lightning fires) will restore an undefined state of "naturalness" to Park and Wilderness areas.

When asked why fire is used to manage National Parks, Jack Davis, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, told me that "We want whatever fire gives us." That statement epitomizes the antiscientific-management perspective of the Park Service. Thus, adherents to "letting nature take its course" make no effort to reduce the damages or predict the changes they are producing in biotic communities. Why? Because maintaining or enhancing resource values is not important--only the abstract ideal of "letting nature take its course" is important. Even where the Park Service uses prescribed fires to reduce fuels, such as in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the ultimate goal is to let lightning fires burn. Scientific management is impossible if the guiding philosophy rejects any alternative other than that course.

"Letting nature take its course" has turned the clock back thousands of years to a time when people placed their fate in the hands of mythical gods. Decades of research have brought us to the point where scientific management is

feasible, yet today the Park Service is relying instead on Mother Nature or God. Park and Wilderness managers no longer need a degree in science to manage resources -they need a degree in mythology. In the future, managing a Park or Wilderness will require only that rangers stand on mountaintops making incantations to the Greek god Zeus, asking him to send thunderbolts and fashion a new forest with fire. Who needs science when you believe that the gods are managing your forest?

How could such ancient ideas reemerge on the threshold of the 21st century? How could the Park Service adopt such archaic ideas when some of its own managers are active participants in a new and rapidly growing professional organization (Society for Ecological Restoration and Management) committed to using scientific management to restore and maintain biotic communities?

The answer is simple: zealots within the agencies, encouraged by some preservation groups and idealogues in universities, have taken over our National Park and Wilderness areas and converted them into their own quasi-religious temples. Thus National Parks no longer serve their original purpose of providing for "the enjoyment of the people," as inscribed on the stone gate to Yellowstone National Park; instead they satisfy the spiritual needs of a small but influential subculture.

Obviously, mere mortals do not manage the home of gods. People are supposed to stand back, showing an appropriate level of awe and wonder, and watch the gods play with fire. Thus it is the will of the gods if the fires threaten people, jeopardize livelihoods, or destroy property. National Audubon Society board member Scott Reed was quoted as saying, "In my view the greatest environmental disaster coming out of the Yellowstone Park fire was its failure to burn up [the town of] West Yellowstone." Some university professors and environmentalists testified to Congress that preserving fire is of paramount importance, and that people living around or visiting Park and Wilderness areas must take their chances with lightning fires.

Parks Canada has moved forward with socially responsible scientific management of their National Parks while we have moved backward. Unlike the U.S. Park Service's decision to let Yellowstone burn, Parks Canada is using prescribed fires based on scientific research to return the forests to a more natural condition. Cliff White, the Canadian fire-management coordinator, stated that Canadians cannot accept the notion that "as long as lightning started [the fire], it's God's way. We can't use that here," he said," because God's way is too rough." The Yellowstone wildfires of 1988 demonstrate that relying on the gods to manage Wilderness areas is "too rough."

There are two principal reasons why it is convenient to rely on the gods to manage National Park and Wilderness areas. The gods relieve the agencies of the responsibility of dealing with the complexity of biotic communities and of distinguishing between success and failure.

For instance, even though the Park Service initially let some of the Yellowstone fires burn, officials argue that they are blameless because they ultimately did what they could to stop the fires. However, numerous press accounts showed that the Park Service actually interfered with firefighters. The Park Service remains unrepentant, however, and continues to blame Mother Nature for high winds and drought. In contrast, the Forest Service has acted more responsibly by accepting its share of the blame for not responding quicker to the fires during severe weather conditions.

Some environmental groups that support the Park Service also use the ideology of "letting nature take its course" as a political weapon to justify a host of anti-management, anti-people, and anti-development positions. This philosophy is also a convenient way to attract new members who respond to romantic images more than scientific evidence.

Furthermore, this philosophy serves as a justification to continually expand the boundaries of Park and Wilderness areas even though some preservation goals could be met through scientific management. Such groups will do anything to discredit scientific management in defense of "letting nature take its course,." including the rationalization of spending $150-200 million and jeopardizing the lives of nearly 10,000 firefighters plus Park visitors and surrounding residents) to burn nearly one-half of our oldest and most cherished National Park.

Inevitably, adherence to "letting nature take its course" compromises the objectivity of science. Those who subscribe to this philosophy reject in advance any existing knowledge, or proposed research, that questions Park and Wilderness policy. Thus the Park Service ignores a large body of scientific knowledge, and it often spends precious research dollars to fend off criticism rather than answer critical management questions.

The philosophy that led to the Yellowstone wildfires is founded on a false premise that National Park and Wilderness areas were untouched by humans when set aside. They were not pristine! By the time European explorers arrived, much of the vegetation and wildlife in Park and Wilderness areas was profoundly altered due to thousands of years of Indian use. "Letting nature take its course" denies the widespread and important role of Indians in managing vegetation and wildlife, demeans their cultures and intelligence, and creates a false separation between people and nature. It places modern people in the position of being victims rather than responsible participants in nature. People do not cease to be part of nature when they enter a National Park or Wilderness area. More than ever before, it is important that people play an active and constructive part in managing their environment.

The let nature alone" philosophy will eventually destroy the very values National Park and Wilderness areas were set aside to preserve. The historically unprecedented wildfires in Yellowstone are just a conspicuous example of the potential magnitude of manmade changes. National Park and Wilderness areas were not set aside to preserve fire or abstractions such as "letting nature take its course;" they were set aside for a host of values that fire may or may not have had a role in creating. The Park Service and the Forest Service must ultimately be held accountable for what fire or the lack of fire leaves behind.

What should we do about this problem? First, and most important, we must follow the lead of our Canadian neighbors and reject the archaic philosophy that bars scientific management. Once we accept management, the next five actions will be feasible.

We must recognize that Yellowstone is just the first Park to go up in flames; many other National Park and Wilderness areas are in a similar unnatural condition and will burn unless immediate action is taken to reduce the hazards. Complicating the problem is the fact that there are no safe lightning fires in large expanses of untreated forest, such as the lodgepole pine forests of Yellowstone. The only relatively safe method of managing such forests is mechanical treatment and scheduled prescribed fires."

The Park Service is trying to avoid using prescribed fires in lodgepole pine forests by arguing that they are too dangerous, yet it advocates using lightning fires that are much more dangerous. Lightning fires can still play a role in some Park and Wilderness areas, but only in small forest pockets that are isolated by rocky ridges or other barriers effective against the movement of fire. Fuelbreaks must also be constructed around visitor facilities and Park and Wilderness boundaries to enhance safety.

We must accept the truth that chance lightning fires alone cannot restore vegetation mosaics in Park and Wilderness areas to their natural or presettlement scale and diversity. Indian fires interacted with lightning fires to maintain vegetation in a mosaic pattern that supported a diverse and abundant variety of wildlife. The mosaic pattern of different-aged forests also helped contain wildfires within limited areas, because young forests are harder to burn than old forests.

Today many lightning fires do not burn in a natural manner, because they no longer interact with the effects of Indian fires. The vegetation mosaic that resulted from the interaction of Indian-set fires and lightning fires worked for thousands of ears to produce safe and attractive forests that supported a wide variety of wildlife. Scientific management could work for thousands of years into the future to produce the same benefits for us and our children.

We must acknowledge that some of the Yellowstone fires burned vast areas in single blocks covering tens of thousands of acres that will become dangerous fire hazards. These large blocks of young trees, intermixed with dead trees, will grow older and thicker as a unit, becoming a vast unbroken mass of highly flammable fuel. This will create a new cycle of massive wildfires. Therefore, we must break up these huge blocks of forest while they are young and easier to manage. This will create small-scale vegetation mosaics like those that existed in the area during presettlement times. Thus scientific management can restore a more natural condition and create higher biotic diversity on the burned areas than letting nature take its course" while also reducing the size and destructiveness of future fires.

We do not have clear and measurable objectives for maintaining naturalness in National Park and Wilderness areas. This lack of objectives is particularly serious because scientific management is impossible without measurable objectives. There is no simple solution to this problem. Therefore, I recommend that multidisciplinary teams of independent scientists and managers be established to develop clear, measurable objectives or "standards of naturalness" for restoring and maintaining vegetation mosaics and associated wildlife for each Park and Wilderness area. These teams should also devise safe and cost-effective management strategies to achieve those objectives.

Finally, resource managers must cease to act as if they know best and accept their responsibility to listen to all people and not just a few groups. The Park Service and the Forest Service can no longer justify asking visitors or people living on the boundary of Park and Wilderness areas to place their livelihood, their property, and their lives at risk to agency policies over which they have no control. Such important decisions should not be made without public participation and full disclosure of all the scientific facts.

The Yellowstone wildfires of 1988 have served an important purpose-unfortunately at great cost. They have stimulated a long overdue discussion among resource professionals and the public about the objectives and management of our National Park and Wilderness areas. I hope that these discussions will result in a clear sense of direction for resource management in the 21st century. This may be our last chance to stop the deterioration of our National Park and Wilderness areas. I believe that such discussions will eventually show that scientific management is our best hope for the future.
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Title Annotation:Park Service fire-management program
Author:Bonnicksen, Thomas M.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Previous Article:A new way to find your way.
Next Article:Wilderness at 25 - a look to the future.

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