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Yellowstone and the let-burn policy; the fires that hopscotched across half the Park last summer also fueled a debate that may change the way we manage our wildlands.

The fires are probably out as you read this-if the autumn rains were heavy, if ealry-winter snows whitened the blackened forest around Grant Village and billowed through the hot mists of Old Faithful. The controversy, however, flares yet.

Last summer's fires in and around Yellowstone National Park have put federal fire-management policies under critical national review. In a way, it was inevitable. The "prescribed-fire" approach, which allows fires to burn under certain previously defined conditions called "prescriptions"), has evolved as federal policy since the 1970s, and it was just a matter of time before a prescribed fire consumed some wildland dear to the public's heart. And in a way, it's appropriate, because Yellowstone has both the largest area and one of the most ecologically progressive fire-management plans of any parcel of public land in the contiguous United States.

Federal fire policy on public lands has moved in the last century from the simple, basic impulse to douse all fires immediately to a sophisticated decision matrix based on the functions of any given unit of land. Timber production, grazing, recreation, and wilderness preservation elicit different fire-management approaches. Suppression strategies are chosen on the basis of cost-effectiveness in meeting management objectives.

Terrain and ecosystem characteristics obviously influence the way various federal land-management agencies apply the prescribed-fire approach. Common to all, however, are the assumptions that fire is a natural part of wildland cycles, that it can be successfully used for resource-management purposes, and that natural ignition can and should be tolerated under specifically defined circumstances.

The National Park Service, because it interprets its mission as letting natural processes play out unimpeded by man, has a particular stake in fire management. Walter Dabney, Chief Ranger for the Service, defined its policy: "We allow a park that has documented the role of fire as a natural part of the ecosystem, and that has an approved fire-management plan specifying the prescriptions under which natural fires may burn, to manage each fire on an individual basis. "

Dabne added that there was no such thing as a "let-burn" policy, because "every fire is monitored and evaluated from the minute it's discovered. As soon as it goes out of prescriptions, it's a wildfire, a suppression fire." Not every park has yet developed a fire-management plan; without one, all fires are immediately controlled.

Yellowstone's approved fire plan, in effect since 1972, does not have detailed prescriptions specifying temperatures, humidity ranges, seasons, wind, fuel types and moistures, slopes, and other variables within which naturally ignited fires may be allowed to burn. To implement Yellowstone's objective of permitting as many lightning fires as possible to burn under natural conditions, the Park's two prescriptions relate only to location. Natural fires are to be tolerated as long as they do not threaten human life, property, or endangered species; or cross Park borders onto a National Forest that has not agreed to "accept" a fire.

These flexible guidelines are felt to be adequate because of the Park's location on high plateau surrounded by Wilderness areas, its cool temperatures and short growing season, and its fire history. In the 16 years that Yellowstone's prescribed-fire plan has been in effect, 84 percent of the 235 naturally ignited fires that were allowed to burn consumed less than five acres before dying out.

The largest fires in Yellowstone since its establishment as a Park in 1872 started as lightning strikes from dry thunderstorms late last june and early July. Natural and man-caused fires also started in the six national forests and the second national park (Grand Teton) that surround Yellowstone to form the 10.2-million-acre Greater Yellowstone area. Most of these were immediately suppressed, but those of natural origin that burned within prescriptions were watched.

By mid-July unusually dry weather and, in August, high winds drove the conflagrations until they threatened buildings and lives. At first, roads were closed. Then various campgrounds, hotels, and towns were evacuated, often several times. By mid-September 9,000 firefighters throughout the Greater Yellowstone area fought desperately to save historic buildings within the Park and private residences outside. They were remarkably successful. When snow began to dampen the blazes a few weeks later, fewer than 100 structures-almost every one an unoccupied cabin or storage shed-and several vehicles had burned. A single firefighter was killed. Suppression cost over $112 million, and fire had burned 1.38 million acres, including half of the 2.2 million inside Yellowstone. (At press time NPS cut burn estimate to one third of Park.)

Those acres are not uniformly charred. Of the lodgepole pines that constitute 75 percent of Yellowstone's forest cover, the younger stands in particular burned relatively little. Mature pines burned spottily, mostly along the ground, except where wind whipped flames into the crowns. It was through the oldest trees-whole hillsides of which had been killed by 20 years of pine-bark beetles-that the crown fires raged.

This accumulation of deadwood has fueled debate as well as fire. Federal fire-suppression efforts-the first in the nation-began in Yellowstone in 1886. It's just common sense, some people say that because the numerous small fires that might have prevented widespread heavy fuel buildups were suppressed for nearly a century, the intensity and scope of last summer's fires were unnatural. Others, like Steve Arno of the Forest Service's Intermountain Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Montana, cite biological evidence that very large fires occurred historically throughout the northern Rockies. Within Yellowstone, biologists estimate the intervals between large fires at 200 to 400 years-just beyond the white settlers' experience.

Arno has s fire ecology for more than two decades. "The fuels buildup may have allowed the fires to be a little more extensive and harder to put out," he says. "But the kind of burning that we witnessed last summer in Yellowstone is not outside the range of normalcy.

The searing heat and roaring, 200-foot towers of flames witnessed in Yellowstone looked like scorched-earth destruction. Yet soil scientist Henry Shovic has yet to find any severely burned soil.

"Some of the burn area has light and most has moderate soil effects," he said. "Moderate means the duff and litter are gone, but the organic matter changes go down an average of only one centimeter. Below that are living roots and rhizomes that win regrow almost immediately." Because the fuels on the ground tended to be thinly layered and very dry, fires flashed through, showy but short-lived.

"Please quote me on this, " Shovic said: "The soil is not sterilized. It is a reservoir of life. "

He did acknowledge the potential for erosion and stream sedimentation if rain came in downpours or snowmelt was too rapid. "Nobody knows yet how fisheries in the several blue-ribbon trout streams will be impacted," he said, "but my judgment is that effects will be subtle. "

The hopscotch passage of the fires turned vegetation into a multihued mosaic of greens, blacks, and ash grays-a patchwork that will stimulate complex responses from flora and fauna. Fire's role in opening lodgepole pine cones and preparing the soil and canopy for seedling growth is well established.

Wildlffe biologists also widely accept that fire offers enormous benefits to wildlife. Few creatures actually burn to death; large animals maneuver around the hotspots, and small animals crawl into holes below ground. There are confirmed reports that two moose, four deer, five bison, and 243 elk perished in Yellowstone itself; smaller numbers died in surrounding areas. (But as we head toward press time with this issue, an increasing number of unconfirmed reports-including phone calls to this office-claim that the fire kill of large and small animals is far larger than Park Service officials are admitting. We will keep an eye on this situation.-The Editors.)

"The biggest change in populations may be in small animals, " said Don Despain, a research biologist for the Park. "They usually don't get killed by fires, but they don't have the same cover when they come out of their holes. So for the first year or so, the hawks and owls really dine well on voles and deer mice, until enough cover vegetation is reestablished. " Despain also noted that woodpeckers, whose numbers have been declining in the Park, will benefit from the increase in wood-consuming insects expected after the fires. If there are more woodpeckers to drill holes, all cavity nesters will benefit.

Innumerable studies have proved that the grass, brush, and some of the trees that grow back on burned sites are always higher in protein, calcium, phosphorus, and other nutrients than are the trees on unburned sites. In some of Yellowstone's burned areas, where there was ground moisture, vegetation had begun to grow back by August. This bodes well for deer, elk, and buffalo, as well as for the grass-eating grizzly, at least for next summer.

How animals will fare this winter is still in question. Fire has burned some traditional winter ranges, most of which lie outside the Park in National Forests. The worst drought in decades has shriveled others. Starvation for some animals, especially the elk that critics say have been allowed to over-populate the Park, may be a real prospect. Supplemental feeding is being considered by federal and state officials, but at this writing it was still too early for definite plans. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana game departments were monitoring the situation to determine whether hunting seasons and bag limits should be modified.

It is the kaleidoscoping relationships among soil, plants, and animals that Park officials mean when they say fire has not destroyed the natural resources of Yellowstone, just changed them. Environmental organizations that have criticized Park administration for years, such as the Wilderness Society, support that view.

Tom McNamee, President of the 2,300-member, nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which promotes an ecological perspective and supports prescribed burning, says, "Yellowstone was formed by some very violent events. Violence may be part of the way this place governs itself."

Steve Tedder, Vice President of the Park's major concessionaire, T.W. Recreational Services, was optimistic. "The fires definitely had an effect on business-we expect to lose between 10 and 15 percent in sales," he said just before Labor Day. "But I hope we'll recover next year. And I do feel that fire is good for the regeneration of the Park. "

After a July 27 visit to Yellowstone, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel appeared on "Good Morning America" and reaffirmed the agency's commitment to prescribed fire. But by September 8, on Ted Koppel's "Nightline,"

Hodel was calling the "let-it-burn" policy "a disaster in this record year for fires."

Steve Tedder and others had been wondering why the decision to suppress wasn't made earlier, when the fires were still small. Jack Wilson, Director of the Boise Interagency Fire Center, a federal operation that coordinates firefighting in the West, said, "Instead of nine or 13 fires allowed to burn, there should have been only two or three. "

Wyoming Senators Malcolm Wallop and Alan Simpson called for the resignation of Park Service Director William Mott, who indignantly refused. Park enthusiasts around the country are decrying the visual impact on the grandest of the parks. Local people are furious about the disruption of their lives, the smoke they had to breathe for months, and the significant loss of small business income.

Given the extreme drought conditions that existed when the fires started, critics claim, the Park should have acted sooner to suppress all of most of the fires. Without prescriptions to guide fire weather judgments, Park management is vulnerable to that charge.

In hindsight, the drought situation was obvious, but conditions at the time seemed within the bounds of the ordinary. The first fires in Yellowstone were touched off from June 23 to July 5. On July 1, the 1,000-hour fuel moisture" a measure of the moisture in logs three to eight inches in diameter, and said to be the best indicator of drought-was 19 percent at the Park's Mt. Sheridan station. Twenty-five percent is considered saturation," when the wood is too wet to burn; 20 to 24 percent is low to moderate; 15 to 19 percent is high, 10 to 14 is very high, nine percent or below is extreme.

By July 15 the 1,000-hour fuel moisture at Mt. Sheridan had dropped to 12 percent. On that date, says John Varley, Chief of Research at Yellowstone, "we started active suppression on afl new fire starts, because it became clear to us that the cool, moist summer we were expecting was not materializing. " Although Park winters have been drier than normal since the early 1980s, officials say that every summer since 1982 has been two to four times wetter than normal. Last summer that pattern broke. "On July 21," says Varley, "we were in full suppression on all fires. "

And then there were the unusually strong and persistent winds. In a process called spotting, winds toss flaming brands beyond a fire's perimeters to spawn new fires. During the first four days of the Hellroaring fire which started August 15 in the AbsarokaBeartooth Wilderness in Gallatin National Forest, the daily reports show that spotting up to three-quarters of a mile from the main blaze was common. One spot grew from a single ember to 30 acres in less than half an hour. Within four hours it was burning along a three-mile stretch.

On the single day of August 20, when wind gusted to 60 mph, the Hellroaring exploded from 8,000 to 9'2,000 acres-and it was just one of a dozen fires. The Storm Creek fire, for example, which forced the evacuation of Cooke City and Silver Gate a few weeks later, raced 10 miles in three hours on that day Other unexpected and unpredictable fire behavior included the burning of vegetative types that are generally passed by, and fire activity well past the evening hours when fires usually "lay down" for the night.

Such fire behavior makes it very difficult to assess the controversy over the use-or rather nonuse-of bulldozers. The greatest similarity in fire policies between National Parks and National Forests lies in management of National Forest Wildernesses and Park backcountry areas, where nature is supposed to have priority over man. Although policy may allow the use of mechanized hand tools such as chain-saws and water pumps in these areas, it usually precludes use of bulldozers and other heavy equipment unless the forest supervisor or park superintendent specifically permits it. Many people throughout the Forest and Park Services point out that bulldozer gashes persist long after fire wounds have healed. And given the spotting, even multiple bulldozer widths wouldn't have worked.

According to Dan Sholly, Yellowstone's Chief Ranger, bulldozers were authorized for the first time on July 29, to protect Grant Village from the Shoshone fire. From then on, the incident commanders assigned to each fire had authority to use any equipment they thought necessary But by then, critics argue, the fires were too vast for any kind of equipment to circle the perimeters.

Further obscuring the issue is the fact that strategies sometimes changed when fire crossed an administrative line. Ironically, the North Fork fire, which stormed through Old Faithful and other important developed areas, started on the only non-Wilderness National Forest area bordering Yellowstone Park. It was sparked July 99 by someone cutting firewood on the Targhee National Forest in Idaho, on the Park's western edge.

Targhee managers had already decided on July 12 that no fires would be allowed to burn. Rodd Richardson, the district ranger to whom the fire was reported, couldn't determine whether the fire was on Forest land or just inside the Park.

"So we ordered up a couple of dozers-it was right near a road-and dispatched our engines," he said. "Our engines were the first ones there, and they confirmed that it had started just inside the Forest, burned at most 10 or 15 acres, and went straight into the Park before anyone got there. "

When he knew it was burning on the Park side, Richardson contacted Joe Evans, the appropriate district ranger for the Park. "It went very smoothly. joe gave me clear direction that we could use retardant planes and any kind of motorized equipment in the Park short of vehicles and dozers, " Richardson recalled. The bulldozers scraped a fireline to the boundary and stopped. Crews then built hand lines into the Park.

Could the fire have been controlled if bulldozers had continued into the Park? Richardson paused to consider. "The best chance to catch it was the first night, when it was at 400 acres," he said. "But with the spotting-and the fact that winds kept the smokejumpers from jumping-it's anybody's guess."

The Clover-Mist fire, acknowledged as the second most troublesome, began as two lightning strikes in the eastern part of the Park, on July 11 and 9 respectively. Park staff observed them. As the fires moved toward the long eastern Park border with Shoshone National Forest, Park and Forest Service fire staffs discussed the situation.

"On July 14," said Dan Sholly, "the Shoshone advised us they could accept both fires within their prescriptions." For a week each fire swelled eastward.

The Shoshone North District ranger began to feel he couldn't accept the Clover fire, " Sholly continued, "but they said it was okay for the Mist fire to come onto them." On July 21, Sholly recalled, Park Superintendent Robert Barbee and Shoshone Supervisor Stephen Mealey held a conversation to make the final decision.

"The North Absaroka Wilderness management plan," said Mealey, "directed us to control-that means put out-all fires unless the fire can be confined to less than 500 acres or the burning indices averaged 20 or less for the previous couple of weeks. " Burning indices are a set of descriptors-including humidity, wind, temperature, and fuel moistures-that are sensitive to daily weather changes. "The burning indices has been exceeding 40, so it took about five minutes to decide and tell Bob Barbee we couldn't accept the fires. We began laying slurry lines (fire retardant) down at Bootjack Gap on the Park side to keep it off the Forest. " But on July 23, fire crossed the line. Eventually the Clover-Mist consumed 14 mobile homes, 25 other structures, and three vehicles.

Decision-making on the North Fork and Clover-Mist fires seems not so much confused, as some reports had it, as remarkably responsive to unnecessarily complicated conditions. Drainages and natural features, not bureaucratic jurisdictions, ought to dominate most land-management landscapes.

There is, in fact, a maturing federal effort to coordinate afl aspects of the ridiculously intricate management structure of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The federal Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (GYCC), composed of representatives from the 12 management levels involved, started as an informal group in the 1960s. The Park Service regional director and one of the three Forest Service regional directors serve as permanent chairmen, appointing action teams as needed.

In December 1987, the GYCC finally responded to the challenge posed by the ecologically oriented, private Greater Yellowstone Coalition with the publication of the Aggregation of Plans. That document contains 52 maps depicting the resource policies of eight geographically based agencies. Coordination of fire planning was just one of the many adjustments needed.

The GYCC established the unified fire command at West Yellowstone on July ?? to set priorities and allocate firefighting resources. The GYCC has also appointed fact-finding teams to assess ecological and political impacts of the fires, with reports due throughout 1989. And it is the GYCC that is compiling the massive fire record to document who did what, when, and why.

Before September was over, Congress had held a day of briefings and hearings. Interior Secretary Hodel and Agriculture Secretary Lyng appointed a panel of outside experts who were to submit recommendations by December 15, so that proposed fire-policy revisions could be implemented by the next fire season. Park Service officials feel there is too much favorable ecological evidence to scrap the prescribed-fire approach completely, but they do expect more rigorously detailed prescriptions.

From an ecological perspective, Park biologist Don Despain called the fires a fantastic research opportunity" equal to Mt. St. Helens, and hopes a review of the situation will loosen funding for studies.

From a management perspective, Walt Dabney, Park Service Chief Ranger, hopes more funding will be available for hazard reduction. Yellowstone has long been removing dead standing and down fuels around developed areas, to reduce the need for costly fire defense, but in the past few years, says John Varley the program has been " Gramm-Rudmanized. "

Some Park critics, including Alston Chase, author of Playing God in Yellowstone, advocate increased funding for management-set fires to reduce fuels, but the efficacy of such controlled burns is disputed by some conservationists as well as Park biologists.

The perspective of the general public has yet to solidify. If the planned Park Service educational campaign works, the public will learn to see beauty in fresh green shoots instead of death in deadened trees. The 15 or so miles of bulldozer line within Yellowstone were graded back to natural contours, but at press time no reseeding was planned anywhere but at drainage intakes and a few slopes above roads.

Much depends on the severity of this winter. The sight of starving elk could fuel the long-standing debate over what is "natural" in the Park and force human intervention. Probably the one thing that could save the ranges from serious degradation by too many elk is a huge fire, but the survival of all elk will likely initiate the same cycle of overgrazing.

What natural processes are we willing to tolerate in our wildlands? Can we even determine what is truly natural in the ever-narrowing confines of our wildlands? Fire ecologist Steve Arno observed, "There's a saying that fire begets fire. What happened last summer might create fuels that feed some other kind of fire in 25 years. The question won't go away.

"Although we believe that 'light hand on the land' is the correct policy for the management of National Parks and Wilderness Areas, " said Gerald Gray Director of Resource Policy for the American Forestry Association, "last year the let-burn policy as applied in Yellowstone, was a prescription for disaster. "

AFA believes it would be a mistake to totally discard the let-burn policy forged by natural-resource professionals through years of debate. It permits fire to play its natural roles of managing fuels, returning nutrients to the soil, and making room for regeneration of young stands.

However, AFA has called for a policy revision that would allow for more direct management of the forest-fire fuels through prescribed burns. In addition, better guidelines are needed to determine whether, when, and how to attack natural fires based an threat to human lives and extreme weather conditions. Such a threshold risk index could prevent another disastrous fire season.

For a copy of AFA's entire policy paper, write Let Burn, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013.

American Forestry Association members have a matchless opportunity to experience firsthand the effects of the fires on the Yellowstone eco-system. Beginning in March, American Forest Adventures, our greatly expanded outdoor trips program, will offer a variety of trips into the Park. A brief look at those offerings appears below. For more details, see pages 50-52 of this magazine.

Cross-country skiing and camping; March 19 departure.

Llama trekking; July 31, August 31, and September 11 departures. Natural-history safari, with a fire ecologist, summer departures.

Opinions form the Yellowstone Fireline

In the past 28 years I've been both Fire Boss and a grunt digging line with a pulaski. I've fought, taught, set, and investigated fires. But I've not seen a fire season like this past one.

As I write this in early fall, the fires are still not completely out. But before the politicians start swinging axes and slinging mud, there are some things that need to be said.

The solution might appear simple: eliminate the "let-burn" burn" policies, and the fire problems disappear. But these concepts are the result of years of study by resource professionals, not some ecologist's whim. Let-burn is not as simple as: "If it's man-caused, suppress it, if it's natural, let 'er rip! "

"Controlled burning will solve the problem of fuels buildup, " some say But isn't that what "let-burn" really is-burning under anticipated conditions? Controlled (which is a misnomer in any fire season) or prescribed burning is the application of fire to reduce forest fuels or bring about some defined management objective. Prescribed-burn policies are little different from letburn, except that the time of ignition is planned and fuel conditions are better described. Even fires carefully prescribed are subject to the fickle whim of winds, moisture, and temperature.

Not all of the catastrophic fires of 1988 were let-burn. One was started by an outfitter's stove, another by a logging operation. Arsonists had a busy time around Missoula for a month or so. Lightning starts on the Flathead, Kootenai, and Bitterroot forests were attacked swiftly and aggressively yet many grew to immense proportions. Fires amounting to a flicker at daybreak erupted to a thousand acres by nightfall. Some fires known to exist could not be found because of the heavy smoke pall.

In a typical fire season, firefighters do not generally stop a fire until Mother Nature lets them do so: the winds die down, evening coolness and dew help out, or maybe a shower comes by Last year nothing helped-the winds kept up, no moisture came, the temperature stayed high.

Humans are rather puny when confronted with the might of nature. No one suggested that Mt. St. Helens should have been corked. How can we expect humans to halt 100,000 acres aflame? Eliminating let-burn will only lead to the same situation some dry summer in the future.

Let-burn is a good and useful tool in the forestry kit. The wise craftsman doesn't blame his tool when a job gets out of hand-he learns to use it more proficiently We must not eliminate the let-burn device-we must learn to use it better, to predict a little more accurately and to hold suspect the prescription parameters and the expected results.

Despite the apparent devastation in Yellowstone Park, officials there have an opportunity to redefine its role in the Park system. Just as Mt. St. Helens gives visitors a graphic look back into the beginning of time, Yellowstone can give its visitors a long look into the beginnings of a forest, re-creation of wildlife habitat, different scenic perspectives-the new forest coming to be amid the geysers and the fumaroles.

The soils will stabilize, vegetation will come back, wildlife will return, the scars will heal. Ecology happens ! DONALD M. WOOD

AFA Field Representative

Missoula, MT

The "let-burn" policy of the National Park Service is a good one-but perhaps needs some modification. The Service, aware of the abnormally dry weather and explosive fuel buildup, might have moved to contain some of the June lightning fires. However, given the conditions of heavy fuels, low humidity, and winds up to 60 mph, it is doubtful that the destruction could have been reduced by any human intervention.

In observing the controversy over the Yellowstone fires and how our wildlands should be managed, I am reminded of a writing of Thomas Drier: "There are two men .. the essential difference between them is that one loves the beauty of the world, the other hates its ugliness.... The former is happy; the other is miserable.


Clemson, SC
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Author:Bolgiano, Chris
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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