I have been receiving several questions about what is causing these catastrophic wildfires in the west. The media has been presenting numerous thoughts which they have gotten from a variety of specialists. The most common response has been the changing weather condition resulting from human impacts on the environment. Others are suggesting that we need to do more logging to keep the heavy fuels from building up. Our President has even suggested, we need to sweep the forest floor with racks. Everyone means well but, the subject is far more complex than then most of us believe. We must understand some facts about our current forest covered lands. Originally, almost 60% to 70% of the United States land base was covered with forests. Only 33% of our land base remains covered with forests, so we have deforested over half of our original forested lands. It is essential to understand that eighty percent of all life forms require forests to sustain life on this planet. We are continuing to deforest the equivalent of twenty football field every minute worldwide today, and our population is expanding rapidly. In 1800, we had approximately 4 million people in the U.S. and our current population is 330 million. Today’s population is placing unbelievable demands upon our remaining forested lands and public environmental demands for preservation of our forest lands is actually creating conditions that fuel some of these catastrophic events. Another important fact to consider is 56% of the forestlands in the U.S. are privately owned leaving only 46% in public ownership. There is a significant difference in ownership patterns in the west and east. In the west, 70% of forest acres are in public ownership, where 81% in the east are in private hands. Approximately 750 million acres of forestland remains in the U.S. with 350 million in the western states. We must realize private land owners have their reasons for owning forested lands and the public has virtually no control over their management goals and objectives. These facts identify the difficulty we have in managing our remaining forests.
The industrial revolution has had significant adverse impacts on our human attitudes toward our natural world and the acceleration of the destruction of our environment. The past 150 years has resulted in the loss of our appreciation for the life sustaining elements provided by the natural world. We now believe our intelligence is so advanced we can control and manipulate Earth systems to provide for the future. Belief in science and advanced technology has convinced us we can control and provide for human needs in the future. Nothing could be further from the truth! Human impacts on the environment have been devastating, resulting in climate change and a gradual warming of the atmosphere. There are those who are ignoring the scientific facts and refusing to accept the truth because of the adverse impacts it could have on our economy. As the deforestation process continues worldwide, the destruction of bio-diversity will accelerate and climate change and global warming will continue at an increased rate.
Current management of our public forested lands is a significant part of the problem. I have expressed the problems in past writings but must emphasis again the importance of diversity in our forest cover if we want to reduce the hazards of major wildfires. Until we stop interpreting the science of forestry as an agricultural process, we can expect continuation of catastrophic fires, insect and disease infestations. The application of management treatments that disregard individual forest communities is destroying bio-diversity just as massive fires do thereby, setting the stage for more future catastrophic outbreaks. The time has passed, as a result of our population expansion, when preservation principles can be considered. Proper management of our remaining forestlands is our only option but will require a significant shift in current goals and principles.
There is no single solution that will eliminate our destructive western wildfires but, there are several adjustments that will reduce the risk and magnitude of these unacceptable events. First, we must accept that climate change is real and is being accelerated by human causes. Climate change is the result of other environmental issues, namely population expansion and deforestation. We do not have the power to control the Universe and Earth systems and, therefore must work to adjust our life styles to slow the rate of change we are experiencing. The science of forestry must push aside the goal of a sustained flow of products from the forests and apply more intense management principles that maintain the health and diversity of the individual forest communities. Proper forest management is far more complex than raising a field of agricultural crops. Providing a sustained flow of crops to feed the world population is essential but trees are different and require different processes.
So, what does all this background material mean? It tells us there is no one simple answer or solution to the devastating western wildfires. Our climate is definitely changing and temperatures are gradually warming. The majority of the changes we are experiencing are human caused and will continue as our population expands. Deforestation and increased air pollution will cause significant changes in our moisture patterns and increased winds. Forest cover plays a major role in cooler temperatures, decreased wind velocities and more uniform moisture patterns.
The diverse ownership patterns of our remaining forested lands create a more difficult management process. Private land owners have their individual goals which often conflict with public interests.
The science of forestry must re-focus their management principles from a sustained follow of products from the forests to the enhancement of health and diversity of individual forest communities. Dr. Thomas Berry has stated, “the extent of diversity is the measure of perfection”! Efforts to reforest these vast burned areas, must focus on improved diversity of vegetative cover. Failure to focus on diversity will result in a continued cycle of large catastrophic fires. We cannot bomb proof our forests but focusing on diversity will reduce the risk significantly!