Although I got my learner’s permit during my high school days in New York, I truly mastered driving on the logging roads of western Montana’s national forests after I went to college.
There was mercifully little need to parallel park my 1972 Buick barge on Missoula’s streets. But hauling that behemoth into the woods gave me a lifetime of self-confidence in dealing with steep grades, hairpin curves and muddy ruts. The acquisition of these life skills was a byproduct of the “multiple use” philosophy that then governed (and technically still does) this country’s 188 million acres of federal forest lands, mostly in the West.
For most of the 20th century, multiple use meant exactly what it sounds like. The forests were meant to be managed to support resource extraction, such as logging and mining; agriculture (cool mountain meadows provide better summer pasture than the parched lowlands); recreation such as hunting, fishing and hiking; watersheds; and wildlife habitat. It was the hiking, not the driving practice, that drew me into the Northern Rockies.
Obviously, these multiple use objectives can conflict with one another. Hiking through a clear-cut is not as appealing as a walk through the open, parklike stands of ponderosa pine that covered the lower mountain slopes. But the national forests are not meant to serve the same purposes as the national parks, where resource extraction is typically forbidden and development more strictly controlled. They are certainly not the same as protected wilderness areas, where roads are banned and any mechanized equipment – even chainsaws – are off-limits except in rare situations such as medical evacuations. When fire breaks out in a wilderness area, officials frequently just let it burn. We will return to this subject shortly.
Bur first, back to those logging roads. If you have spent your life in a big city or on a treeless prairie, you may not have considered that such things even exist. But if you want to harvest timber on a steep and remote mountainside, you need a way to get equipment in and logs out. Good land management requires building and maintaining roads that are environmentally safe and sufficient for their purpose. (That does not require a smooth road surface, as this former Buick owner can attest.) It also means rotating timber harvests and replanting multiple tracts of land that can be reached from an efficiently small road network over an extended period of time. It is easier and cheaper to maintain existing roads than to build a new ones, but nobody will spend money maintaining roads that are no longer commercially useful.
As the environmental movement gained steam in the late 20th century, timber sales on federal land became increasingly controversial, and mineral development even more so. There was pressure to block new road construction in roadless areas that could someday be protected as wilderness. By the time I left Montana in the 1980s, it seemed that nearly every proposed timber sale drew objections, even in long-standing multiple use forests. Critics claimed such sales would interfere with wildlife (often from silt runoff into streams) and recreation. Along the Pacific Northwest coast, there was even more controversy about cutting timber in old-growth forests that were home to the northern spotted owl.
Across the western forestlands, the wood products industry has been in steep decline for decades. A reduced supply from public lands is just one factor among many for the industry’s atrophy. But that reduction has created a devastating feedback loop: Less timber harvesting means less roadbuilding (and the reversion of old roads to forest), and less thinning of trees and clearing of understory brush. It also means less removal of trees killed or weakened by drought and insects. All this, in turn, means more fuel for the fires that increasingly ravage the Western forests.
Decades of fire suppression also play a role. Fire is a natural event in the forests, but when fuel accumulates in poorly managed acreage, the blazes burn hotter, and move faster and farther. It is the difference between striking a match in your fireplace or at a gas pump.
This poor management is an unintended consequence of what some people consider to be environmental protection, but the outcome is neither surprising nor new. The dangers were evident as far back as 1988. That year, nearly 800,000 acres burned inside the unmanaged forests of Yellowstone National Park. Concurrent fires outside the park brought the total acreage burned in the region above 1 million – the first modern “gigafire.” (One 1871 fire in northern Wisconsin also burned more than 1 million acres, in the days before mechanized firefighting was possible.)
Nowhere have these impacts been greater than in California. A 2012 report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service observed that the state’s capacity to process sawtimber had declined by more than 70% since the late 1980s – and that less than three-quarters of the remaining capacity was being used that year.
This year’s toll in California – with the season not yet over – has been dreadful, with over 4 million acres burned and major loss of life and property. The August Complex alone, burning in the Mendocino National Forest in the state’s north, is more than 1 million acres in size. Closer to Los Angeles, many fires now burn in dry brushland that would once have been used for pasture, orchards or irrigated crops, but is now largely neglected greenspace amid urbanization. An estimated 3.6 million homes in the state are built in the “wildland-urban interface.” Of these, 1 million are classified as at “high” or “very high” fire risk.
Blaming the conflagrations on climate change (or, as politicians and media now like to put it for emphasis, the “climate crisis”) is both facile and misleading. Climate change indeed is a likely factor in some of the extreme heat the state has suffered this summer, and more generally in terms of evaporating the state’s always-limited moisture supply. But it isn’t air that is burning; it is timber, brush and overgrown grass. Ironically, these massive fires are likely releasing more than enough carbon into the air to offset the state’s efforts to move to a net-zero carbon energy footprint.
If we want to sensibly address wildfire, we have to start by facing reality. Fire has always been present in the West. It is a part of the region’s natural environment. Letting wildfires burn naturally is no longer an option in most places. We can continue to suppress them, but eventually fires will burst through our containment efforts. So the only way to minimize fire’s effects is to minimize the fuel that is available to burn. That gets us back to sensible stewardship of the land.
There was a lot of practical sense in that old-fashioned philosophy of multiple use. It would be good to get back to it. Better driving skills will be a welcome byproduct.