Is U.S. Wildfire Policy a Smoke Screen?

By Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated August 15, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every Friday.

"Everybody is trying to hijack the fire issue for their own agendas" —Fire historian Stephen Pyne

If you like driving among towering Sierra Nevada ponderosa pines older than the Constitution, or hiking Montana's Bitterroot in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, you may be making one of the year's half billion visits to America's national parks and forests.

Except, of course, to the forests that are on fire. In Montana alone, 19 fires were burning at last report. One has closed part of Glacier National Park.

Wildfires have been getting worse over the years. In response, the government now plans drastic tree-thinning under its Healthy Forests Initiative. Skeptics call it a pretext for logging, one that flies in the face of our forests' overarching value as places to visit and appreciate.

Today's fires can grow unusually fierce because Smokey Bear went overboard. For decades, the well-meaning policy of suppressing all forest fires allowed too much fuel—dead wood, underbrush, small trees—to build up on public lands, especially in the fire-prone West. What might have once been a minor grass fire now turns cataclysmic, like last year's Hayman Fire in Colorado.

All parties generally agree that many forests need tidying up—by cutting, or carefully controlled burning, or both.

There, agreement ends. Citing cost efficiency, the Bush administration will invite loggers to do the thinning and let them cut what they need for profit. Critics say they'll take the best, biggest trees.

To sort it out, I consulted the nation's best-known fire historian, Dr. Stephen Pyne, based at Arizona State.

"I am dismayed that they are coupling fire management with commercial logging," he says of the White House plan. "Usually fire takes the little stuff and leaves the big, while logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little." Logging debris, he adds, is a worse hazard yet.

But both sides, Pyne says, oversimplify. Forests are naturally adapted to fire, but in different ways. The open grass-tree mix typical of ponderosa pine needs frequent, mild grass fires. The bigger trees survive, providing key habitat and pools of cooling shade. Lodgepole pine forests, by contrast, grow thickly and regenerate every century or so from "self-immolating burns," as in the seemingly catastrophic Yellowstone fires of 1988.

Jim Furnish, a former deputy Forest Service chief, agrees. In Yellowstone today, he points out, "you can see all the young lodgepoles growing the way they're supposed to. Yellowstone is performing exactly as a wild park should." Lodgepole, in fact, relies on fire to open its seed-laden pine cones.

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