Nature Too Complex For Simple Mandates


by Carroll Cox


The article on drought stress and wildfire by Gary Allen Roberts in the July 7 Payson Roundup was informative, but I would like to add a bit to it.

Mr. Roberts wrote that nationally, at the turn of the century, the U.S. "lost" 20 to 50 million acres each year to wildfires. Meaning of the word "lost" requires further examination.

Were they cool fires or hot fires? At the turn of the century, Southwestern forests carried 20 to 40 mature trees per acre compared to 500 to 800 today, so it's likely that a substantial portion of those millions of acres were burned by cool fires. In most cool fires, brush, dead and diseased wood and weak saplings may be "lost," while healthy, mature trees are spared.

Since the benefits of forest fires under certain conditions the removal of disease and excess woody growth which also promotes grass growth and the free flow of spring water, etc. have been observed for hundreds of years, I would bet that many of those millions of acres referred to by Mr. Roberts were not "lost," but rejuvenated.

However, fire is not the be all and end all of forest health. Like any other forest management tool, it can be both under utilized and over used.

In his book "Holistic Management," biologist Allan Savory says, that repeated fires, even cool ones, over time tend to simplify or reduce the numbers of plants and their support systems of microscopic organisms beneath the soil's surface. Gradually, vegetative diversity declines to nearly monocultures, often woody shrubs (that fuel fires and are) considered troublesome.

Another point to consider is that fires are right up alongside use of petrochemicals as a contribution to atmospheric pollution. Recent data obtained via satellite and fieldwork concludes that emissions every second from a vegetation fire covering 1.5 acres is equivalent to the carbon monoxide emissions produced per second by 3,694 cars.

Nature is far too complex and diverse to be managed by faddish one-size-fits-all mandates issued from courtrooms and offices: Smoky says fires are good, Smoky says fires are bad. Too many cattle, too few cattle, too many trees, too few trees. Rest is the answer, rest is the problem. We need less logging, we need more logging. They all come and go in cycles, according to the political climate.

But nature pays no attention to politics. Maybe we should take a leaf from its book. There will never be one solution or a complete cure for overgrowth, wildfires or droughts, but by observing and working from knowledge rather than political bias within nature's guidelines, we may be able to minimize the effects of her rebellions against our abuse. And perhaps (we can) begin the restoration that can only be accomplished with holistic management.

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