March-April, 2002





Guest Columnist

guest columnist Donn Zea is president of the California Forest Products Commissions 

When mythology drives forest policy 

One of the most enduring myths about forest management is the idea that California's Sierra Nevada forests should somehow be returned to pristine "pre- European conditions" through fire suppression and bans on logging. The idea has been used to justify the creation of vast "biodiversity corridors," leaving tens of thousands of acres of charred lumber to rot rather than salvage them, and to hamstring the forestry industry at every turn. This vision of "pre- European" conditions has little to do with what forests actually were like before Europeans arrived. 

Downieville from Cannon Point


Naturally occurring, long-lasting, low-intensity fires have always modified forests and thinned out stands that would otherwise become too dense. Native Americans also used fire extensively-the only large-scale landscape altering tool at their disposal-to shape the Sierra for agriculture and hunting. In fact, the historical evidence now indicates that pre-European Sierra Nevada forests looked much more like modern managed forests than the overgrown federal lands created by gridlock in our national forest policies during the past 10 years. 

The irony is that the super-hot, catastrophic wildfires seen in recent years are largely the result of anti-logging policies based on modern mythology about what "pre-European" forests were like. A new book called "Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests-A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849" (Mountain Press), published with help from The Forest Foundation, makes all of this abundantly clear. 

Eureka (Graniteville)


The author, wildlife biologist George Gruell, uses photographic evidence to prove that today's over-dense, tree-choked forests are not at all like the more open forests that existed in the recent historical past. The book is filled with actual photographs of how forests looked when they were first encountered by westerners in the wake of the California Gold Rush. Gruell contrasts these photos with others taken from precisely the same vantage points, about a century later. In almost every case, the comparisons show that forests today are much denser, with taller trees and fewer open spaces, than they were prior to 1900. 

Furthermore, Gruell identifies many burnt tree stumps in the historical photos, showing that many fires swept across the Sierra Nevada in "pre-European" times, and that these had a significant- and beneficial-impact on the ecological landscape. In fact, "periodic disturbance," says Gruell, is a major part of a healthy forest's continuous, natural cycle of growth, death and rebirth. In the old days, unchecked, mostly low-intensity fires burned through vast areas. Instead of trying to freeze these natural processes environmental activists should try to restore the natural rhythm of "periodic disturbance." 

Instead of getting the government to ban logging, human access and roads in vast areas, forest managers should figure out the best way to duplicate the cleansing effects of the natural cycle of fire and rejuvenation, through logging, thinning and prescribed burning. If we don't, disaster can result. For example, last year's Star fire burned 16,000 acres of Sierra Nevada forest, part of which was old-growth timber that had been earmarked for fire-safe thinning. 

These stands were burned to the scorched earth because endless appeals to "save" the older trees delayed the thinning. Aerial photography now shows that where the national forests abutted private managed forestlands-which had been properly thinned-the fire did not spread. As Gruell makes clear in his book, this is exactly how historical forests would also have responded when low-intensity fires reached previously burnt meadows and thinner stands. In the 1930s some 35 million acres of American forest and wildlands burned each year. By 2000, that amount had dwindled to less than one-tenth as much. 

The great success of fire suppression has unwittingly created an extremely dangerous "condition red" in the public wildlands. This is especially true in the blurred border zone of encroachment-the interface-between humans and the forests, as Californians continue to consume farm and forest land for development. Ironically, California private timberlands, managed for harvesting timber under the most stringent ecological regulations anywhere on earth, are a very close approximation to the kinds of western forests that greeted the pioneers. 

Such is not the case on government- owned forests, but that can change. Today, defensible fire breaks and thinning can be done for profit, within the guidelines of the most comprehensive environmental reviews the U.S. government can mount. In the process we can reduce our reliance on overseas resources, renew our federal forests, create economic opportunity in rural communities, and produce the consumer products all Californians enjoy. 

But to do this, we can't continue with rigid "hands off" policies that fuel catastrophic wildfires, polarize public debate, and forfeit the advantages of managed forestry. Pre-European, publicly owned, fire-safe forests can be recreated through more flexible forest management policies, increased reforestation efforts, and more attention to local fire suppression and community needs. It would be tragic if, before we reach this goal, many more dangerous wildfires had to rage.


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