Understanding Wildlands and Fire


wildlands and fireWildlands and Fire

Humans have a long history with fire. Native Americans,
for example, routinely shaped their environment using fire to
clear undergrowth, enhance habitat for food crops and wildlife,
and flush animals from densely forested areas. Early
European settlers also used fire to clear land and open areas
for planting, while sheep and cattle ranchers used fire to improve
grazing.
Fire does not require human intervention to impact a
landscape. Lightning-caused fire, particularly in the Rocky
Mountain West, can sweep across a hillside and transform it over night, leaving what appears to be barren ground, devoid of life. And yet, as Natives and early Anglo settlers understood, the burned-over landscape generates new growth that flourishes from the remains of the fire, growing new grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees, and creating new habitat for wildlife. According to one writer, removing fire from firedependent ecosystems can result in “continents … covered by climax-stage vegetation: a world of great trees, dark and silent” (Mann 2005). The positive environmental role of fire has been understood
for centuries, but fire also has the potential to destroy property and cultural landmarks and to put lives at risk. As historians Stephen J. Pyne and Samuel P. Hays and ecologist
Stephen Arno have all pointed out, early foresters understood the benefits of fire, and yet most political leaders in the early twentieth century believed that the risks to life and property were too high to allow any fires to burn. Thus, national wildlands were to be protected from all threats, including fire. When Theodore Roosevelt signed the legislation creating the Forest Service in 1905, one of the agency’s primary goals was to provide complete fire protection to the nation’s forests and other wildlands. Looking back with what scientists now know about fire and forest ecology, it is clear this policy risked the health of some of the very ecosystems the agency sought to protect. Read more..

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