Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Western Wildfires

Every year wildfires erupt throughout the western United States. This year, Utah and Idaho both had enormous fires. The size and nature of this year's wildfires has spawned numerous discussions on what is causing them.

In Idaho, the Murphy Complex Fire engulfed over 600,000 acres and is one of the biggest in the state's history. Senator Larry Craig gave a speech on the floor of the Senate, in which he basically blamed the intensity of the fire on land use policy during the 90's. Senator Craig argues that we are no longer allowed to log nearly as much as we used to, which has resulted in an abundance of fuel for these wildfires. According to the Senator, much of this fuel is dead and dry trees that could easily be removed by loggers, which would have prevented the scope of the current fire season.

The Times-News ran an interview with state representative Bert Brackett, who lost cattle and rangeland to the fire. Representative Brackett blamed the fire on the reduction in grazing imposed on ranchers like him over the last 15 years. His argument is similar to Senator Criag's, in that fewer grazing means more dead, dry grass to burn.

Idaho blogger Mountain Goat disagrees. She blames drought conditions of the last 7 years for the preponderance of dead, dry fuel for the massive wildfires. A commenter also seems to argue that grazing is the problem, and that what we need is less, not more, of it.

Steve Urquhart is a state representative in Utah. He also runs a pretty great blog. He has a number of posts concerning wildfires, including one titled, "Western Fires and Extreme Environmentalism." In it he argues that cheat grass is the main culprit for the huge fires in Utah, and that the policies of environmental activist groups actually hinder the government's efforts to eradicate it. He has written fairly extensively about this issue and provides links to his previous posts. One of those posts highlights the actions of environmentalist groups that prevented reseeding efforts; efforts that more than likely would have reduced the scope of this year's fires.

Therein lies the rub. Land users and land managers seem pitted against the various environmental groups. Representative Urquhart makes a strong case that these groups have a deep financial interest not in maintaining healthy lands, but in opposing any management at all.

The last fifteen years has seen a reduction in land use by loggers and ranchers. Yet the land burns hotter than ever before. Mountain Goat argues that the heat is caused by, well, the heat. But it's more than that. Indeed, one of Rep. Urquhart's posts shows how wildfires put a ton of carbon in the atmosphere, thereby perpetuating the very heat that Mountain Goat blames.

Simply removing man from the picture, leaving Mother Nature in charge, will not stop wildfires. We need aggressive measures to eradicate the fuel that makes these fires so uncontrollable.


Charles D said...

I found this rather an interesting discussion. I confess to having never heard of cheat grass - we don't seem to have much of it in Upstate New York. However, from what I gather it is an invasive non-native species, and apparently fires actually stimulate its growth - rather a vicious cycle.

I would have to agree that Mother Nature is not going to eradicate or effectively curb cheat grass growth without human intervention. What the nature of that intervention should be is unclear to me.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

The problem goes back farther than the nineties (the old "blame Clinton" business). Starting in the 70's, the Bureau of Land Management phased out a policy of controlled burns and dead-fall removal, both of which are the fuel for many wild fires. It isn't so much commercial logging that is the problem as it is a fundamentalist belief that "No Fires!" is a good thing.

Holly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cameron said...

Good points, all. Rep. Urquhart lays initial blame squarely on land users pre-Tayler Grazing Act. The land was overgrazed, which started the ball rolling for increased fires. He also points out that everyone got carried away with the Smokey the Bear, let's stop every single fire no matter what, philosophy.

The problem now is that efforts to fix the land are being thwarted by groups who have no incentive to actually fix the land.