Hi all, my name is Leana Weissberg and I am a Natural Resource Social Science Intern with the Sierra Institute. Over the next month, I’ll be sharing musings, photos, and other news from the West for our West Wednesday series. Please enjoy this week’s edition and check back next Wednesday for more!
Last month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke addressed Department of Interior (DOI) Superintendents, urging them to employ fuels reduction and pre-suppression practices to lessen the occurrence and impacts of extreme wildfires. As a major landholder in the American West, and following years of particularly dangerous and rapacious fire seasons, the DOI should unquestionably be an active participant in the conversation around reducing wildfire risk. Zinke’s contribution is informed by the claim that unnaturally dense forests increase the severity and spread of wildfire. While the nuances of this argument have been, and continue to be, debated, many in the scientific community and beyond would agree with this premise. However, Zinke’s proposed solution misses many of the main points.
First, climate change plays a critical role in the increase of severe wildfire events and should be explicitly considered when re-examining or re-shaping wildfire response. Managing for wildfire risk involves critical on-the-ground measures in addition to meaningful action on climate change. Second, unnaturally dense forests are, in large part, a remnant of historical fire suppression policies in the West. Though they have since been re-examined, these policies shaped the beginnings of DOI public lands management, altering forest structure and composition as a result. It is important for resource managers to acknowledge the political history that created current conditions lest they continue to advocate for overly simplistic legislation. Finally, research indicates that legal constraints, such as designated wilderness, negatively impact the viability of mechanical fuels reduction on public lands, necessitating the use of fire as a tool to reduce tree density. Effectively minimizing fire risk may require its prudent application.
Throughout the American West, the problem of increased wildfire risk and damage occurs at the nexus of a changing climate and flawed resource management paradigms. The difficulty in solving this problem stems, in part, from the evolving nature of its causes. Zinke’s approach falls short because it seems to ignore these causes altogether, essentially treating the issue as static. Fuels reduction belongs, undoubtedly, within the suite of management tools employed to restore forest ecosystems, improve habitat, and mitigate human risk from wildfire in the American West. However, it is no panacea and it should not allow us to avoid the important question of how we ended up here in the first place.