Ecosystems Under Fire

By , David Olson, PhD, is a conservation scientist; and Saundra Crane is a conservation fellow at the World Wildlife Fund.

SMOKE jumper Brad Sanders has been fighting wildfires for 10 years. Fire, he told the Washington Post, ``is Mother Nature's way of saying, `You don't really know how to handle this ecosystem properly.' ''

The recent firestorms across many Western states prove the point. For years, federal and state governments have implemented misguided programs to contain or suppress fires and control the forces of nature in the inland Pacific Northwest, which stretches east from the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon to the western edge of the Rockies.

Fires are a natural, predictable part of the inland Western forests. But a century of human mismanagement and commercial exploitation has vastly increased the risk of catastrophic fires, contributed to the near collapse of the commercial fishing industry, and led to the decline of numerous plant and animal species. This summer's fires have prompted at least one member of Congress to advocate harvesting more timber to ``fireproof'' forests.

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Intensive management approaches practiced by federal agencies on public lands are based on the mistaken belief that because inland forests are inherently prone to fires and other disturbances, they need to be logged to control or mimic the effects of fire and insect outbreaks. Yet the kind of catastrophic logging now practiced is no cure. It strips forests of old growth and opens more roads that invite arson or accidental fires. The operation of logging equipment, the buildup of brush, the creation of even-aged stands of trees, and the loss of natural firebreaks such as moist bottom lands and old trees with fire-resistant barks all make catastrophic fires more likely.

Intensively managed tree farms meet some economic needs but cannot replace wilderness. Americans have repeatedly shown that they value wild areas and the species only those areas support, such as grizzly bears and wolves. Fireproofing forests will contribute little to the survival of these species and is inconsistent with the intent of Congress - as seen, for example, in the National Forest Management Act - that national forests be managed to maintain viable wildlife populations.

Advocates of an alternative integrated biodiversity approach argue that natural fire cycles and biodiversity cannot be effectively maintained or restored without a system of large, interconnected reserves and natural areas. Managing the region's vast public resources must be based on sound scientific principles. Only with such a foundation can we hope to restore the integrity of degraded ecosystems, preserve and restore wild and abundant salmon runs, and provide adequate margins of safety for endangered species and ecosystems, while also allowing for some logging (with logs being processed locally) and other human activities. Land managers should implement a mixture of regulation, expansion of existing reserve networks, and targeted incentives that encourage cooperation from those in the private sector who depend on natural-resource extraction from public lands.

BIODIVERSITY conservation on federal lands is the best alternative for conserving species and reducing the likelihood of catastrophic fires. Large blocks of public land help restore natural fire cycles (many forests have more-frequent but less-severe fires) through a combination of prescribed fire management, thinning in some cases, and not intervening to stop natural (i.e., lightning induced) fires.

The intensive management approach to inland forests is at odds with federal management strategies developed for the forests on the west side of the Cascade mountains, including old-growth forests. These strategies have embraced many fundamental components of biodiversity conservation.

The best way to meet the needs of people in the Pacific Northwest is to abandon failed policies and focus on conserving the ecological integrity of the forests. Such an approach recognizes that operating within the limits of our ecosystems must become an economic and political reality. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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