Why Is the West on Fire?


Let’s go back to the turn of the century. No, not the 20th/21st centuries, but back to the 19th/20th century. It was then that the National Park and National Forest services began, then quickly expanded later by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt. The former set aside national wilderness as federally managed land for the public to enjoy, the latter as federally managed land to maintain wilderness, agriculture and the timber industry. That last part is important: The National Forests had an aspect towards maintaining the timber industry.

For about a hundred years, this had gone pretty well. The timber industry harvested in the national forests and replanted so they could go back around again. Several decades back, the industries overplanted figuring once the trees grew to maturity they’d have even more to harvest. The result are the dense forest lands I grew up with in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, one of the first engineering firms had several projects with the National Forest Service, and our contact was from the East. She hated Oregon forests because they were so dense. Well, this was by the timber industries’ design. Then we come to the late eighties/early nineties.

Environmentalism was on the rise, and in the Pacific Northwest one of the key designated villains were the timber industries. We were told that the industries just wanted to clear cut all of Oregon’s forests and leave nothing. The Spotted Owl was paraded around as needing the old growth trees. It didn’t help that almost a century later, no one remembered there was a distinction made between national parks and national forests – a fact the environmentalists exploited to their favor. Popular opinion against timber industries rose, and it didn’t take long to find a sympathetic judge to block timber harvesting.

This is already creating a problem. By overplanting, the industries were making forests unnaturally dense. They normally wouldn’t be this way, but since the plan was to remove most of those trees in their near future it wasn’t considered too much a problem. Except they didn’t anticipate being blocked from harvesting the trees they planted. As the trees choked each other out, that created more and more deadwood.

Here’s something fun, have you seen a rotting tree before? It’s not mushy like vegetables. No, it’s dry and crumbly. Now the timber industry typically had a plan for this as well. They would routine go through the forest and find deadwood and salvage it to be made into useful products. But guess who came in again? Right – the environmentalists again succeeded in blocking efforts.

Growing up, I understood Oregon to be a timber industry state. It was our main export. My dad’s dad worked at the lumber mill in Lebanon, Oregon. Last time I had been in that area, the mill had closed. The timber industries’ loss meant job losses down the line, furthering the decay of small towns like the one where my grandparents lived.

But beyond job loss, we can see the problem, I believe. Dense forests and dry, rotting deadwood are just a tinderbox waiting to happen. The federal government supposedly manages these lands now, but we can see how well that’s going. All it would take is one spark to get the fire started and it would be disastrous. And it is. The Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge turns out to be started by a teenager and his friends who were messing around with illegal fireworks. Just a spark is all it would take and it seems we got much more than that.

This is a prime example of good intentions paving the road to hell. Environmentalists who knew little about forest management relied on their own judgment and feelings as they vilified the people who understood and practiced forest management on a daily basis. The federal government is wholly incapable of maintaining the large swaths of land it lays claim to on its own. And now we had the results. And now my home state and its neighbors are on fire.

Just kidding. It’s really all the fault of Climate Change.

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  1. Maddy Member

    If I remember correctly from my forestry class back in the seventies the pine beetle is naturally occurring but during years of drought the trees do not produce as much sap and so the pine beetle is able to infiltrate the trees where as  in a normal year with normal sap they are not able to penetrate into the tree enough to kill it. Therefore you would want to harvest more during years of drought.  By not harvesting at all you giving none of the trees a chance.

    Areas of Colorado are a Tinderbox waiting to go up. Last fall we were camping near Pagosa Springs, there was hardly any wind at all and you could hear trees falling down all night.  We left the next morning.

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  2. SEnkey Inactive

    I work in an office in Richmond. Most of my coworkers fit the left-of-center-more-for-emotion-and-bad-science than conviction stereotype. Which means they are often very open to persuasion. The topic of clear cutting came up a while back and everyone pitched in on how terrible it is. I then asked if they had ever seen a clear cut forest six months later. My father worked in the timber industry when I was young and I spent a short time cruising timber for a logging company in high school. I showed them some pictures off of my photo drive. You can’t see the ground for all the new growth. That isn’t true everywhere, especially in areas that aren’t as humid as North Carolina/Virginia, but it was very persuasive for my coworkers.

    One problem with ‘democracy’ is that as government outgrows its useful sphere people with no context or subject knowledge out vote those who have both. The real answer may be that the government never should have gotten involved in the first place, but there is no undoing that. The lesson: even though government may be on your side now, it wont stay that way forever. This is why mining and logging companies are spending more and more on education outreach and publicity.

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  3. Tedley Member

    I’d heard that we have more trees than in the past.  I had regarded that as a good thing, but now I’m not so sure…

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  4. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa

    On Thursday, as part of the unplanned activities of the meetup in Bigfork, Montana, we took a roadtrip with two cars down the East side of Flathead Lake, past Seely Lake and onto Missoula. On route 83, we skirted the Rice Ridge fire and base camp. This fire is currently the biggest by acreage (122,843 acres) in the state of Montana. Got to see a few interesting things. Smoke was not that bad (visibility up to 3 miles, less in places). Some houses had large temp pools set up by the road that I believe were being filled from the house water system so the houses could be wetted down later if needed should the fire approach. This is done by the firefighting crews as part of their continued assessing of homes. The road was not blocked but had lowered speed in spots, and we had to slow down until we could pass a road grader. The base camp appeared set up to be able to hold about 500 people, according to Vectorman.

    Active fires can be found on every compass point from Bigfork, but we are safe now. The road to the summit on the west side of Glacier National Park remains closed, putting a damper on many of our plans.

    • #34
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