An invited commentary for the New York Times Room for Debate (11 July 2012), but with full edited text, including paragraphs dropped inexplicably from posting
More fires, more burned houses. For the past 20 years such scenes have dominated the attention of the fire community and the media. We know, however, that house protection occurs at the house itself. The conundrum is what to do with the surrounding wildlands.
You could use several analogies to explain the persistence of the problem. Our fire system resembles our health care system, focused on emergencies and not prevention. Wildland fires are like an ecological insurgency that we try to bomb away without controlling the countryside. As with our economy, there is wide inequality, with 1percent of fires claiming 80 percent or more of fire resources. And, like our political scene, our fire resources are polarized, in this case between wild and urban. We need a policy that addresses the middle ground – physically and politically.
Focus on creating a new kind of working landscape between the clearcut and the pristine, one that advances ecological goods and services but allows for active intervention. Some forest thinning, some grazing, some controlled burning – such approaches would allow us to promote the kinds of fires we want and protect against the kind we don’t want. The resulting landscapes would have several times more acres burned, but far fewer houses consumed.
It won’t be easy because partisans rally around the extremes and tend to dictate the overall course of discussion. There is little exchange possible between them. We can’t refashion wilderness according to the kind of intensive landscaping that creates defensible space around houses, nor can we allow natural fires to free-range through towns. The NEPA process that governs environmental reviews operates at the level of individual projects, perhaps hundreds or thousands of acres each, while the fire scene is increasingly dominated by conflagrations an order of magnitude or two larger. Meanwhile the fight over the polarities leaves vast patches of the public domain, a potential middle landscape, in limbo.
Alternatives do exist. The Nature Conservancy has devised some good examples of working landscapes to advance ecological goals. The federal Collaborative Forest and Landscape Restoration Act has inspired several large-scale, multi-decadal trials in Arizona and elsewhere. They are trying to reform the NEPA process to align with the reality of big fires, build a social consensus about where and how to intervene, and leverage modest fuel treatments and prescribed burning into major outcomes. The goal is to encourage more resilient landscapes able to support the fires we want and resist those we don’t.
Money matters but money will follow what we value. Until we can find that middle ground, policy will simply be sucked into the next convective column, and the default setting will remain a destabilizing suppression.
11 July 2012