As I write this, I can still see smoke and flames from my home. My family and I live just southwest of Denver in the “wilderness urban interface”. We have lived here for decades because of our love of Colorado’s beauty, but now the yearly “fire watch” causes us pause as we hold our breath in the annual exercise hoping the forest around us doesn’t turn to smoke. This week’s fire – the Lower North Fork – is now approximately 70% contained – another massive catastrophic Colorado wildfire now claiming at least three human lives, plus 27 homes, over 4,200 acres southwest of Denver in this most beautiful “wilderness urban interface”.
Governor Hickenlooper promises an investigation will determine responsibility for this tragedy. Who is to blame? We demand no less. More importantly – why are we suffering such yearly fire catastrophes? Is this just the cost of living with trees? Can this trend not be extinguished? Is this inevitable, the truth behind Smokey The Bear’s ringing accusation -“only YOU can prevent Forest Fires!” Is there anything else we can do? Can future fires like this be prevented or only fought after the fact?
The Good News? We may well be able to reduce or prevent future fires by promoting forest health and youth. The Bad News? We may have to give up the easy answers of either blaming one person for “setting” each fire, and that there is nothing we can do to prevent these fires. Understanding the underlying cause and addressing it gives us the ability to stop the endless cycle of tragic yearly fires.
We need to drop the fiction that trees are not living things; like all living things they have finite life spans. Like us when they get old nature wants to help them go to bring in new life. This radical idea of recognizing the cycle of life means forest health is contingent on new trees. Which requires us to challenge our collective believe that cutting down trees is not “environmental” or “green”. We need to see Nature’s agenda as our own and be more pro new growth. The old ethos of “Let nature take its course,” and “in 500 years the earth will have healed itself” must be seen as flawed. We can contribute to Nature’s health, the health of the forest, and in so doing, our own health too.
The problem has roots that when the West was being settled and clear cutting was considered expedient but wasteful we were more focused on creating a civilized west even if we disrupted the natural environment and the natural cycle of fire burning old trees to keep the forest young and healthy. The unintended consequences of that fear of fire, of endless fire suppression are now manifesting themselves in these massive fires as Nature works to keep the circle of life turning. Native Americans understood the value of “controlled burns”, commonly set fires every Spring knowing it kept the trees and animals within younger and stronger and saw fire as a tool used extensively prior to the white man’s encroachment and restrictions.
The well documented excesses of tree harvesting without environmental limits in the 19th and 20th Centuries created a culture that reacted by believing that cutting any tree was sacrilege, using products made from trees wasteful and uneducated. Tree Killers should feel guilty about their role in hastening the destruction of our planet.
But we are wiser than that now. We know many pine trees in nature would have life spans not much longer than the longest living human – yet we protect geriatric trees whose very nature is turning them toward fire and replacement as though they could – they should last forever with our help. This is wrong. Now that we can see the effects all around us as nature pushes to return to a balance allowing new trees to replace the old, the time has come to dispel that well intentioned but wrong environmentalist mantra that forbids “killing trees” and realize that interfering with nature is what creates the problem. Now is the time to embrace a new environmentalist culture that embraces planting new trees, that enjoys wood products from local sources because they come from renewable resources, provide jobs to rural economies, and most importantly bring our environment back into balance, introduce health and youth into our forests as we reduce the density of forests back to the pre-Columbian norm.
When I was first asked by Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman to help increase the public’s awareness of the mountain pine beetle epidemic and help engage the private sector to create solutions to deal with millions of acres of pine trees dying and turning brown – our own “Katrina of the West”, local stakeholders shared with me the problem of geriatric forests and explained to me the complexity of our problem and the unprecedented magnitude of the epidemic we have created.
Turning to those working to solve the ongoing beetle kill catastrophe I found caring citizens who were using and encouraged the use of “Rocky Mountain Blue Stain” wood; a community throughout the west of environmentalists, lumberman, builders, lumber yards, pellet mills, furniture makers all working together to take our blue wood and turn it into products that would help the forest heal. But even these efforts struggle against the mistaken belief that using wood is bad. This is just the first of many steps to use wood as part of a pro-environmental effort to heal our forests and make them young and healthy again. With careful effort, we can harvest the wood, use this gift and make these living wooden lungs pull more carbon from the air, leave more oxygen, and make our world safer and greener and healthier. They encouraged me to join their longstanding efforts to tell the story of aging trees, dead trees waiting to be used – of too much wood waiting for us to use it to build a better world, and the dire consequences inevitably waiting if we didn’t educate the public’s mind about the wisdom of using wood for all the right environmental reasons.
The time is now to change decades of outmoded public perception that the only good forestry goal is to let our forests age, and how sustainable forestry is married to utilizing wood products in order to plant and grow new trees.
Join us and help spread the word – Loving Trees, planning new trees creates a more fire resistant home for all of us. Now, before it is too late and old forests are burning and there is little left for us to enjoy and experience that is the marvel of healthy living forests. To not help make a better, greener future with new trees means betraying the legacy of those visionary conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir and so many others that have gone before us and in their wisdom understood the importance of our natural lands.
Love our trees. Help us replace the old with new and in so doing put out the fires destroying so much needlessly.
Bruce Ward is the founder of Choose Outdoors and a White House Champion of Change for Rural America.