Wildfires have enjoyed a dangerously wild year so far in 2013.
In the United States alone, fires have claimed millions of acres in western states such as Colorado, California, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, where the Yarnell Hill fire also took the lives of 19 firefighters in a flash.
Closer to home, a fire sparked by logging equipment charred about 8,000 acres and destroyed 17 homes in Douglas and Ashland counties this spring, and just this week a planned Department of Natural Resources burn in Burnett County leapt out of control and took 600 unplanned acres.
It doesn't have to happen this way.
Sure, the weather in many places has been extremely dry, the terrain makes fighting fires treacherous once they start, and people have a tendency to cluster just beyond the shadow of the forest canopy, sometimes courting danger like moths drawn to a flame.
But none of this changes the fact that command-and-control government policies, sometimes guarded by environmentalists who confuse preservation with sound forestry management, helped spark such fires as surely as an unwatched campfire.
The time has come to reclaim our national forests and wilderness areas from those who would smother them to death. Forests that look wild and untamed to the backpacking visitor appear sick and even frightening to experienced foresters, who know the trees are too crowded, the ground is too brushy and the fire lanes too inaccessible.
The United States is home to about 297,000 or so square miles (190 million acres) of federal forest and rangeland. This incredible resource has always been – and forever will be – susceptible to fire, natural as well as manmade. But the fire patterns of the last decade or more represent a worrying change: There have been more fires that are more devastating, harder to fight, and more costly to people and the environment.
Instead of managing our forests wisely, we have allowed wildfires to do the job for us. These fires are not simply a product of drought, lightning strikes and bad luck. They are the logical result of a century of aggressive fire suppression, coupled with mass build-ups of dense undergrowth that cause forest conditions to deteriorate to an unnatural state.
In the area around Yosemite National Park, where an August wildfire claimed 90,000 acres in two days alone, historical data helped tell the story. Researchers this year found as many as 400 trees per acre on the land. That's compared with between 60 and 90 trees per acre in 1911. There was also between 30 and 40 tons of woody debris per acre on the forest floor, compared with six to eight tons 102 years ago.
"If you don't clear trees and brush and do some prescribed burning, you are eventually going to get a very closed forest that is very dense," said Scott Stephens, a University of California-Berkeley researcher whose team studied the Yosemite region's density.
Federal efforts to fund a Forest Service thinning program will help, but fuel reduction in forests is a costly proposition for taxpayers alone. Market-based incentives can involve landowners and loggers in the fight to save the forests. So can technology and a commitment to creating jobs and opportunity.
At the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, researchers are finding ways to use small-diameter trees in construction; use engineered wood products in wood-frame homebuilding; combine wood fiber with recycled plastics to create composite materials used in windows and doors, signs, roofing, exterior siding and automotive parts; use wood fibers to make inexpensive fibers for streams polluted by mines or farms; and use waste-wood chips or sawdust as fuel to generate electricity.
Startup companies such as Whole Trees, with offices in Stoddard and Madison, are finding ways to adapt the superior strength of small-diameter tree branches and trunks for structural support in building applications.
All of these projects could expand the market for small trees and small forest materials. It would encourage ecologically sound forest thinning, reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and make forests less disease-prone. It would also help private landowners generate income from their forest land – and resist the temptation to fragment forest areas for development.
If a profitable use can be found for material that is now choking our forests, everyone wins – including the taxpayer, who will pay less to get the job done and will actually benefit from the products.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. This column is adapted from a chapter in "Hands-On Environmentalism," a book he co-authored with Dr. Brent Haglund of the Sand County Foundation. "Hands-On Environmentalism" was published by Encounter Books, New York.