More people are having a greater influence on natural resource issues than ever before, which is good. People want to do what is best yet are not necessarily familiar with what that is. A growing belief holds that “letting nature take its course” with no human interference is the best philosophy for managing natural resources. Many call this conservation, though it is more closely aligned with preservation.
These misconceptions are shifting the management of wildlife and its habitat from “hands-on” conservation to “hands-off” preservation, with serious, negative implications, such as the wildfires we have witnessed across the United States.
Conservation and preservation are both concerned with bettering the environment. Both are important. Conservation focuses on using and managing natural resources to benefit people, such as thinning a stand of ponderosa pine. Preservation seeks to keep natural resources in a pristine state, such as preserving the giant sequoia. Conservation is the overarching concept. Preservation is one management option.
In August 2017, over 650,000 acres were burning in the West. At about the same time, over 150,000 acres of the Okefenokee Swamp burned in Georgia. My home state of Mississippi experienced 2,775 wildfires. And we all remember the images on the news when California was on fire. Most of these fires were on public lands. Evacuations were taking place, structures were burning, people were breathing hazardous air, federal and state resources were stretched thin and many state agencies were out of money.
More than 60 million acres of national forests are at high risk of wildfire or in need of restoration. In the past 10 years, over 65 million acres have burned. Approximately 10 million acres burned in 2015, killing 11 firefighters. Federal foresters estimate that an astounding 190 million acres of land managed by the Agriculture Department and Interior are at an unnatural risk to catastrophic wildfire.
On national forests alone, since 2000, wildfires average 6.9 million acres burned annually. In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of their annual appropriated budget. In 2015, that rose to 52 percent. That is a decrease in 36 percent of funds for research, forest and wildlife habitat improvements and maintenance.
Why have wildfires intensified to the point of being natural disasters? What are the impacts on the people, landscape, wildlife, economies, state and federal budgets and personnel? What can be done to correct this destructive situation?
National forests comprise a large segment of the nation’s ecosystems. Most have evolved with fires, insect and disease outbreaks and blow-downs to retain biodiversity and forest health. But times have changed. More people are living further into wild-land urban interfaces. This has led to a forest policy of suppressing natural fires and insect outbreaks. This intolerance of fires, combined with decades of relying on forests for timber production and then dramatically scaling this back, have helped produce fuel buildup ripe for wildfire.
These unnatural conditions result in wildfires that are destroying human lives, homes and wildlife habitat and contribute to a changing climate. Wildfires emit carbon that contributes to poor air quality. Healthy forests, as well as forest products, are a carbon sink, sequestering carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere.
Conservation can reverse these conditions. Actions such as tree harvesting and controlled burns mimic natural disturbances, reducing buildup of forest litter and overgrowth to encourage successional stages for wildlife, biodiversity and the prevention of larger, hotter, more devastating fires from occurring that can destroy even old-growth forests. Preservation takes the opposite approach. It seeks to halt management actions and multiple use on the mistaken assumption the forests will return to their former “natural” condition.
Sustainable use and active management have the greatest chance of producing the goods and services that people want while retaining ecological integrity. Conservation provides the means to produce timber from productive growing areas while allowing less intensive management over most of the forest, localizing the impacts while enhancing biodiversity. We can locate and manage industries and urban growth to aid conservation and allow other places to produce the benefits of wilderness, scenery and wildlife habitat.
Managing forests makes them resilient and able to withstand fire, pests and diseases. Management eliminates or reduces the impact of catastrophic wildfire and protects riparian areas and water quality.
We can restore America’s cherished landscapes back to a healthy, natural condition. Through environmentally smart thinning, prescribed burns and other scientific management practices, overstocked forests can return to a natural balance, reducing the risks of catastrophic wildfire and insect and disease infestations.
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