Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘William Greeley’

In this article-length guest blog post, retired U.S. Forest Service research forester Stephen F. Arno discusses why fire management is impeded today and says we need to look at the history of fire policy in tandem with the development of the science of disturbance ecology to gain a better understanding of the issue. 

Numerous books and commentaries have described the century-long evolution of forest fire policy in the United States. However, rarely have these accounts focused on one of the seminal factors that provoked a transformation in policy and fire-control practices—namely, expanding knowledge of fire ecology.

Soon after its inception in the early 1900s the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy that can be described as “fire exclusion,” based on the view that forest fires were unnecessary and a menace.[1] In the late 1970s, however, the agency was compelled by facts on the ground to begin transitioning to managing fire as an inherent component of the forest.[2] This new direction, “fire management,” is based on realization that fire is inevitable and can be either destructive or beneficial depending largely on how fires and forest fuels are managed. Despite the obvious logic of fire management it continues to be very difficult to implement on a significant scale. To understand why fire management is impeded and perhaps gain insight for advancing its application, we need to look at the history of fire policy in tandem with the development of the science of disturbance ecology. It is also important to review changing forest conditions and values at risk to wildfire. Certain aspects of the situation today make it more difficult to live with fire in the forest than was the case a century ago.

Forest homes burned in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, AZ. Such a scene is increasing in frequency. (Photo by Humphrey’s Type 1 USDA/USDI Southwest Region Incident Management Team)

Forest homes burned in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, AZ. This is an increasingly common scene. (Photo by Humphrey’s Type 1 USDA/USDI Southwest Region Incident Management Team)

This story begins with the emergence of the profession of forestry in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The first professional foresters in the United States were educated in humid regions of Europe, where concepts of forestry developed primarily to establish tree plantations on land that had been denuded by agrarian people seeking firewood and building material and clearing forestland for grazing.[3] Native forests in these regions had largely disappeared long before, and fire in the forest was considered an undesirable, damaging agent. In retrospect, the European model of forestry didn’t apply very well to the vast areas of North American forest consisting of native species that had been maintained for millenniums by periodic fires. For instance, much of the Southeast and a great deal of the inland West supported forests of fire-resistant pines with open, grassy understories, perpetuated by frequent low-intensity fires.

From the outset, American foresters had to confront damaging wildfires, often caused by abandoned campfires, sparks from railroads, and people clearing land. Arguments for “light burning” to tend the forest were first made in print during the 1880s, before there were forest reserves or an agency to care for them.[4] Timber owners in northern California liked setting low-intensity fires under ideal conditions as a means of controlling accumulation of fuel. Stockmen liked to burn in order to stimulate growth of forage plants. Settlers used fire for land clearing and farming. Romanticists favored it for maintaining an age-old Indian way of caring for the land.

Fire historian Stephen Pyne concludes that there was no presumptive reason why American forestry should have rigorously fought against all forms of burning in the forest.[5] What the new government foresters like Gifford Pinchot and William Greeley refused to accept was that frontier laissez-faire burning practices could be allowed to coexist with systematic fire protection, which increasingly became the forester’s mission. But foresters saw light burning as a political threat, and they refused entreaties from advocates of burning to develop procedures for applying fire as a forestry practice.[6] Ironically, promoters of light burning were in a sense recognizing that it is important to account for natural processes in managing native forests, a concept termed “ecosystem management” when it was finally endorsed by the chief of the Forest Service in 1992.[7]

The “light burning” controversy ramped up considerably in 1910. President William Howard Taft, who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, appointed Richard Ballinger as Secretary of the Interior. Soon Ballinger was accused of virtually giving away federal coal reserves to his industrialist friends by Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, who publicly denounced Ballinger for corruption. Unable to control Pinchot, President Taft fired him in January of 1910, an action that sparked a national controversy since Pinchot was highly respected as a leader of the conservation movement. The fact that Pinchot’s nemesis, Ballinger, supported light burning—stating “we may find it necessary to revert to the old Indian method of burning over the forests annually at a seasonable period”—certainly didn’t help that cause gain favor with foresters. By unhappy coincidence, in August 1910, the same month that “the Big Burn” consumed 3 million forested acres in the Northern Rockies, Sunset magazine published an article by timberland owner George Hoxie calling for a government program to conduct light burning throughout California forests.[8] (The fact that the Big Burn occurred primarily in wetter forest types more susceptible to stand-replacing fire than most California forests was not generally recognized nor understood, in large part because there was little understanding of forest ecology at the time.) After the Big Burn, Forest Service leaders claimed they could’ve stopped the disaster if they’d had enough men and money. That mindset took hold of the agency and echoes down through to today in some corridors.

Pulaski tunnel

Pulaski tunnel, September 1910. The Big Burn made a folk hero of ranger Ed Pulaski when he forced his men to take refuge from the fire in an old mine shaft. The fire also convinced agency leaders that more men and money could’ve prevented the disaster.

In October 1910, Pinchot’s successor Henry Graves visited T. B. Walker’s extensive timberlands in northeastern California.[9] Graves viewed tracts of ponderosa pine-mixed conifer forest that Walker’s crew had methodically “underburned” (a low-intensity surface fire under the trees) after the first fall rains in order to reduce hazardous fuel and brush. Graves didn’t deny the effectiveness of the treatment, but felt it was bad to kill seedlings and saplings. More than that, he didn’t like the idea of condoning use of fire in the forest. It didn’t help that one of Walker’s light burns had escaped earlier in the year and raced across 33,000 acres before submitting to control. Then, like now, deliberate burning in the forest was not risk free; however, light burning was aimed at reducing the greater hazard of severe wildfires.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

On this date in 1921, the U.S. Forest Service convened the first national conference on fire control at Mather Air Field near Sacramento, California. Virtually all the agency’s leaders and brightest minds came together for the conference, including six district (now regional) foresters and six forest supervisors, numerous Washington office people including Chief William Greeley, and others of various ranks. Leaders in fire research and policy such as S. B. Show, E. I. Kotok, Evan Kelley, and William Osborne attended, as did Aldo Leopold and future chief Lyle Watts. All seven districts were represented.

The two-week long conference, the first national conference held by the U.S. Forest Service on any topic, was organized to address the controversy surrounding the issue of allowing light burning on federal lands. California was chosen as the host site because that district was a leader in the development of fire control theory and practice, and because many of the problems there could be found throughout the country.

A major outcome of the conference was settlement of the debate between those favoring “let burn” and light burning and those like Greeley and Show who believed in aggressively attacking all fires. Policies varied from district to district and even forest to forest. The agency found itself in a quandary because it was letting some light burning occur on lands adjacent to national forests but demanded that fires on federal land be fought. Agency leaders felt that this contradiction undermined its authority and wanted to formulate a national standard. The debate over what to do had been raging for more than a decade and had become important enough to prompt a national conference on the topic. Greeley’s position was clear; in an article a short time before, he had derisively dismissed the use of light burning as “Piute burning.”

Not surprisingly Chief Greeley decided in favor of attack and control. The agency set forest fire control as a priority over other activities, established national forest fire control standards, and provided for cooperation in forest fire control between districts. This new attitude towards fire control is best exemplified by the “10 a.m. policy,” under which the Forest Service decreed that all fires on federal land would be attacked as quickly as possible and fought until extinguished. The Forest Service is still dealing with the fallout of that decision ninety years later because the resulting fuel buildups continue to create problems for fire control personnel and forest managers.

For Greeley, the outcome of the conference gave him the opportunity to shape agency policy as he had long hoped. As the district ranger in Montana during the 1910 fires, he had come away from that disaster convinced of the need for cooperative fire control and the elimination of fire from forests. After the 1921 conference, he unequivocally committed the agency to cooperative forest management and systematic fire control. His next major move was pushing for the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924, which strengthened and expanded the provisions of the Weeks Act, particularly in cooperative fire control. To achieve these goals, Greeley brushed aside dissent and further debate on the topic of light burning, which left those who favored it labeled as heretics for years.

To learn more about the conference and its impact, you may wish to consult Stephen Pyne’s Fire in America, from which much of this information is drawn. We also have oral history interviews with Kotok, Show, and Kelley.

1921 Fire Control Conference

Osborne is standing 2nd from left; Watts is 6th from left; Greeley is in the second row 7th from left; and Leopold is 3rd from left in the front row. (click to enlarge).

Read Full Post »