Thanks to readers who shared this NY Times article. The subheading is A “scientific debate is intensifying over whether too much money and too many lives are lost fighting forest fires”.
The article says that the black=backed woodpecker is “a symbol of a huge scientific and political debate over the future of fire in American forests.” Of course, the click-addicted media thrive on “huge controversies” so if they didn’t exist they would have to be made up.
Scientists at the cutting edge of ecological research, Dr. Hanson among them, argue that the century-old American practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than a calamity. They are calling for a new approach that basically involves letting backcountry fires burn across millions of acres.
This is not a particularly new idea. Anyone remember Harold Biswell? And people do let fires burn in the backcountry, (to the extent that folks on this blog have questioned the wisdom of doing so), so how can that be a new idea? I can’t blame the writer for not knowing this, but all writers should be wary of scientist hype.
Yet that awareness has yet to penetrate the public consciousness.People still think forest fires are bad and expect the government to try to stamp them out, even in remote wilderness areas. Federal and state firefighting costs in some years approach $2 billion.
Of course, this is in the science section of the NYT, so the author didn’t have to interview those pesky people like residents of communities, nor their elected officals, nor suppression people (whom you think would be the legitimate source of information on the perils of fighting forest fires).
It’s also interesting how scientific disagreement itself is characterized (as two people within the veg ecology community in California):
Still, considerable disagreement remains among scientists about exactly how forests should be managed. Dr. Hanson studied under Malcolm North, a Forest Service scientist who also holds a position at the University of California, Davis — but the two men have come to disagree. Dr. North argues that Dr. Hanson goes too far in arguing that even the most severe fires, those that produce some large patches of snag forest, are a good thing.
“I would agree it’s actually a valuable habitat type,” Dr. North said. “It’s just that he’s arguing for way too much of it, and in really big patches.”
It’s interesting that this way of looking at it assumes that vegetation ecologists get to decide how much acreage “should” be in what conditions. Do a subset of vegetation ecologists speak for “science”?
Is how land is managed a “scientific” question? Not.
But of all this, I think the most important philosophical question is posed by reflecting on this quote:
“From an ecological standpoint, everything I’ve learned teaches me this is a good idea: Stop putting out fires,” said Jennifer R. Marlon, a geographer at Yale who was among the first to use the term “fire deficit” to describe the situation. “These forests are made to have fire.”
I think it’s fascinating that the author of the article quoted a non-ecologist about ecology in the name of “science”. They were “made to have fire”.. so other areas are “made to have hurricanes” or “made to have floods”, “volcanoes” or “tornadoes”. In what other context does the existence of a disturbance factor privilege vegetation ecologists to determine how communities should respond, including over communities themselves, and over other fire science disciplines? It’s bizarre.