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Trees, fires and reforestation

As I was thumbing through the stacks at Hannon Library recently in search of a student’s research paper on Shale City, I discovered a treasure-trove of obscure, unpublished, but invaluable material. SOU student essays on local history have been cataloged, shelved (both bound and unbound), and made available to the general public.

One title that caught my eye was a 2007 paper, “Setting out: the Forest Service’s fight against forest fires and incendiarism in Southern Oregon 1910-1916,” by Christopher Donaldson. This insightful analysis of early 20th century wildfire management eerily foreshadowed our own recent smoky summers.

Between 1910 and 1915, a combination of drought, lightning strikes, overgrown woodlands and a preponderance of uncooperative, if not downright arsonistic, transients (aka “squatters”) gave rise to an increasing number of wildfires. Drawing upon articles from the Mail Tribune and Tidings, Donaldson traced the story of the region’s pop-up blazes, as well as the difficulties local fire crews faced in an era before roads and firetrucks. (Imagine having to douse flames from horseback!)

Donaldson pointed to ideological disagreements between individuals brought in to manage the situation. Some, following the lead of local First People, wanted to utilize prescriptive burning, while others took a more war-like attitude toward fire “fighting.” In the end, the warriors won out, and Oregon’s woodlands became a battleground between humans and nature for the next few decades.

Donaldson traced the attitudes underlying this position to a 1906 lecture by famed psychologist William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War” (later reprinted in several publications). James, hoping to create a behavioral paradigm shift drawing us away from warfare, called out the ages-old link between male identity and warrior-like behavior. He suggested that rather than attaching “heroic” status exclusively to military action, we could assign “heroic” status to productive activities like construction, road-building, mining, etc.

James’ idea took hold, though perhaps in ways that differed from his initial intent. America did indeed refigure the status of some of its blue-collar jobs. Yet, at the same time, many types of productive activities became recast as military-like engagements — the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Crime,” the “War on Cancer,” the “War on Poverty,” etc. And so, throughout the 20th century, our heroic firefighters approached fire-management with what were perhaps not always the wisest strategies.

More recently, forest management has switched to an integrative approach, utilizing prescribed burns and other means to reduce flammable vegetation. Yet, as witnessed in recent summers, we continue to have little control over wildfires — whether caused by lightning or some type of human activity.

Tromping through the woods in search of Shale City’s remnants, I ran into a couple of heroic Bureau of Land Management employees assessing the progress of a small, well planned reforestation project (on a piece of land that I could identify as part of the road that once led into the defunct mining town). The men pointed out where property lines facilitated or restricted my access (Oregon’s forests consist of a checkerboard of private and public lands.).

More importantly, we discussed the disturbing presence of charred remains of unrestrained campfires left behind by transient campers, and the cramped reforestation of seedlings, leading to diseased trees in areas that were not under BLM jurisdiction — all of these being fire-hazards that undermine the efforts of government agents to mitigate danger.

This week BBC World News ran a piece questioning the wisdom of reforestation as a means of sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change. While mature trees do pull carbon from the air, they also serve to fuel the planet’s ever-increasing number of forest fires.

As a November 2018 article in the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “Last year, the cumulative amount of greenhouse gases released by California fires was equal to about 9 percent of the total generated by human activity statewide. These fires are burning down forests that absorb heat-trapping gas and help stabilize the Earth’s temperature. A report last year warned that the state’s woodlands were teetering on becoming a carbon liability.”

So, perhaps, reforestation is not really the panacea to Climate Change, as some people have suggested — at least not until we get a better handle on managing wildfires.

By all means, readers should act locally by planting broad-leaf trees in well watered, fire-safe zones on your own property. At the same time, please remove any trees that were planted too close together as seedlings and are now failing to thrive. Avoid consuming products such as beef and palm oil — likely produced on recently deforested lands. And, for Heaven’s sake, don’t light open campfires in the woods.

Three seedlings are planted in place of a single tree, creating a future wildfire hazard. Photo by Nina Egert