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Fire prevention: requiem for the manzanitas

I live near the south end of Ashland, not far from the edge of Siskiyou Mountain Park. Like everyone in town, I’m terrified at the thought of fire roaring out of the Ashland watershed. I’ve long supported the Ashland Forest Resiliency project (AFR), which aims to reduce the risk of large-scale wildfire by thinning smaller trees, reducing flammable fuels, and conducting controlled burns. It would be irresponsible not to take these measures, and as a conservation biologist, I’ve been impressed with how the project has been designed and carried out.

And yet.

And yet, I recently hiked up Park Street toward the White Rabbit Trail, as I’ve done so often before. I always look forward to the avenue of big manzanitas whose muscular red limbs curve gracefully along the track leading into the park, holding out their round green leaves like coins for the passers-by. In spring, their pink urn-like blossoms are mobbed by bumble bees roused from their winter sleep, and by rufous hummingbirds ravenous from the demands of migration. In fall and winter, their berries, the “little apples” that give these shrubs their Spanish name, feed robins, thrushes and bears. And at least once a year, a snowfall turns these manzanita groves into an enchanted labyrinth of white, red and mint green.

Not this year. Not again in my lifetime. Today I found that those manzanitas have been “thinned.” Not removed utterly, as in some nearby private land. But harshly hacked back, those that have been spared standing isolated in a barren expanse of blood-red stumps and crushed lichen-encrusted twigs. The masses of cut limbs were heaped in twisted piles, ready to be burned. Where once was grace — ugliness. Where once was intact and healthy wildlife habitat — defensible space.

Am I saying that this shouldn’t have been done? No, I can’t say that. I understand the risk of fire, and the responsibilities of city officials. But, to borrow a line from Arthur Miller, Attention must be paid. We must think about what we do.

These manzanitas were healthy, and they were old — older than you might image mere “shrubs” to be. One of larger trunks had been cut twice, so a “cookie” cross-section lay near the stump. I carried it home, sanded its beautiful orange and red surface, and did my best to count its close-packed rings. Those twisted trunks with their iron-hard wood grow far more slowly than the nearby pines and oaks. The big manzanita had been over 75 years old when we decided it was too dangerous to live.

Let us mindfully acknowledge that these manzanitas, and the other shrubs and trees we remove in our “thinning,” are being killed for our benefit, and for no other reason. They are, for the most part, healthy. They are ecologically important for wildlife. They shade the soil, and many — particularly manzanitas — host mycorrhizal fungi that are integral to the nutrient cycles and health of the whole forest. If we — if I — had not chosen to live adjacent to and among them, their lives would have long continued. Yes, someday a wildfire would have burned here. But without our presence, that fire would be no tragedy, merely an episode in the long life of the land, and indeed an opportunity for renewal. Manzanitas, like many plants in our region, are well adapted to fire. Though the shrubs themselves are usually killed by even low-intensity fire, manzanita seeds are able to remain dormant for many years in the soil, and actually require fire for germination.

Today I am, perhaps, safer than I was before. There is less fuel in the nearby watershed. But it’s very questionable that any amount of “thinning” could protect Ashland from a wind-driven firestorm coming out of the watershed. If we’re honest, we must acknowledge that avoiding that fate is more a matter of luck than preparedness. Still, we have to do what we can, right?

But we must also acknowledge the cost to the ecological integrity, the habitat value, and the beauty of this land that we love so much. The cost that we require, and that the land pays.

Pepper Trail of Ashland is a conservation biologist and writer.