For the past two years, Colorado’s fires have been in the spotlight of the national media, keeping local residents on edge. Last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire and this year’s Black Forest Fire devastated lands surrounding Colorado Springs and even ventured into the city limits.

A number of factors accentuated the ravenous effects of these fires, specifically wind, heat, and the dead, dry spruce trees that fell victim to the recent spruce beetle epidemic. In a recent interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette, Eric Morgan of the U.S. Forest Service said, “In the last three years, we’ve had a spruce beetle epidemic, which has wiped out nearly 80 percent of the trees in this area.”

The spruce beetle kill has created a tinder box of dry, dead wood that will either have to be harvested and sold or will eventually be ignited by a lighting strike or careless camper. Unfortunately, the market for spruce beetle kill is restrictively narrow, which makes the latter scenario much more likely.

Although these three factors were pivotal components that contributed to the severity of the fires, the concentration of the trees – dead and alive – is another aspect of these fires that is often looked over in the autopsy following such events. Fires are an essential way that ecosystems are regulated and maintained: vegetation is burnt and broken into carbon, which fertilizes new plants, and forests are thinned to sustainable densities.

However, with the expansion of human settlement, fire suppression has become the modus operandi of municipalities and states. Fire suppression has inhibited the benefit to forest ecosystems and proliferated the effects of future fires, by allowing dead, standing trees to become concentrated where they formerly would have been naturally eliminated.

Part of our contemporary policy of suppression stems from the fact that coexistence with fires is no longer a viable option. The residents of Cañon City and Northern Colorado Springs would not dispute this statement. In the interest of preserving human life, some fires must not be allowed to burn.

However, regulation of the density of the surrounding pine forest is an essential facet of the ecological integrity of forests and the safety of surrounding communities, which leaves logging as the only possible method of reducing the density of spruce-beetle-kill-trees.

Logging may be one of the most hated words in the environmental community, and it is often used as a rallying point for environmental groups to solicit support and donations from individuals around the country to mount campaigns “saving trees.” Their efforts represent an essential component of contemporary conservation. In the case of opposing timber sales, however, some environmental groups could create an ecological hazard to local residents and ecosystems. As demonstrated in the recent past, the concentration of dry, dead wood directly contributed to the extent and severity of fires.

This summer, while conducting research for the State of the Rockies Project, three other student researchers and I spoke with several land management organizations whose autonomy was challenged by what they described as external environmental organizations. After reaching agreements that were collaboratively gained through interaction of multiple stakeholder groups, such as ranchers, outdoor recreationalists, and conservationists, the implementation of these plans, when timber sales were included, have often been retarded or challenged by environmental organizations. The interaction between small, often rural, communities, and nationally based, environmental organizations often produces a deep sense of frustration and mistrust of environmental agendas. Furthermore, when this interaction restricts the autonomy of a local land management collaborative, the ecological conditions that place the locale at a higher risk of being exposed to destructive fires are enhanced.

To say that all large, nationally based environmental organizations are anti-timber sale would certainly be a generalization. It should not be argued that these fires are the product of overbearing organizations implementing environmentally imperialist plots to restrict logging in small communities. However, considering the extent of destruction in the recent fires, juxtaposed to the combination of drier conditions and less logging, we must acknowledge that fire mitigation strategies must reconcile tensions between multiple stakeholders on both the national and local levels.

 

 

 

 

Aaron Chin

 

 

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