This year’s horrific wildfire season is prompting renewed calls for changes in forest management. The concerns are well considered. But if we are ever going to cope with our forest management troubles, the dialogue must change. It’s time to set aside the rhetoric and focus on economically and environmentally feasible solutions. When someone says we could solve the problem with logging, if it weren’t for the environmentalists, they should be required to identify: 1) the market for these forest products; 2) how many miles of road their solution will require; 3) who will pay for construction and maintenance of those roads; and 4) an estimate of how much silt will end up in our rivers. Similarly, if you advocate raking the forest, tell us how big the debris pile will be, and what we’d ultimately do with it. Detail why your approach is viable. Logging must be a component of our forest management strategy. But we don’t have enough merchantable timber in Colorado to resolve the wildfire big picture with logging.

Let’s consider an historical perspective. I recall an evening where hunting guides, working for a large landowner in the White River Valley, detailed their tactics for harvesting elk without running the herd off the property. I remember thinking these guys had remarkable insight, and began to ponder the degree with which the cause and effect relationships between animal behavior and ecological function were imbedded in Ute tribal culture.

I’m not an anthropologist, but I’ll speculate that the Utes knew more than a modern-day hunter can conceptualize regarding how to attract and retain the game animals in their territory. Ute grandfathers probably taught 10-year-olds knowledge that’s unique to a handful of guides in our culture. They understood what attracted game and they used fire to sculpt the landscape to their advantage. It wasn’t haphazard. They knew exactly what they were doing.

In 1974, South Dakota State University retook the photos from George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition. In the early 1980s a Forest Service employee named George Gruell retook hundreds of historic old photos in the Northern Rockies. These comparative photographs consistently document an increase of conifer density. Western tribes did not want large monocultures of “black timber.” They wanted a mix of forest types featuring young, healthy, nutritious vegetation. Colorado’s aspen stands are in decline. Why? Because it’s been 140 years since the Utes were summarily dismissed from their role as forest managers. Ever since, the forest has advanced along a predictable progression that, in the absence of disturbance, ends in older stands of conifers. Individual old growth trees can be magnificent specimens, but old growth stands have a lot of dead material on the forest floor and unhealthy trees. We need some of that. There are wildlife species dependent on that kind of plant community. But right now, as climate change begins to call the shots, we face an historic volume of old stands.

Today’s fire managers have significant knowledge and tools at their disposal, and theoretically they could reintroduce Ute forestry principals in rough terrain where logging is unfeasible. But the Utes were in maintenance mode, and todays fire managers would have to reverse 140 years of forest succession we’re just now realizing we didn’t want. Furthermore, Ute fire managers operated in the absence of administrative property boundaries with interspersed houses. A modern-day public servant can expect a $500 taxable bonus if a controlled burn project goes well. The managers responsible for the Cerro Grand controlled burn, that ultimately blew into the town of Los Alamos New Mexico, got vilified. Right or wrong, that points to a prohibitive risk-reward profile no modern fire manager can ignore.

So here we stand, with a problem so significant it commands attention in a society reeling from runaway public debt, a contested presidential election, and a deadly virus outbreak. There are no easy solutions, but the first step is understanding the problem. The second is steering clear of simplistic solutions that cannot happen, and do not help.

Jim Cagney has a degree in range-forest management from Colorado State University. He served as the BLM’s district manager in northwest Colorado before retiring and currently lives in Grand Junction.

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