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Land mismanagement

Catastrophic wildfires show we need to exercise better dominion

We timed it just right last year, when my sister and I fulfilled a long-standing ambition to visit Yosemite National Park for our annual fall camping excursion. “Camping” has become more of a spectrum for us—where once we tramped down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail carrying all our supplies on our 50-year-old backs, we now do moderate day hikes, rounded out in a comfy cabin. At Yosemite we split the difference and stayed in a canvas-sided tent with mattresses and electrical outlets. We got the spectacular trees and scenery. We missed the catastrophic wildfires of 2018 and today. 

Climatologists agree that the West will remain a tinderbox for the foreseeable future. Some put all the blame on climate change, but others have been pointing, with increasing urgency, to federal management policies dating from the “Big Burn” of 1910. That blaze destroyed over 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana and revitalized the U.S. Forest Service, doubling its budget and influence. It also established a zero-tolerance policy toward all wildfires with an aim to stomping them out, wherever possible, by midmorning after the day they were spotted.

That might have been an overreaction. Many officials now believe it’s better to let normal wilderness wildfires clear out the undergrowth quickly with no permanent damage to mature trees. In farmland, controlled burns could create firebreaks that keep the monster blazes from feeding on themselves. 

Dominion generates creativity, innovation, order, and plenty.

Why aren’t controlled burns and managed fires the policy? Ask almost any Western fire manager and he’s likely to sigh in frustration. To adequately clear out forests in California alone would require burning upward of 1 million acres per year. The current average is about 20,000. Even for that, it can take months to jump the environmental hoops, and a planned burn can get shut down within hours because of smog levels or complaints from neighbors. And there’s always liability: Nobody pays for canceling a burn, but a fire that jumps its boundaries can consume jobs and reputations, as well as millions of dollars. Speaking of millions, most of California’s firefighting is contracted out to private firms, and all-out warfare is much more profitable than strategic burns. 

Added to all that is environmentalism’s quasi-­religious attitude toward nature that demonizes all forms of development, even to responsible forestry. “Social political realities get in the way of doing a lot of what we need to do,” admitted one Forest Service research ecologist in a ProPublica report.

“What we need to do” reflects a principle found in Genesis: dominion. The earth is the Lord’s, but from the beginning He granted humans the privilege and responsibility of caring for it—which means caring about it. To the extreme environmentalist, dominion means domination, full stop. It’s much less than that, and also much more. Dominion generates creativity, innovation, order, and plenty. It’s the unseen foundation for science and technology. It’s participation in the ongoing creation narrative, open to any human being with a mind and a skill. 

Environmental activism often casts humanity as the villain against a victim who’s starting to fight back. “Mother Earth is angry”—we should huddle in our urban enclaves and let her simmer down. 

Mother Earth is a prodigal parent, as anyone knows who ever tried to clear out a septic pond (don’t ask). The Fall that set humans and nature at odds didn’t cancel the dominion contract—it just made it more fickle and fraught. While humans can be the cause of environmental degradation, they are more often the cure, gifted with the ability to consider and self-­correct. One reason the Eastern U.S. doesn’t have massive, chronic wildfires is not just because it’s wetter, but because much more of it is privately owned. Farmers and foresters generally take better care of what belongs to them, benefiting the land as well as the landowner. 

Federal land-management policy needs to change, but you still have dominion in your own backyard. Even a well-tended flower bed pleases man and glorifies the Lord.  

Comments

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  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 10/13/2020 01:25 pm

    It is the narcissistic Californians who want live among the trees and have nature frozen in time.  They scream unfair because their homeowner’s insurance rates are skyrocketing up because their houses keep burning down in forest fires.  I for one, am tired of my Midwest homeowner’s insurance rates climbing up to help pay for their countless California fire losses. If I was narcissistic, I would hope the next big Earthquake would break California away and let them float around the Pacific for a while. I can easily forgo anything Hollywood produces.     

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 10/14/2020 07:34 am

    It is really unfair, as one comment does, to lump all 40 million residents of California together as "narcissistic." Hollywood is not representative of all California. And there are many who strongly disagree with the politicians. And furthermore, though it is a commonly heard statement, to wish the state with its 40 million inhabitants were to break off and disappear into the depths of the Pacific is particularly unfortunate and objectionable. Not to mention narcissistic...

    However, thanks for this insightful article. Controlled burns and all that is involved is a challenging concept. You cover this topic well. 

     

  • JE
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 07:12 pm

    As a person who does prescribed fire for a living as a nationally qualified burn boss, this article is fair, but incomplete. California has some of the most flammable habitats on the globe, and stopping the fires was a matter of hubris. 

    What the author could have stated better was the fact that most of the fires prior to the "No fire policy" were lit by people as a land management tool. Lighting the woods on fire was an essential practice to the Native Americans, and was even part of their religious ceremonies.

    Putting a stop to fires was every bit an exercise of dominion over creation as the prior history of purposefully setting fires. The costs in dollars and effort have been tremendous. The cessation of fires was a particularly misguided form of dominion, fueled by various aspects of our fallen nature, such as ignorance, arrogance and even racism.

    There are some areas, particularly southeastern US, where the prescribed fire culture never died, despite real efforts from the forest service to put a stop to it. Some SE US states have laws that protect people who want to burn their land in a safe and responsible manner. The rest of the US could learn from them.

    A step in the right direction for the lack of prescribed fire would be loosening the clean air requirements needed. People need to realize that fire will happen in many parts of the US one way or another. Having it done in a planned way at least gives people the chance to prepare.