Hey, I smell smoke, where is it coming from? I think it is probably from the forest fire up on the mountain, see? Well, close the windows before our fire alarms go off and it is so thick it is choking me up! Remember those local wildfires, and then later the prescribed fires to prevent wildfires? Yeah, it’s getting to be a routine every late spring, then summer and into the fall. What is going on, it didn’t use to be like this? Well, yeah, it did but was different, and people’s expectations were different.
To start with, up until natural gas came in, our heating and cooking was all done with wood, coal and oil, which emitted copious quantities of sooty smoke when they started up, then settling down to lightcolored wisps when the stove got hot. That was simply the “natural” air we were used to. If somebody’s chimney didn’t have smoke coming out you knew something must be wrong! That was also the time when many sawmills were in the area and kept fires burning in their furnaces for the boilers to run the mill equipment and generate electricity. Excess scraps not useable in the boiler furnace went to the wigwam burners. Actually then the sight of smoke was a welcome sign of life on cold winter days, and actually, when burning right, much of the “smoke” contained water vapor. It was not the black choking stuff we get now with the wildfires. In those days, we were putting out wildfires to protect the valuable timber and other resources, but also doing prescribed and broadcast burning in the fall to clean up logging slash and for rangeland improvement. This was all done with minimal smoke emissions and over relatively short periods of time, and emulating the natural fire regime that had been taking place over time. Then in 1970, the “National Environmental Policy Act” and the “Clean Air Act” came along and everything changed. The Clean Air Act was originally for the large metropolitan cities, but then using the one size fits all concept, extended it to the rural lands, to ensure the entire country would have crystal clear air all the time. This was the beginning of the end in good natural resource use and management.
As more federal acts were passed in the 1970s, further restricting use and management, the forest products industries began closing down. This had two profound effects. First, forest product needs began to be supplied by foreign imports, and the forests began growing overcrowded and stagnated with fuel loading accumulating over the next 40 years. As time moved along, the concept of the “rewilding” of a utopian wilderness began to reveal unintended consequences of massive extremely hot wildfires damaging soils, watersheds, timber, wildlife, recreation and producing mega tons of smoke, ash and that nasty carbon dioxide (that plants love) into the air over extended periods of time and over large areas of the states. OOPS, the environmental ecologists managed to create the problem that they were supposed to have solved. Dang! What went wrong? Very simply, they left out the most important factor in the environmental equation— MAN!
Man has always been an integral part of the natural environment and fire and smoke have always been a part of the environment and will continue to be, regardless of what is done. Removing Man from the environment will not make it a utopian wilderness in balance with itself. So, how do we now solve the issue of too much “bad” smoke and lost resources? Reduce the source of it, the uncontrolled burning of the heavy wood fuels. How do you do that? Remove the wood and convert it into products that improve our society and economy, paying for its own removal. It can be done, but it will be slow since much of the industrial infrastructure equipment and experienced manpower have been eliminated over the past 40 years. The markets for the products have been taken over by foreign entities, so there will need to be new markets developed. Realistic management and use plans must be developed in place of the current ”Wilderness Museum” plan where you look but don’t touch and leave no trace you were there.
It is encouraging to see that things are picking up locally. There are now three small sawmills, a paneling and excelsior plant and now a wood veneer plant, all using local timber that is in desperate need to be salvaged and thinned out. Also, there are now wood millworks and a hardwood flooring and mill works plant. While it is not in our county, the Montrose lumber will be helping to salvage and thin much of our local forest before it dies and burns. Another valuable asset for forest management is the commercial firewood producers cleaning up the dead and dying trees and logging slash. We need to support all our local wood product businesses to enable them to return the forest environment to a healthy condition. Now here is food for thought, did you realize the wood products industries all PAY to do the forest salvage and thinning work and the county receives a portion of that payment? We need the Forest Service to ensure these industries are able to keep a steady supply of product for an efficient and profitable business while restoring the forest to a healthy managed condition.
If we want healthy recreation-oriented businesses, more and varied recreation opportunities, healthy watersheds, increased job opportunities, growing local economy, reduced wildfire smoke, then we need a health action plan for the ENTIRE forest, and get a move on, we are 40 years behind!
Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.