A Future of Big Fires and Tiny Bugs
The changing landscape of our national forests
My dad was a Forest Service ranger, one of the battle-hardened generation just stepping back into real life from World War II. Rangers like him moved to tiny little towns like Luna, NM, and Custer, SD, to work 24-hour days, and their wives were often their chief assistants and sometimes even served as firefighters.
The children of rangers were just like Army brats, though wherever we moved, we had the privilege of living in the national forests. We knew the forests the way city kids know the city. We also knew everybody in the area. I remember how angry my dad got when my godfather, a rancher, sold several 400-year-old pines to a logger. I also remember how mad my godfather got when my dad rounded up 20 of a neighbor's cows because they were trespassing on public land. He charged the owner $5 per head to get them back.
And I was there the night some cowboys showed up late, carrying a rope with a noose on the end of it after a grazing dispute. My dad met them at the door with an M1 .30 caliber carbine with a 30-round clip. Some 30 years later, those same cowboys asked him to write the official Forest Service history of their little valley.
A lot has changed during my time with the agency, and half the rangers are now women. Rangers get paid for working 8am to 5pm, though they usually work longer hours, and the kids can no longer ride along. There aren't any more horses to speak of, and the secretary who used to come in on Friday afternoons to file a few reports has been replaced by a big staff with computers.
But we still argue about how to save wild places and how to manage the land for the benefit of the many. America's public lands are the only wild lands most of us will ever own, so we tend to fight about them, just like a family argues about the best way to handle its most valuable assets.
Perhaps the single most profound change has been our realization that we are ultimately powerless to control the vast landscapes around us. The 1930s Dust Bowl helped to sear that message into our memories. We've had to learn what the forests around us have known for 10,000 years, that forests are continually being reshaped by people, wildlife, fire and mountain pine beetles.
The forest I woke up to almost 60 years ago no longer exists. The Black Hills I visited 45 years ago are equally alien. Gone are most of the open pine forests that dominated the land. We cut them down because we needed them to build our homes or fight our wars or drive our industries. Now, dense, spindly forests cover the Black Hills and the area around Flagstaff, AZ, and these new forests are neither desirable nor sustainable.
The trouble with human beings is that we live such short lives. Some trees in the Black Hills are over 700 years old—about 35 human generations. They were already 200 years old when Columbus showed up; they were here before the Crow Indians moved into the Powder River country.
As the centuries passed, these trees experienced constant change, including cycles of wildfire and bark beetles, but they were not destroyed. The forests were resilient. But then, for 100 years, none of the great country my dad and I rode through was allowed to burn—until 2000, when the Rodeo-Chediski and Los Alamos fires raged, and then the more recent Wallow and Las Conchas fires. A million acres of ponderosa pine forest burned.
As I think about the years I spent firefighting and working in forest management, I recall the phrases rolling from the mouths of public information officers, talking every decade about "the biggest ... the worst ... the most devastating fires ... like nothing veterans of 30 years have ever seen."
We say it about the bark beetles and we say it about the large fires. I have even heard myself say the same thing year after year, describing each disaster as bigger than the last, each one paling in comparison to the one that comes next. Yet none of this is new, and ... the earth abides.
The day we decided that landscapes were just like Disneyland and we could simply declare them suitable for one particular purpose, and then force them to remain unchanged, like Disneyland, forevermore, was the day we lost sight of our littleness in the scheme of things.
What's next for the Forest Service is hard to tell, though what's next for those of us living in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming is more certain: It's fire and bugs. The toll taken by bark beetles is already high: 11,094 square miles in the Western United States have been severely attacked.
My dad died before the Blue River country on the Arizona-New Mexico border burned last summer. I'm sorry he's gone, but I will always treasure the memories of that grand old time we had, back in the days when the forest ranger was usually the tallest guy in the room—just like the big old trees around him.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.