By Joseph Taylor III
Living in western North America in late summer can feel apocalyptic. Inevitably, it seems, the region is encircled by fire. The 2015 wildfire season consumed a record-setting ten million acres mostly in California, Washington, and Alaska. Last year California, Arizona, and New Mexico were besieged. This year fire enveloped California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Montana, and smoke smothered the rest of the continent. It was and likely will continue to be front-page news, so as journalists focus on the moment, let us historians think about just how much the past has shaped events, and what it all might mean.
Since the 1860s, Americans and Canadians have set aside vast areas for their sublime and ecological values. Some areas became parks and monuments, others became forests and ranges. The wildest were deemed wildernesses. As the 1964 Wilderness Act put it, they were “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Such places were rarer than Congress realized. Native peoples had tended the continent for millennia. Their physical removal from these places did not so much preserve them as set in motion new ecological forces. Gazing back from our coughing, hacking, smoke-filled present, the preservationist impulse can seem ironic. The landscapes Americans most wanted to save are instead changing rapidly—in some cases more so than adjacent, unprotected areas—and preservation itself is to blame. The factors here are partly anthropogenic—resulting from the policy of suppressing fire for more than a century—but nature also plays a role.
Let’s begin with Mesa Verde, a place the New York Times once called “timeless,” but where wildfires have in recent decades burned extensively.[i] A 2000 study concluded that the fires were “within the historic range of variability,” but when the researchers examined what was happening to habitat, they found invasive “weeds” interrupting expected succession. Since then park biologists have revisited and revised such findings, concluding that recent fires did indeed burn more extensively and intensively than in previous eras, that severe drought has also altered habitat, and that half of the pinyon-juniper forest has been replaced, perhaps permanently, by chaparral and shrub. The forces at work are neither simply natural or cultural. The preservationist impulse to suppress all fires allowed fuels to build to dangerous levels, but the hotter and dryer conditions of recent decades also helped alter the trajectory of ecological succession. Fire and climate are now selecting against junipers, pinyons, and their associated biota, including pinyon jays, in favor of invasive species that only exacerbate fire conditions.
Higher in the Rockies, fire and climate are intersecting with beetles to deflect succession similarly to Mesa Verde. Wolf Creek Pass has become a conspicuous example of the mass die-off of trees due to infestations by pine and spruce beetles. As climate changed over the last century, the number of consecutive hard-freeze days declined sharply, and with them the mechanism that retards native beetle populations. The resulting beetle irruptions laid waste to alpine forests and may have made them more susceptible to fire. Large, stand-replacing fires are not new to the Rockies, but in cooler and wetter times pine and spruce could reestablish themselves. That is no longer the case, and, as in Mesa Verde, climate is the complication. Severe beetle outbreaks turn out to affect not just trees but vegetation cover, and whether the trees themselves end up more susceptible to fire—a point of debate among foresters—the ability of ground cover to rebound has become a clear casualty of beetle outbreaks. The lack of cover in turn means warmer ground temperatures, poorer moisture retention, and altered conditions for ecological succession.
Boreal forests are undergoing similar stresses. This global ecosystem, which dwarfs the size of temperate forests, has been shaped by fire for millions of years. Anthropogenic ignition is thus a relatively minor and recent factor in the taiga, yet natural or not, fire remains integral to sustaining jack pine, spruce, birch, and aspen by interrupting successional processes in much the same way that fire sustains Douglas Fir forests in the Pacific Northwest. In both the PNW and the Boreal, the dominant species is not a climax species. But in the far north, too, in places such as Yukon Territory (pdf), climate change has diminished the length and severity of hard freezes, relieving mountain pine beetles of a critical limitation on their range. These changes have also lengthened and exacerbated the impact of Boreal fires. Given how rising temperatures and aridity are driving ecosystem changes in Mesa Verde and alpine forests, it is worth wondering how increased fire and temperatures will affect the taiga as well.
We may also be witnessing this process in Oregon. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is now the site of the nation’s largest wildfire, totaling 184,292 acres as of September 13. The Chetco Bar Fire threatens coastal and inland communities, and smoke from it and more than fifty other fires has made breathing dangerous, forcing the Oregon Shakespeare Company to cancel performances and the annual Cycle Oregon tour to cancel its entire ride. If the Kalmiopsis rings a bell, perhaps it is because it also hosted the nation’s largest wildfire in 2002, the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire, as well as the 93,000-acre Silver Fire in 1987. Given its charred legacy, the very meaning of fire is a point of debate. One environmental group casts these fires, and by extension their damage, as unnatural, stressing how fire management and logging exacerbated the extent and intensity of the Biscuit Fire. In 2006, several researchers claimed salvage logging stunted forest regeneration. This finding was somewhat backed by other researchers in 2007, but in 2010, two of the latter team noted that the single most significant factor shaping the intensity of Kalmiopsis fires was whether an area had already burned (pdf). Put simply, the history of fire itself, whether natural or anthropogenic, changed a forest’s subsequent susceptibility to fire.
In a sense foresters and environmentalists are still learning what environmental historians grasped decades ago: “wildlands” management is a deeply historical problem, and the categories of natural and unnatural are not particularly enlightening. North America has a very long history of anthropogenic burning. In some corners, particularly the Pacific Northwest, anthropogenic burning was pervasive and sophisticated. Teasing apart natural from unnatural in such places is not only impossible but wrongheaded. Most of the continent was tended by fire, in some cases for millennia, until nation states removed indigenous peoples from their lands. Only then did humans become “a visitor who does not remain.” Only then did nature turn down evolutionary paths that seemed free from human intrusion but were still intrinsically anthropogenic. The Kalmiopsis is one of these places. Its current ecohistorical path is novel because of how fire and climate change (another form of nature that is deeply cultural) are altering successional forces.
Yet it is exactly here where history enlightens, because the Kalmiopsis has an analog to the north, a place that also burned repeatedly and that produced critical lessons about fire in Oregon’s coastal forests. The Tillamook Burn (really four fires from 1933 to 1951) consumed more than 350,000 acres. The fires burned so intensively that trees could not reseed the barrens. The state had to intervene, first foreclosing on forfeited lands and then enlisting citizens and foresters to replant the fire scar. Everyone then waited a half century for the forest to return. If there is ever an example of an anthropogenic wilderness, the Tillamook is it, and yet now, much like the Kalmiopsis, the Tillamook has become the object of a familiar tug-of-war over whether to intervene or preserve a seemingly wild landscape.
But what does “wild” actually mean in such places? Beyond the narrow definition of “not managed,” the concept makes little ecological or cultural sense. Natural and unnatural poorly capture the combination of forces that have, are, and will shape such environments. Moreover, if Mesa Verde and Wolf Creek are harbingers, then wild landscapes may evolve from vestiges of the past into petri dishes where the ecological future unfolds fastest. Wilderness areas such as the Kalmioposis—blackened and polluting the lungs of people hundreds of miles away—seemed poised to become ironic monuments, places that will represent the very opposite of the ideals Samuel Hays summarized as beauty, health, and permanence. The central reason is that fire is intersecting with climate in ways that make the past irrelevant and the status quo untenable. Stephen Pyne—a historian too few historians, myself included, read often enough—reminds his readers that fire leaves “no neutral position possible.” Humans have to choose how they live with fire. Thus a conversation seems in order about what we humans think we mean by wildness, and whether, given the ecological forces now reshaping western North America, the preservationist ideal of hands-off still makes sense. Pyne has already warned that “If all we want is the wild, we will get it. If we expect a usable mix of ecological goods and services, we will have to add our hand to nature’s.” If Pyne is correct, and I think he is, then it seems an open question whether the wilderness ideal as codified by Congress in 1964, is culturally or ecologically sustainable.
I want to thank Lincoln Bramwell, Mike Childers, Matthew Klingle, and Steve Pyne for their responses to drafts of this piece. This is my argument, however, so don’t go berating them for what I’ve written.
[i] The short travel piece gained instant notoriety because the newspaper, in its infinite provincialism, included a photo not of Mesa Verde but of Shiprock, some fifty miles away. Nor did it help that the paper spelled the formation “Ship Rock.”