Bitterrooters got a chance to hear about how valuable wilderness areas are from one of their most ardent advocates last week when George Wuerthner gave a talk at the Bedford building in Hamilton at the invitation of Friends of the Bitterroot and other sponsors.
Wuerthner is a professional photographer, writer and ecologist. He has written more than two dozen books on natural history and other environmental topics and is currently the ecological projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology.
He grew up back east but came out west to go to Forestry School at the University of Montana. It was here that he got his first introduction to a wilderness area when he visited the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It set him on a course that would take him into hundreds of mountain ranges around the West, more than 380 wilderness areas, more than 180 national park units, and every national forest west of the Mississippi.
Wuerthner was asked to talk about wildfires and wilderness. He had a few points to make about wildfires. For one thing, no amount of fuels reduction and fire mitigation tactics can stop a raging fire if the conditions propelling it are prime.
“Wildfires just can’t be stopped when the right conditions exist,” he said. There are many factors involved in driving the largest most catastrophic fires including drought, low humidity, high temperatures and wind. He singled out wind as a key factor and said that high winds accompanied every severe wildfire that he studied. Even a grass fire driven by strong enough winds can overcome significant fire mitigation efforts and he had pictures to prove it.
Luckily most fires are low or medium intensity burns and even catastrophic severe fires often leave a patchwork of low and medium burn areas that can aid in revegetation and reforestation.
Wind is a key factor in how fires move across the landscape, sending out burning embers that can travel for miles in front of the fire storm. Wuerthner had plenty of photos to back up his observations. Photos from the Paradise Fire in California show green trees sprinkled across the area where all the homes were burnt to the ground. It was not a wall of fire that moved through incinerating everything in its path. It was more like a rain of fire with embers falling on roofs sometimes covered with wooden shingles. Fire-proofing your home gives a person the best chance of it surviving a fire than doing extensive fuel reduction in the surrounding forest.
Once homes start burning, the fire gets much hotter. Not only that, the remains are often toxic. Paradise, where 95% of the homes burned, is now a Super Fund clean-up site.
According to Wuerthner, one study of wilderness fires that burned between 1972 and 1987 found that out of 235 fires, 222 self-extinguished before reaching five acres in size.
Also worth noting is the effect of climate on wildfires, he said. We think fires are growing ever bigger and more catastrophic than ever before but that is not the case. A graph showing the acreage and severity of forest fires shows that leading up to the 1930’s huge fires burned across the western landscape, sometimes burning up to 40 to 50 million acres. Then we entered a period of cooler wetter weather between the 1930’s and 1980’s and the acreage and severities of fires dropped significantly. Since the 1980’s we have seen the firestorms returning.
But there are a lot of reasons to set aside wilderness areas other than to preserve an area where natural fire regimes can still play out. They are places to hike and recreate. They are places of beauty and Wuerthner notes that studies have shown that the experience of beauty makes people nicer. There is a spiritual element involved as well, he said.
“It’s a place for spiritual contemplation,” he said. “It’s a place where some people feel closer to their creator.”
It’s also a good place to learn about the natural world. It performs an ecological service by providing critical habitat for wildlife.
Wuerthner raced through the hall of fame of wilderness advocates from Henry David Thoreau, to John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, Bud Moore and E.O. Wilson, with plenty of inspiring quotes about how we find in wilderness the salvation of the world.
All these people saw in wilderness something essential to the human spirit and to the earth that is in desperate need of preservation. Wuerthner calls Wilderness designation and the creation of National Parks the “Gold Standard” for conservation.
Wuerthner points out that all the same arguments being made today were made in the beginning of this effort at preservation: that we need to log to prevent forest fires and that wilderness designation locks up the woods and will lead to economic decline.
A recent study of over 1,500 fires in the West, he said, shows that the highest severity fires occur in managed timber lands. Concerning locking up the woods, both the Kalispell and the Bozeman Chambers of Commerce lamented the establishment of Yellowstone and Glacier Parks. They claimed taking those woods out of service would kill the local economy. History, said Wuerthner, has proved both chambers wrong as these parks have become some of the greatest drivers of Montana’s economy.
Wuerthner also put in a plug for keeping mountain bikes out of the wilderness and out of Wilderness Study Areas. He said that recent studies have shown that a mountain bike trail creates a two-mile-wide swath that is avoided by many wild animals. He said mountain bike trails could potentially fragment the wildlife areas within the wilderness.
Wilderness experience can teach us essential things like restraint and self-discipline, according to Wuerthner. It’s a place where we can learn how to treat other people, the animals and the landscape itself with the respect they deserve.