The West is Burning Up
RELATIONS of FORESTS and FOREST FIRES
by Gifford Pinchot
Evergreen Magazine, Winter Edition 1994-1995
Editor's note: In 1899, six years before the Forest Service was born, Gifford Pinchot wrote an article for National Geographic titled, "The Relation of Forests and Forest Fires." He was then the head of the federal government's Division of Forestry, which would later become the Forest Service, with Pinchot again at the helm.
Excerpts from Pinchot's article are reprinted below, and reflect a remarkably clear understanding of the ecological role fire was playing in forests then under his jurisdiction. Even so, he could not bring himself to side with fire. Thus, in the article's concluding paragraph, he wrote, "I hasten to add that these facts do not imply any desirability in the fires which are now devastating the West."
Some historians believe this remark may have had something to do with the fact arson was widespread at the time, a western reaction to creation of federal reserves. Read John Leiberg's comments in "Could What Happened in 1910 Happen Again," page 37.
In any event, Pinchot's explanation of fire is as instructive as it was ninety-five years ago, and should help readers understand the relationship between fire and other natural forces at work in forest ecosystems.
It is unfortunate that our acquaintance with what might almost be called the creative action of forest fire should be so meager, for only through a knowledge of this relation and through the insight which such knowledge brings can there be gained a clear and full conception of how and why fires do harm, and how best they may be prevented or extinguished...
There is but little of all the vast forest area of this country which does not bear, either in actual scars and charcoal or in the manner and composition of its growth, the marks of fire...
Where such forest lands have been protected from fire, as they are very largely through the progress of settlement, young trees have usually sprung up in great numbers under or between the scattered veterans which had survived the fires, and a dense and vigorous young growth stands ready to replace by a heavy forest the open parklike condition which the fire had created and maintained...
Perhaps the most remarkable of the regulative effects of forest fires relates to the composition of the forest ? the kinds of trees of which it is composed and the proportion of each. This effect depends upon the action of fire in combination with the various qualities of resistance which trees possess. These qualities are of two chief kinds; one adapted to secure the safety of the individual tree directly through its own powers of defense, the other to assure the continuance of the species with little regard for the single tree.
An example of the first kind is the western larch, whose enormously thick bark is almost fireproof, and so good a non?conductor that it protects the living tissue beneath it even against fires hot enough to scorch the trunk 50 or 75 feet above the ground. It is this quality of their bark, as well as their marvelous vitality, that the big trees of California owe their power to reach an age of 3,000 to 4,000 years...
Almost all trees yield readily to slight surface fires during the first ten or fifteen years of their life. To this statement the longleaf pine is a conspicuous and rare exception. Not only do the young trees protect themselves in early youth by bark which is uncommonly as thick as the wood [the whole diameter being thus two-thirds bark and one-third wood] but they add to this unusual armor a device specially adapted to their safety when growing amid long grass, usually a most fatal neighbor to trees in case of fire. It is to be noted that the vast majority of longleaf pines are associated with grass from the beginning to the end of their lives. During the first four or five years, the longleaf seedling reaches a height of but four or five inches above the ground. It has generally been erroneously assumed that this slow growth made it specially susceptible to injury from fire; but while the stem during these early years makes little progress, the long needles shoot up and bend over in a green cascade which falls to the ground in a circle about the seedling. Not only does this barrier of green needles itself burn only with difficulty, but it shades out the grass around the young stem, and so prepares a double fire-resisting shield about the vitals of the young tree...
The second method of protection against fire is that which sacrifices the individual but secures the safety of the species. Perhaps the most striking example of this method is furnished by the lodgepole pine, which is being distributed over hundreds of square miles in the Rocky Mountain region by the action of fire. It is a fact that this thin?barked tree, which succumbs with the utmost readiness to fire, is gaining ground by the action of its enemy, replacing over great areas thick-barked species like the red fir and the western larch ... [It does this by] hoarding for several years the ripe seeds in the cones. Fire rarely burns down the lodgepole pine, but in nearly every case simply kills the standing tree and leaves it to be blown down years after, when decay shall have weakened the roots. In the meantime, the hoarded winged seeds are set free by the opening of the cones, are distributed
and germinate and the new crop contains a larger proportion of lodgepole than the old. By the repetition of this process great stretches of burned land are finally covered with a pure, even-aged younger growth where formerly the forest was composed of other and usually much more valuable species...
A somewhat less obvious, although not a less interesting, instance of distribution controlled by fire is that of the red [Douglas] fir in those portions of Washington [and presumably Oregon also] where it reaches its best dimensions and greatest commercial importance. Here the young seedlings are found in remarkable abundance on unshaded spots wherever the vegetable covering of the mineral soil has been burned away ... Continuous stretches of miles without a break were covered with a uniform growth of Douglas fir [red fir] from two to three feet in diameter, interspersed with numerous rotting stumps of much larger trees bearing the marks of fire. The young firs were entirely unscarred, but charcoal was found at the roots of some specimens which had been thrown by the wind ... I did not see a single young seedling of Douglas-fir [red fir] under the forest cover, nor a single opening made by fire which did not contain them. In a word, the distribution of red fir in western Washington, where it is by all odds the most valuable commercial tree, is governed, first of all, so far as we know at the present time, by fire. Had fires been kept out of these forests in the last thousand years the fir which gives them their distinctive character would not be in existence, but would be replaced in all probability by the hemlock, which fills even the densest of the Puget Sound forests with its innumerable seedlings. I hasten to add that these facts do not imply any desirability in the fires which are now devastating the West.