It’s Become the Season of Smoke

This is probably the new normal in the West

By Rob Breeding

I wish it were autumn.

We’ll be there soon as the change of seasons remains inevitable despite this age of endless summer (also a bestseller for the Beach Boys, but everyone knows “Pet Sounds” was the band’s greatest work). Glacier National Park is burning again, though there isn’t the same sense that the entirety of Montana is on fire as it seemed a year ago. Still, with California lit up, it feels like everything from the Rockies to the Pacific is ablaze.

This is probably the new normal in the West. I know some are sure if we just get back in and “manage” our forests, everything will be just fine. But that and $5 will get you a triple latte. What it won’t do is turn back the clock — to a time before we set the forest ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies on a trajectory toward routine catastrophic fire. We did that by over-managing these forests in the 20th century.

By over-managing, I mean clear cutting followed by fire suppression. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suggested recently that we still have the power to fix our forests. The reality is that actual forest restoration work is complicated, time consuming and requires repeated follow-up treatment in the form of controlled burns. You don’t just go in with chain saws on Monday and leave a forest fireproof on Friday.

The other problem is that the kind of restoration work that leaves forests less fire prone usually means leaving the older, most valuable timber behind. Since there’s no market for spindly 6-inch diameter logs, you have to pay someone to fix a forest.

I suppose it’s possible we could make a small dent in the forest fires of the future, but it would require the collective effort of a government-funded army of loggers the size of which would make the Public Works Administration of the 1930s seem like a libertarian free-market fantasy.

We’ll see if Zinke puts in a budget request for that kind of spending in 2019.

Unfortunately, a century of disastrous forest “management” coupled with climate change, about which our political leaders seem to be in total denial, means the forests are going to manage themselves.

Our forests are going to burn. We baked that into the cake decades ago. We may spare a few homes in the wildland-urban interface, hopefully, but the Augusts of our future, and the future of our children, will be a season of smoke.

We treated our forests like mines of copper ore, ore we imagined would just grow back just as before. We did this despite the catastrophic effects such a “management” regime inevitably wreaks on an ecosystem. In our defense, we were profoundly ignorant about how ecosystems work.

My hope is that the summers won’t grow so long they squeeze autumn, the greatest season of all, out of existence. I remember autumns of the past and in those memories the season started the first weekend of September, and for a week before that I covered my tomato plants at night to get the ripening process across the finish line.

I’m being melodramatic. It really wasn’t that long ago and if my memory is fuzzy, that has more to do with youthful indiscretions than old age, even if old age isn’t that far away.

To cope with the smoke I walk the dog in the morning when I hope to hear a pheasant’s two-note, rusty-gate crow call. It always gets Doll’s attention, and for me it’s a harbinger of hope. If there are randy pheasants out in the cottonwood bottoms, that seems as good a sign as any that summer, even the hot-rodded version of the season we’ve created, can be beaten.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.