Most discussions of our dilemma with severe wildfires miss the fundamental basis of our problem — failure to recognize that most Western forests are fire-dependent.

Fire shaped the composition and structure of these forests for thousands of years. In the long run, we cannot keep fire out. By trying to do so we cause unprecedented buildup of fuels and thickets of small trees that choke out historical fire-adapted trees. Prolonged fire exclusion triggers epidemics of bark beetles and disease. Instead of continuing to eliminate fire, we should influence how fire burns in forests.

Residents of western Montana appreciate our forests, and their divergent viewpoints might be lumped into four categories: 1. Some see forests primarily as a source of revenue. 2. Others think forests should be left alone, regardless that most forests have been radically altered by past logging and dense growth of small trees from fire exclusion. 3. The majority of the public shows little interest in how forests are managed. 4. Finally, a fraction of the public, conservationists, foresters and ecologists, share a vision of how our fire-dependent forests could be sustained by applying knowledge of historic forests and fire regimes to favor long-lived fire-resistant trees and a mosaic of young and older forests.

A century ago, lumbermen in northern California, central Oregon and northwestern Montana urged the newly established U.S. Forest Service to take up controlled burning to emulate natural fire and prevent the buildup of fuels in forests. For various reasons the agency refused in the West, although it allowed burning in Southeastern pine forests. In the 1960s and 1970s, the plethora of environmental protection acts paid scant notice to the essential role of fire.

By the 1980s, an alarming increase in severe wildfires and expanding knowledge of fire’s importance in the ecology of forests caused the Forest Service to embrace controlled re-introduction of fire. However, by this time the idea that fire should be eliminated had become thoroughly entrenched in agencies and communities for numerous reasons, intolerance of smoke from prescribed burning and a fire suppression industry depended on continuing “fire exclusion.” The Smokey Bear advertising campaign convinced the public that fire in the forest was bad and unnecessary. Millions of people were moving into the forest — the “wildland-urban interface (WUI)” — inserting homes and vacation cabins into dense forests that were perceived as idyllic.

Several economic studies have concluded that forest restoration involving carefully designed thinning, fuel reduction and prescribed burning in strategic zones near the WUI could allow better management of fire all across the forest landscape. Studies agree that active management would cost far less than today’s desperate attempts and massive expenditures to control wildfires that threaten private property. Forest restoration also helps produce safer forests featuring fire-resistant tree communities and providing a wood products as a byproduct of the thinning and fuels reduction work.

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Over the last decade collaborative groups made up of conservationists, agency professionals, local governments and lumber mills have been working together designing forest restoration projects. Vociferous opponents have hindered many of these efforts in court or by threatening litigation, arguing there might be some negative impact on the environment. Ironically, delayed restoration ensures further deterioration of the forest and bigger fires.

To resolve our wildfire dilemma and renew healthy forests, more people need to get involved. Montana’s entire congressional delegation supports reasonable reforms of regulations and laws governing forest management on public lands. Let them know that you support management reforms. Visit the Montana Forest Collaboration Network at to learn about some of the 20 collaborative groups from many parts of Montana.

Stephen Arno of Florence earned a Ph.D at the University of Montana in 1970 in forestry and plant science. He was a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab. After retiring, he wrote four books dealing with various aspects of the role of fire in different types of forests. He has managed his family’s ponderosa pine forest for the past 45 years.


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