“Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires,” for years was the mantra of Smokey Bear, the famous mascot for the US Forest Service.
Back in the 1940s when Smokey began his campaign, the Shawnee National Forest had burned regularly, but the fires were unnatural. The soils were depleted, farms abandoned, land abused and eroded; the sparse forests were dry. In the recently designated national forest, the most heavily damaged land was in the process of being planted in trees but regular wildfires threatened the integrity of the Shawnee.
Towers were constructed to spot fires and crews were dispatched to extinguish the flames that were most often started by local inhabitants that had not heeded Smokey’s message.
Over time, Smokey Bear was successful. The forest regenerated, the canopy closed and the naturally moist conditions returned. Now that the Forest Service devotes more than half of its annual budget nationwide to fire management, the FS has abandoned Smokey.
Forest Service on the Shawnee tell us that artificial fire coupled with logging, is needed to “restore” more open and drier conditions to the forest. Shawnee FS burned 14,000 acres last fiscal year and recently announced plans to artificially burn 10,000 – 15,000 acres, this cycle. They plan to annually scorch that amount with no end in sight.
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Our current Shawnee is moist and does not readily burn without help, lots of help. Large crews are required, some with drip torches pouring flaming diesel fuel on the leaf litter and others with leaf blowers, keep the flames burning. Last spring, agency staff reported using a helicopter to accomplish one of their large fires. Even with artificial help, the moist, woody debris on the forest floor (often classified as “hazardous fuel”) rarely burns.
Once burned, young trees are killed and more sunlight reaches the ground. Openland forbs and grasses invade the warmer and drier, newly disturbed forest floor. What agency officials conveniently fail to mention is the fact that the dormant vegetation resulting from “prescribed fire” is much more flammable than unburned, central hardwood forests. Combined with additional woody debris left behind from logging operations, recently burned and logged areas actually increase the risk of wildfire.
Money is at the heart of what motivates the Forest Service. As catastrophic wildfires devastate western rural communities, congress earmarks more money than ever to specifically help control these fires and to benefit “forest health.” In contrast to the Shawnee, western coniferous forests are drier and burn naturally. Timber industry lobbyists wrongly convince lawmakers that forests benefit from logging and that logging helps reduce wildfires. In order to increase their annual budgets, which all bureaucracies strive for, Shawnee staff pursues these funds too.
Studies show mature forests effectively sequester the most carbon, mitigating the effects of climate change. Burning and logging not only dump tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, these treatments convert mature, carbon sink forests into recovering, carbon source stands for years afterwards.
Climate change has arrived in North America and now predictable weather patterns are no longer reliable. The Shawnee staff is setting the stage for disaster. If they succeed, tens of thousands of acres will be impacted and a year or two of drought could turn the Shawnee into a tinderbox. Without the public taking action catastrophic wildfires may someday threaten homes near Cobden, Herod or your neighborhood. Call or write the Shawnee Forest Service. Tell them to stop burning and logging. Contact Senators Durbin and Duckworth to voice your concerns. “Remember, ONLY you...”
Smokey was right.
John B. Wallace is a retired Cedar Lake Manager and a volunteer land steward. He is a longtime forest activist and environmental educator known to portray the historic writer, mountaineer and conservationist, John Muir, in living history performances.