Welcome Rains fuel resource
management dilema


Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


October 5, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


As I watch the rain pouring down on a Sunday morning, and ponder the advisory issued by the National Weather Service for flash flooding and mudslides in burned areas, I wonder if I'm the only one who's a little confused about where we go from here.

Let's be blunt. If loggers' skid trails carried a fraction of the soil that wildfire and rain are probably delivering to our streams as I type these words, there would be the devil to pay.

As it is, responsible resource managers and field crews are scrambling to minimize and mitigate the potential damage caused by Mother Nature herself. But, the truth is, the majority of sediment that is destined to reached the streams in burned watersheds will, in fact, do so, despite our best intentioned efforts to the contrary. Why? Because Mother Nature still hasn't bought in to our resource management objectives, and she remains unimpressed by our plans and assessments.

Our lands will continue to burn and flood and slide. We might as well get used to it.

My question is, should we continue to worry if a little dirt falls into the creek when we clean out a culvert?

I mean, now that the secret is out and everyone knows it's all going to burn from time to time anyway, is there any point in continuing to provide densely forested security cover for elk to use in hunting season?

Let's pretend for a moment that the best land management practices mimic Mother Nature's own. And, we're witnessing what she would prescribe. So, do BMPs for logging and grazing really help?

Of course, there is considerable debate at the present time as to whether the fires of 2000 were natural forces at all, or the product of human mismanagement. These are very appropriate and necessary evaluations that all of us who have a hand in resource management must be willing to engage in. This is a time for learning, and I hope the learning process will be assisted by scientific study.

For the purposes of this letter to you, I hope you can agree that firesometimes hot and destructive firehas been a natural feature of the northern Rocky Mountains forever. Long before anyone was managing forests for elk security cover, bull trout, wilderness or watershed conservation, Lewis and Clark found enough dense forest cover in our part of Montana to wish for some enlightened forestry to open it up a bit. Read Andrew Garcia's "Tough Trip Through Paradise" to learn what kind of forests stood at the head of the Bitterroot before the turn of the last century.

Fires have always burned, and periodically they have burned hot in naturally heavy fuels, and when the rains have come, our streams have run brown for a time. Whether modern human society has influenced this natural process for the worse, better, or not at all is a legitimate topic for investigation. But, I am convinced that the firestorm we experienced last summer certainly was not unprecedented in its general effect across the landscape, and is part of a process that is as natural as drought, thunderstorms and microbursts.

So, if you buy that argument, just for the sake of discussion at least, isn't it silly then to wake up after the fires go out, while soil may be running off steep, burned slopes in sickening quantities, only to continue fighting hard to protect things like clean waterthings that Mother Nature will someday take away from us in one fell swoop? And, shouldn't we assume there is an evolutionary role for black slopes, brown water and its associated wildlife?

Too many questions and not enough space for answers. It's lucky for me because I don't have any.

But, I will offer the opinion that accepting fires and mudslides as important components of our natural world does not conflict with an ethic to protect clean water and hold soil on our mountain sides, and even to provide some jack-strawed lodgepole to hide a monarch bull elk.

We need it all to sustain our diverse wild inheritance.

Because even though we don't live on an ocean, our environment is nevertheless subjected to waves. Waves over time of fire, of recovery from fire, of so-called pristine forest conditions, and then destructive fire again, spiced occasionally with sprinkles of less intense fire, windthrow, and flood.

It's a bumpy ride that never ends if the system remains healthy. And, an entire ecosystem of native plants and animals is here because it is uniquely adapted to the cycle. Sure, Mother Nature is tearing apart decades of human effort to conserve soil, vegetation and wildlife where fires raged this summer. But, those decades of effort were not wasted. They allowed the natural cycle to complete itselfthe healing and the stabilizing that a host of wild species relies uponand helped manage human impacts that would interrupt that equally necessary part of the cycle.

It's the standing still that's destructive to our landscapes in the northern Rockies. Too long without fire and flood. Too long with sediment pouring into our creeks. Too long without old growth forests. These are the destructive forces. I think we need the extremes. To me, that means we need the soil on the mountain, where it belongs, for as long as Nature allows until she starts the process over again. That's what our natural system depends on.

Control the tides and you kill the ocean. Control the environmental waves across western Montana and you no longer have Montana at all.

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