Public lands in public hands

The Pole Creek fire, north of Kemmerer, has now been burning for 40 days. At the time of this writing, it has burned 3500 acres and is only 55 percent contained. Projections are that it will burn until the snow flies. Miraculously, this is the only major fire in Wyoming, but it is only the tip of the iceberg this western wildfire season. 

Currently, 76 large fires (over 100 acres) are raging in the American west. As of September 7, the total number of acres burned is 1,484,353, and over a million of those are in Montana alone. How do you get your head around that kind of a number? 

Let’s put it in terms of square miles. In Montana, 1,614 square miles have burned this year, while 179 burned last year, and 549 the year before. We are rapidly approaching Montana’s record fire-year of 1,907 square miles in 2012. For comparison, that’s almost the size of Uinta County (2,088 sq. miles).

But numbers are mind-numbing. They don’t tell the human story. Hundreds of structures have burned to the ground, including Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park, built in 1913. Countless livestock and people have been displaced. Air quality is making breathing difficult for all of us, and downright dangerous for some.

As we breathe the smoke and enjoy the spectacular sunrises and sunsets that the wild-fire season brings, we have an opportunity also to think more concretely about the people who are closest to the fire lines.

First, let us take the time to thank God for the tens of thousands of firefighters who have been working long hours in dangerous conditions since mid-July. We should pray for their safety, and appreciate the time that they are taking away from their families to save structures and manage the fires to the best of their abilities.

While we are at it, let’s think about the people who live and work on these lands that are going up in smoke. For ranchers who lease National Forest and BLM land for their livelihood, fires are an unmitigated disaster. 

We should never forget that our policy to make public lands available for dual use means that public lands are not just photogenic and a nice place for people to hike. To help pay for our vistas, we have asked real people to live on the land and populate it with livestock. Because of this arrangement, we shoulder some responsibility toward them.

Wildfires do not just spoil our vistas, they put these people and livestock in harm’s way. When the wind shifts, there is usually no way to simply drive an air conditioned pickup out to the livestock and herd them to safety. Cattle and sheep must fend for themselves. While animals are generally smart enough to move away from the fire on Forest land, livestock are unable to jump fences or open gates.

This highlights another hidden cost in forest fires. While we hear about the buildings that are destroyed by fire, we never hear about the fences that are destroyed. Decades of fence building and maintenance can be wiped out in a single day. Some cost estimates price fences at $10,000 per mile. Such expenditures can severely hurt the ranchers who are already operating on a razor-thin margin.

As for the wildlife, at least big game can jump fences away from a fire. They will also benefit from the new green growth that will come next summer. But the question of their survival during the winter after a fire is another matter. Where the fire is large enough, there is a devastating impact to the herds in terms of winterkill as they starve to death in the following months. 

While the ranchers I talked to see wildfires as disasters for their livelihoods and for the forests they live on, the wildlife biologists whom I talked to from the US Forest Service see wildfires as “a very good thing, so long as they are not destroying people’s homes.”

Fires are seen as a natural part of the ecosystem. The US Forest Service believes that the reason we are seeing such huge fires today can be blamed on the past century of fire suppression. Presumably, this is the reason why firefighters throughout the mountain west are under orders to manage the fires, not necessarily to put them out.

The main goal is to steer them away from homes, content to let them burn until the snowfall eventually puts them out.

These are two wildly different views of wildfires. On one thing, however, the ranchers and the federal biologists seem to agree. Both point to decades of tinder build-up in the form of deadfall that makes wildfires larger and more devastating. But that’s where the agreement ends.

Today’s wildlife biologists think that fire suppression policies of their predecessors was mismanagement that did not allow fires to burn up the acreage with decades of deadfall. Ranchers, on the other hand, think the mismanagement is the current policies, which hinder them from clearing deadfall and thinning overgrowth. In their view, not only do these rules increase the fire hazards unnecessarily, but in the meantime it makes it impossible for either livestock or wildlife to access the land for grazing.

One phrase that captures both sides of the debate is, “Log it, graze it, or watch it burn.” This seems like an accurate summary. Some would rather log our public land and graze it. Others would rather watch it burn. Which would you rather?

That’s not just a rhetorical question. It is a serious choice that we should all be involved in making. The management of our public lands is entrusted to the public – that’s you and me. As long as we, the citizens of the United States, wish to own these lands, we ought to take an active role in managing them. If we simply surrender our management to Washington appointees, we lose our right to complain. 

That brings up another phrase which is quite popular these days: “Public lands in public hands.” We see this on bumper stickers and internet memes. It is a great point of agreement! Everybody on both sides of the debate agrees on this phrase. Nobody wants to see our public lands in the hands of a few private individuals, or corporate conglomerations.

However, beyond this basic agreement, there is also a profound disagreement. When we think of “public hands,” are we thinking about decision-makers in Washington, D.C., or are we thinking about the people who live and work on the land, people like us who breathe the smoke and watch wildlife starve. This is the question that usually goes unasked and unanswered.

For me, the closer to the land the better. Not only is Washington far distant from the needs and concerns of the ranchers who work the land for us. Worse, there is no way that a far-distant bureaucracy can love these neighbors as affectionately, and as concretely, as you and I can. 

We can talk to them and learn from them. In many cases their families have been living and working the same ground for decades—far longer than the latest eco-science. They have seen various management plans come and go. They know what works best, and what does not. 

Washington’s decisions are not driven by on-the-ground conditions, but by global ideas have changed quite a bit in the last few decades. These ideas may be right, and they may be wrong. But those who will be most directly impacted by them ought to have a greater say. And we who love them should work to make that happen. 

Jonathan Lange has a heart for our state and community. Locally, he has raised his family and served as pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Evanston and St. Paul’s in Kemmerer for two decades. Statewide, he leads the Wyoming Pastors Network in advocating for the traditional church in the public square.

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