By Michelle Dunlop Times-News writer BOISE — The public doesn’t want to hear about it. The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t want to talk about it. And, the government certainly doesn’t want to fund it.
“Fire’s science is governmental science funded to meet governmental needs,” said Stephen Pyne, a well-respected expert on wildland fire.
Over the last 100 years, the Forest Service spent its days primarily fighting fires. Today, as the agency ponders its next century, the Forest Service considers fanning the flames.
“For a century, whenever and wherever the flames were, the Forest Service was there,” Pyne said. “The Forest Service tried to be a forest service, not a fire service.”
As the Forest Service prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday next year, noted leaders in the forestry community and members of the public alike gathered on Thursday at Boise State University to attend a conference on fire and forest health. Pyne, a professor of biology at Arizona State University, served as the conference’s keynote speaker.
“America’s transformation from a fire-flush landscape to a fire-deprived landscape would have happened with or without Smokey the Bear,” Pyne said.
In the Forest Service’s early years, fire suppression featured largely on the agency’s agenda. Some suggested that fires would lessen once man tamed the wilderness, Pyne said.
“They regarded fire as founding menace,” he said.
Today, the Forest Service views fire as an important part of a healthy forest ecosystem. In order to avoid massive fires in areas of heavy forestation, the agency advocates controlled burns. Many in the Forest Service would like to allow some to burn out naturally — a controversial idea that has long troubled members of the public.
One challenge facing the Forest Service is one of changing public perception. The conference, organized by the Andrus Center for Public Policy, attempted to address that challenge.
In order to change the public’s view of how the Forest Service manages fire, the agency and media must band together to tell a story that isn’t often heard — that of fire’s benefits, concluded panelist Orville Daniels, a retired supervisor for the Forest Service. Too often, Daniels said, does the public only see the heroics of fire suppression.
“What we’re doing isn’t news — it’s public education,” Daniels said. “It isn’t always good copy.”
What hasn’t been good copy for a number of years are pictures of burned forests, said another panelist, James A. Burchfield, associate dean of the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation. While fires may be good for forest health, fires aren’t popular. And, what’s popular with the public often gets governmental funding, he said.
“I’m waiting for the day the Forest Service holds up a picture of a black, burned forest and says, ‘Senator, that’s a healthy forest,” Burchfield said.
While the Forest Service receives a “blank check” for fire suppression, it fights for funding when it comes to fire prevention, Pyne said.
“What is Congress going to pay for — prescribed drugs or prescribed burns?” Pyne said.