FREE SPEECH ZONE | A voice for wildlife

FREE SPEECH ZONE | A voice for wildlife

03 December 2011

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USA — How does one put into words a plea for wildlife, living in an era when “collateral damage” is used to sanitize the butchery of war?

There is great power in a photograph. It speaks what we are afraid to say, to see.

Napalm. Vietnam. A photograph of a young girl running naked down a village road – screaming – changed the way we looked at war forever.

Fire. The Gunflint Trail. A photograph of a red fox lying in the ash, its feet burned so badly it could not run, pain and illness written on its body – death in its eyes – changed the way I looked at forest fires forever.

Fire. Napalm. The Pagami Creek fire. “Napalm, another word for “jellied gasoline.” “Jellied” – an innocuous sounding word to describe gasoline that burns and sticks to whatever it touches.”

Until Pagami Creek I never realized napalm is used by the U.S. Forest Service to fight fire, or for “prescribed” burns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, actually has a long history with napalm, in 1970 publishing a secret document titled Forest Fire as a Military Weapon.

At Pagami Creek 1700 gallons of napalm were dropped, by helitorch or ping-pong ball containers, roughly equivalent to the amount of combustible gel contained in twenty-two modern day incendiary bombs.

I wonder if those who have been credited with quotes such as “moose walk long distances and are good swimmers” considered the effects of dropping napalm? Did anyone question how forest creatures escape fire coming from above? Avoid incapacitation and asphyxiation from carbon monoxide created by napalm or firestorm? Escape being vaporized by the intense heat of the forest fire itself – or burned by napalm six-fold the temperature of boiling water? Does anyone question the credibility of a viewpoint enabling wildlife to flee through sixteen miles of burning forest in the mere five hours it took this fire to spread that distance? Or to run across hot ash and fire-baked scorching rock unscathed?

When I read articles, comments, and blogs I see many references to the awesome smoke clouds or the great sunsets or how good fire is for the forest – rarely a remark about the forest being a wild country with incalculable victims. Collateral damage.

There is the need to protect firefighters and human inhabitants. Was the best protection using a form of napalm, or was the best protection putting this fire out at its inception? The fire danger was evident. Choosing to allow fire to burn in drought conditions – to control – is a dangerous form of gambling. Playing the odds with computer modeling resulted in a fire so intense it reportedly vaporized everything, including soil, in some areas. Whatever one’s opinion, wildlife took the brunt of it.

There are those who have put such a positive spin on the situation one would almost think we were talking about a different fire. Pagami Creek was not a fire that was “good” for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – or anywhere. Nearly 100,000 acres, a tenth of the BWCAW burned, is not “good.” It is a tragedy. The truth of every tragedy is that there can be found, along with the negatives, some positives.

Ecologically, today we know that the policy of putting all fires out was misguided. Yet to go from a faulty belief that all fires need to be put out, to an argument that any fire is good for the forest is equally misguided – and a rationalization of a situation gone awry.

The idea that the forest rejuvenates itself to what it was before fire is being perpetuated despite research to the contrary. Fire that swept under huge red and white pines in a land that was woodland caribou country is far different than the forest and fire of today. The remnants of that past forest, a forest depleted in a generation by massive clear-cutting, are now being lost in fires such as Pagami Creek. They cannot be replaced without some management.

“Modern influences on succession, even in remote areas, tend to eliminate rather than perpetuate the longer lived red pine and white pine following natural disturbances. These species cannot be restored by natural means to the position they represented in the forests of the past. If their perpetuation is desired, knowledge of their silvical requirements must be applied to current conditions … the ultimate quality of the naturally produced forest should be made clear to those participating in management decisions. A choice must be made between (1) establishing, through man’s efforts, forests resembling the primeval stand or (2) by natural means, permitting the development of a forest in which other species predominate. It is possible to opt for each of these choices in different parts of the area.” (Clifford E’ Ahlgren, Regeneration of red pine and white pine following wildfire and logging in northeastern Minnesota).

The point being, while saying there are things that flourish after a fire – it is equally important to say that there are things that do not. Discussions about future Forest Service policy are irrelevant unless we can honestly look at the losses.

And when that happens, the wildlife that burned to death – or took days to die – deserve a voice in the discussion.

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