Let it Burn, Part II

A long while ago I told Alan I’d write about “Letting it burn.” That was back when things could burn. Now things are so wet we’de be better off figuring out cold fusion for warmth. (hyperbole) I finished it up on the train this weekend. I was going through the ports of Tacoma and listening to the girl on her cell phone behind me, so I may have been a bit idealistic.

Anyway, its a long and poorly written piece. Click on the Comments link if you want to read it.

Let it burn:

I grew up in Wyoming. Just before my family moved to Washington (dad’s boss was a bitch), Yellowstone caught fire. That was 1988. Most of Yellowstone, or so it seemed, was burning. We were camping in the park at Fishing Bridge, and giant clouds appeared on the horizon. I thought maybe one of those nu-que-ler attacks may have happened. Turns out it was just fire.

My parents wanted to go stay at Yellowstone Lodge so we could see the fires, because one day, we’d be glad we’d seen it. I didn’t want to go. Now I wish we had, but we couldn’t because the fires got to close to the lodge. Oh well.

That summer the sun set a beautiful red each night because the sky was full of smoke. During the day, chinook helicopters flew over with water buckets. Military planes brought national guardsmen in from all over the country. We went and visited a fire camp. It was a giant circus of dirty 20 to 30-somethings in yellow shirts. It was so cool. I wanted to be a firefighter, sort of. But then I heard someone talk about just letting it burn. It made sense.

It still makes sense, and I think I’ve got a better, although somewhat warped sense of resource management. To stop a forest fire, we must spend lots of money paying people who wouldn’t be working at all, to cut down trees, clear fire breaks, start other fires, and so on. The resources we lost are trees and animals and such. I think trees are great. We can’t get their flexibility and replacability in metal or concrete, and wood just looks better. But these aren’t farms that are burning. These are forests.

I think its important to make the distinction that these are forests, because we often think of public land as public domain. Well, they are, but they are also a place where we try to provide the greatest good to the greatest number. We arrived at this conclusion when John Muir died, and Teddy Roosevelt allowed for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir to be built inside Yosemite National park. When John Muir died, america lost its last conservationist with political clout. There have been many more who have been important to conservation, but none have had the close relationship that Muir had with Roosevelt. Al Gore turned out to be a great disappointment.

Anyway, I was saying something about letting forests burn. It had something to do with the biological side of forestry. You know, about life, death, and all that. I think it was this: A forest has a life cycle. Every biome has one. It has a period of growth, maturation, and finally death. Granted, death doesn’t have to be on a completely grand scale. Forests often have small areas of windfalls, or disease. These areas loose thier cover, which allows new trees to grow. Smaller instances of death and replacement are always going on around us. The fires we see are something else. They’re much bigger. Regime changet, if you will.

If you want a good, living example, look at Mt. St. Helens. Look at the life that is returning, and which plants are coming back when. Its quite predictable, and amazing at the same time. Sure, 20 years has gone by, but in the grand scheme (the only scheme), only a blink.

When a forest catches fire, we want to stop it from burning because the potential to extract resources is greatly diminished when those resources are burnt. This confuses me, because if there is less of a resource, that resource becomes worth more. It seems lumberers would want their product to be worth more. Maybe then we’d stop wasting it. Wasting it? How?

How many pages did you print last year? How often did you eat fast food? How many extra bedrooms are there in your new house? How many issues of the Sunday Oregonian did you read? How many magazines do you subscribe to? These are all things we use a lot of wood on. A Lot. Imagine how much less forest we could let burn if we didn’t get the Sunday paper. Imagine how much lumber would be left if we built houses that fit our existing shelter needs.

Ok, So we can let it burn; but why not just buy that wood from Canada, Indonesia, South America, and so on? I’d rather not. Canada sells us cheap soft wood (pine, fir, cedar) because they don’t harvest their timber with the same environmental standards we have. Neither does Indonesia. Why should we give our money to people who do a poor job of their work and expect our guys to be cleaner and greener?

Ok, so if we’re going to let it burn, and still buy nationally, won’t wood cost a lot? Probably, yes. But then maybe we’ll be less wasteful. You don’t see people building cheap diamond houses, letting them rot, and then tearing them down. Diamonds are renewable resources too…time is a relative thing.

I guess I never got around to the biological side of it. That’s not important. Plenty of people have written about that. Its nothing new. But we’ve ignored it for so long, that maybe a more economic argument would make more sense. Maybe I’d make a better argument if I didn’t have such a juvenile and pessimistic concenpt of capitalism. Invisible hand my ass.

7 thoughts on “Let it Burn, Part II”

  1. It seems that there are two sides to conservationism when it comes to using wood for products. There is the recycling side and the “use less” side. I’m glad you lean towards the latter. With recycling, it’s easier to see the clash between economics and ecology. For the most part, when we talk recycleable wood products, we’re talking paper. There are specific trees with fast regrowth cycles that used for this purpose. Also, to some extent, waste products from the lumber industry. This is all well and good. Trees are replanted, the air stays breatheable, etc. But then came recycling. When you think about it, recycling has the potential to be more hazardous to the environment than not recycling. It is my understanding that recycling processes consume much more energy and pollute a hell of a lot more than simply replanting. It’s really economically silly. But it makes people feel like they’re doing their part (kind of like fuel cell-powered vehicles, the biggest publicity stunt ever). Recycleophiles could argue that recycling at least keeps waste out of the landfills. This, in my opinion, needs to start becoming a much bigger concern. But does recycling really make that much of a difference in this area? I think it’s possible that recycled products encourage people to use more. “It’s recycled paper, how eco-friendly, it’s okay to buy it.” Perhaps that effect is not as pronounced as I would imagine. But then you bring up a real solution: simply use less. Period. It’s simple. It’s clean. Everybody’s happy… except the economy. The bottom line is, there are too many people here for everyone to subsistance-farm and milk goats and whittle (sp?) in their spare time and get along. People need jobs to make money to eat. Unfortunately the most abundant source of jobs is in the manufacture and sale of products that nobody really needs. I suppose we could try to convince everyone that no matter how much money they make, they only need to drive a Civic and live in a house with just enough rooms and walk right past the motorcycle salesman no matter how much fun two wheels can be, but good luck on that one. Until such time, we all must bow to the corporations and, more specifically, their advertisements. They have to sell unnecessary products to stay afloat and so they will. No matter what the cost. Cut down on magazines and news papers, they’ll find a way around it (remember the McDonalds golden arches sattelite proposition?). For the time being, I’m okay with the fact that people buy up magazines and wake up to their newspapers because it’s a hell of a lot better than having to look at the night sky and see the largest of the moon’s craters forming the “.” in a 40 mile-wide “.net” banner. Or waking up to blimps floating down the street broadcasting the tastiness of the new McApeThigh extra value meal. Oh, btw, nice site.

  2. You’re right. We can’t all eat organic hazelnut spread. You’re manufacturing arguement is the next step in the process.

    Remember our disc brake/drum brake discussion? The reason some manufacturers still use drums is because the plants are already set up for them? Same arguement for paper. Why do we harvest cottonwood for paper? Its easier than recycling.

    How long though? How much fertilizer is needed for those cottonwood plantations? Is that factored in to the arguement? My dad’s favorite question is “why can’t we just use grass clippings?”

    There are plenty of innovative ways to solve many of our problems. I don’t think we spend enough time with R&D. But I’d also like to point out that sometimes just adding more isn’t the best or most efficient solution. Just like suppressing every fire may not be the best decision in the long run.

    Thanks for the comments. Microsoft’s products are excellent examples of products that exist in the electronic world, and really don’t need print. Good luck not finding an XP add in your dreams though…

  3. Good point. One difference between the disc brake/drum brake argument and the recycling argument is that with brakes, the disc brakes are less expesive to make. So the cost of retooling is high, but the cost of production is decreased once it’s up and running. Recycling has a higher retooling cost AND higher production costs.
    Even out of context of this cool discussion, here’s something most people would find really interesting (it deals with what you’re made to think as opposed to what is really going on and may be a good supporting example): Hydrogen fuel celled vehicles. I recently got into the most heated argument of my life (translation: I had a good time) with about twelve people that all opposed what I was trying to tell them. And that is that fuel celled vehicles are nothing but a publicity stunt by the car makers that keeps the EPA off of their backs (“look: we’re trying!”) and I would not be surprised to find out that big oil partially footed the bill. There are several reasons they’re a terrible idea. The first is that they do not help the environment. Hydrogen fuel cells require hydrogen. There are two ways to get this. One is through electrolysis of water. This requires massive (MASSIVE) amounts of electricity, which most of the country gets their mits on my burning huge quantities of coal (people, just because no pollution is leaving your tailpipe, doesn’t mean it’s not leaving a smokestack somewhere down the raod). This same oversight exists with electric cars. So okay, screw hydrolysis. There’s another way that’s much more efficient for extracting hydrogen: reforming gasoline. Yes, indeed, the same stuff you’re putting in your car anyway. In fact, probably more of it because you lose efficiency with every conversion from one form of energy to another–although it may be balanced out by not losing 50% of your gasoline’s energy out the tailpipe in the form of heat. Either way, you’re left with a choice: use more gas, or pollute more. Next issue: hydrogen infrastructure. Unless the world suddenly stumbles upon infinite wealth, no industrialized nation wouldn’t break the bank replacing the current gasoline infrastructure with a hydrogen one. It’s just not feasible (here’s the economics factoring in again). Who’s to say that far in the future, fuel cells will be honed or accessory technology will be invented to make them practical, but at this point, they seem like skipping the invention of the wheel and going straight to the jet engine. For the time being, let’s face it, we’re reliant on a gasoline infrastructure. Not a terrible thing. Every time the hammer is dropped on the auto industry, they respond and up efficiency and, more substantially usually, lower emissions. So there’s still lots to be done. There’s plenty of ways we could, for example, find a way to scavenge waste heat and put it to use to increase efficiency. Theoretically, there’s 50% efficiency gains to be had there. But why isn’t more research being done to this end? Because we’ve got neat fuel celled vehicles in the show rooms that ACTUALLY DRIVE! Such neat toys to mostly look it and say “Gee wiz”! Btw, hybrid technology makes much more sense, but to this date there have only been three sold commercially. ‘Nuff said. Anyway, that’s another interesting one for you. What do you think about it?

  4. I agree with “letting it burn” to some extent. I don’t see the point of fighting remote wilderness forest fires that aren’t likely to threaten property. Why spend all the money, for little benefit to people? Let such forest fires rage and run their course during droughts, as nature can burn such fires out on its own, without expensive fire suppression and risk to firefighters. And the fuel will likely be reduced by logging, and clearing, or by the inevitable fires that spread quicker in overgrown forests. If man doesn’t use or manage the forest fuel, nature will naturally burn it off eventually.

    Of course we should be careful to prevent accidental forest fires, as the main damage to forests, seems to be not the regeneration of growth that forest fires bring, but rather the huge cost of fire suppression, and the prospect of forests burning more often than they might need to naturally. Sure man should try to tame the forests and the forest fires, but we can only afford to do so, around high value land, like around homes or communities. So roadless wilderness should probably be left to nature, to periodically burn when lightning ignites forest fires, until more people move in, so we have reason to manage it better.

    I think more forest fires should be left uncontrolled, and just be partially contained, if need be, at the most defensible barriers, to keep them from approaching high value, higher managed human areas, and be left to spread in other “safe” directions until they burn out on their own. I think it is unrealistic to keep unlogged and unthinned forests from periodically burning, as it seems to be part of the natural ecology of forests. How nature disposes of old or dead trees, and clears out the more flamable vegetation during droughts, reducing the wildfire risk and reducing the usual intensity of fires to more managable levels, as the fuel load is lowered.

    But the idea is to conserve firefighting resources for where they are needed, and stop wasting the taxpayers money. Not to worship nature, nor ban people from using and obtaining benefit from their forests. Rather than the enviro wackos wanting to see forests burn with no human benefit, why not harvest more wood products from the forest, and reduce the fuel load?, to make forest fires more managable, and more prone to burn less intensely and fizzle out on their own, rather than having to be fought at great expense, often in gloriously futile efforts to tame forests far too vast and unpopulated with people and their clearings, to tame.

    I mean like if we don’t have to fight some raging wilderness fire, off in Alaska, or in Yellowstone or wherever few people live, where it likely won’t threaten anything of value, why should we want to? So Congress can sign blank forest fire fighting checks? Job security for fire fighters? Most forest fires left alone soon fizzle while small on their own. And monitoring for public safety, costs a lot less than an active confrontation with a forest fire that will self-extinguish, when the weather changes anyway.

  5. Silly buggers, I have two comments 1) world courts have twice agreed with Canada in regards to forest practices. Big deal, u.s. has protectionist policies, Canadians will find other markets for lumber

    2) Let it burn? how stupid. Ever hear of green house effect? Take a look at satellite pix of wildfires burning world over. Next year it may be a little warmer and droughts worse world wide

  6. Green house effect? “Global warming” is a hoax. There’s no conclusive evidence of it.

    It’s hard to find wildfires in many satelite images.

    But isn’t there too many wildfires burning the world over to try to control them, except where they threaten areas of value? How many thousands of lightning strikes occur every day all over the world? What can we do about that?

    If droughts are worse, then more forest fires will burn and more will grow larger. But doesn’t that happen every few years or so regardless?

    Do we think we can control the entire planet just because we have satelites now? So why not worry about wildfires affecting the weather, before we put satelites into orbit when we had less ability to monitor what is going on? Humans had little control of wildfires all through history. Did we have “global warming? No. Or if we did, that’s why the planet isn’t so freezing cold as it might be otherwise.

  7. What’s the big deal?

    If too many wildfires burned the world over, wouldn’t that leave less fuel to burn next year?

    It would balance out.

    Just keep the fires away from where the people live. Let the wilderness burn if it wants.

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