Al Campbell, Field Editor

July 8th, 2002

Black Hills Of South Dakota On Fire
By Al Campbell

Photo by Val Hoeppner, Argus Leader

Today the Black Hills of South Dakota are on fire. Homes have been destroyed, hundreds of families had to leave their homes and seek shelter away from the devastation, and hundreds of firefighters are putting their lives on the line to protect people and property from the flames. The same story is echoed in dozens of other places in other western states.

In dry years like this one, we couldn't possibly expect to prevent all fires. It only takes one lightning strike to start a blaze. Brown, brittle grass and trees that haven't had a good drink of water for more than a month virtually explode in flames when the right spark reaches them. It's a fact of nature none of us enjoy.

Fire isn't totally bad though. Due to endless lawsuits by several "environmental" groups, many of the forests that are burning haven't been thinned for decades. All that fuel is bound to ignite sometime. It's nature's way of balancing the books. I suppose that's why some sort of a thinning force is needed for a healthy forest. If they aren't thinned by man, nature will do it without discrimination.

The forests will return, they always do; but now they will have a greater variety of plants to sustain the animals that live there. A greater variety of plant life usually results in a greater variety of animal life. It also results in healthier animals. The variety of plants that can live under a thick canopy of evergreens is limited compared to the types of plants that grow in mixed or semi-open forests. Call it a balanced diet if you like.

For a while, the streams in our area will have more water flowing through them. Much of the area that's burning right now is semi-arid compared to the forests of the Pacific northwest, and a thick canopy of big trees does a pretty good job of sucking up a lot of water that traditionally made it to the streams. More water in the streams means more fishing opportunities for you and me.

I guess what bothers me most about the fires is that the intensity of some of those fires didn't have to be as severe as it is. The heavy load of fuel in many of the fires could have and should have been reduced by selective logging. I know; logging is a bad word to some people, but it's also a tool that can be used to promote healthy forests, if forest managers are allowed to use it.

I've seen the pictures some environmental groups send along with their pleas for donations. They show mountain tops stripped bare by evil loggers. They show streams choked to death by runoff created by the evil loggers. I surely wouldn't want that to happen here. But wait, it hasn't happened here; at least not since I moved to the Black Hills more than a decade ago. In fact, I haven't seen that type of devastation anywhere; that is, except where a fire has burned.

The type of logging I have observed in the Black Hills and most places I've visited in the rocky mountain west is a thinning type of operation. Some large trees are removed to provide lumber for homes and other projects, and some are left behind to grow even larger. The result is a forest that still has plenty of cover, but is thin enough to reduce the intensity and spread of wildfires while it provides a more balanced environment for the variety of animals that call the forest home.

Logging roads aren't always bad either. Many times, the progression of a fire was stopped by a logging road that stood in its way. If the overhead canopy is thin enough to limit treetop to treetop spreading, the fire is limited to travel on the ground; and dirt barriers are quite effective in limiting the spread of ground fires. Roads won't stop everything, especially airborne embers, but they can help limit the spread of fires.

I'm not advocating opening up wilderness areas to logging. I don't know a single logger who holds that view either. I'm not advocating clear-cutting the hilltops, and I don't know a single local logger who is. All I'm saying is that there is a place where a healthy forest and loggers can exist together; and it will be the loggers and timber managers who keep the forest healthy and a little bit safer in the dry years when fires are bound to happen.

For now though, it's fires that create a varied habitat and thin the forests. They are the only tools some groups can't take to court. It doesn't have to be that way, but the alternatives commonly used to create a forest with diverse habitat have been tied up in the courts for decades. In time, the land will recover, the streams will recover and the wildlife will benefit from the change. Too bad it won't be that way for way for all of the people involved. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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