31 March 2020
Human behavior is shaped by our environment and our personal experiences. William B. Greeley, the third chief of the US Forest Service (1920-1928), is no different (Egan 2010). Bill graduated at the top of the first forestry class at Yale in 1904 and was hand picked by Gifford Pinchot to work for the Region 1 forest supervisor that put him in charge of 41 million acres of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. This is important to understand because Yale leaned heavily on the European model of forestry and Pinchot was also educated at Yale and in Europe as well. European forestry fights fire aggressively.
Greeley’s position as the Region 1 supervisor put him on the front lines during the Big Burn of 1910 turned into a firestorm that consumed 3 million acres is about 3 days (Egan 2010). After the 1910 burn, Greeley was convinced “Satan was at work” and that all fires needed to be suppressed. His policies and mindset led to policies such as the 10 am rule which strived to have fires extinguished by 10 am the next work day.
The other influence on Greeley was the focus of America at the time. The nation was expanding and building. Timber was the focus of forests at the time. Greeley’s wrote a paper titled “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning that reflects his, and the nations, focus on quality timber with no mention of ecological processes. Bill speaks of fire scars creating rot that topples trees in wind events and also states “ many fine logs” are hollowed out with rot that reduces harvest volumes.
Today, the Forest Service is transitioning to an entirely different approach. It embraces the “Paiute Forestry” that Greeley said would bring “total destruction” to the western pine forests. Many of the points that Bill brings up in his paper, from an ecological stand point, are easily refuted today. One such point Greeley makes is that fire consumes the young trees needed for nature to “make up ground” after a disturbance. We now know many of the western forests need fire to recruit the next generation of trees. The rot he references is essential habitat for many birds and animals. These are all part of biodiversity and ecological function of our forests. By embracing prescribed fire which is why Greeley was writing in protest, we can put the forest back in a historical range of variability that many of the plants have adapted and evolved to withstand.
There will always be a need to suppress fires in the extreme fire weather conditions, but the Forest Service is now embracing fire as a forest management tool for healthy forests.
Egan, Timothy. 2010. The Big Burn. Boston New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.