The Wasatch Behind: Fire on the mountain
"I just came back from a couple of days on Ferron Mountain," I told Uncle Spud. "It's sure nice up there. I didn't want to come home."
"I know what you mean," he said. "I've been there lots of times."
"There is one thing that bothers me about the place," I said sadly. "All the spruce trees are dying. The whole top of Ferron Mountain is covered with dead trees. From a distance it looks like a forest of porcupine quills, all gray and brown, dead and dying."
"It's happening all over Utah," Uncle Spud proclaimed. "All of our forests are dying."
"Is it caused by global warming?" I asked breathlessly, my tender heart palpitating wildly. "I'll give up my SUV to save a tree!"
"Not even," Uncle Spud giggled. "It's an infestation of bark beetles. They've been killing our trees and forests since the late-1980s and the infestation is spreading rapidly."
"Are bark beetles something new to our forests?" I asked.
"No, they've been here all along," he said, "It's just that they usually attack trees that are damaged by wind or weakened by drought or fire. Lately, they seem to be getting the whole forest."
"Why is that?" I wondered out loud.
"Spruce grows in thick stands in the national forests," he said, "and a great deal of it is old. A spruce tree will live for 200 or more years and a whole lot of spruce has reached that age. The trees are stressed with age and susceptible to disease."
"I can relate to that," I said with a smile.
"The beetles are killing most of the spruce on the mountain," he said. "Old growth spruce is not a good thing when bark beetles are around."
"So what can be done?" I asked innocently.
"We can cut down the dead trees and thin the forests," he said. "If we get rid of some of the old spruce there will be more room for a younger, healthier generation that is less susceptible to beetle attack."
"So let's get it done," I said enthusiastically.
"We can't do it," Uncle Spud said sadly.
"Why not?" I asked.
"The environmental groups won't let us," he said. "They don't want roads in the forest."
"They would rather have a road-less forest of dead trees than a green, healthy forest with a few roads?" I said.
"Yep," he nodded. "They want it all to be pristine wilderness, the way Lewis and Clark found it in 1806.
"We had better stop putting out forest fires then," I said. "In 1806 the forests burned regularly. The dead trees and underbrush were constantly cleaned up by fire. Lightening started most fires, but Native Americans started a whole lot of them because they knew that fire made the forest healthier. Most spruce trees didn't live to be 200 years old when nature and Navajos had their way."
"That was before Smokey Bear and the national forest service," Uncle Spud smiled. "It's been national policy for over 100 years now to fight all forest fires aggressively. And besides, smoke from one big forest fire puts more pollution in the atmosphere than fifty million pickup trucks. We can't let that happen. We've got to fight air pollution and global warming, remember?"
"So, if we can't let the dead trees burn, let's cut them down and make houses and paper out of the lumber," I said innocently.
"I've already told you," he said. "The enviro-folks don't want any roads among the dead trees. They sue at every hint of a timber sale on the national forest. They keep everything tied up in court while the lumber business, jobs, and communities suffer and the forests die."
"Well, one thing's for sure," I said. "It won't be long until Ferron Mountain will burn. There's enough dead timber up there to support a firestorm that might burn for months."
I thought for a moment and then continued.
"I wonder who will pay the cost to fight the fire? Do you suppose the environmental groups will step forward and donate a few millions to the cause?"
"Don't hold your breath," Uncle Spud said sadly. "They'll probably sue the forest service for causing global warming with the smoke."